The hilarious and heartwarming drama is set to hit cinemas on Friday 25 February 2022, but did you know that it's based on a true story? Keep reading to find out all about the real Kempton Bunton and what really happened to the portrait of the Duke of Wellington…
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Set in England in 1961, The Duke follows a 61-year-old retired Geordie man by the name of Kempton Bunton who was put on trial at the Old Bailey for stealing Francisco de Goya's £140,000 (equivalent to £3,186,021 today) portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London's National Gallery.
The mystery of how the painting was stolen left Scotland Yard stumped for years, and they initially believed it to be the work of an expert art thief as nothing like it happened in the gallery's 138-year history. The heist was even referenced in the first-ever James Bond film in which a replica of the painting sits on an easel in Dr No's lair.
The real life Kempton Bunton who Jim Broadbent portrays in the film
In reality, the idea that an evil mastermind had stolen the painting couldn't be further from the truth. Kempton, while an educated man who penned many scripts for radio and television throughout his life, had a very simple goal in mind: he was protesting the government's misuse of taxpayers' money. He had long campaigned for OAPs and war widows to receive free television licenses and felt like the struggles of common, working-class people were being overlooked.
While the film depicts Kempton returning the painting to the National Gallery before confessing, in real life, he actually left the painting in a left-luggage office at Birmingham New Street station and shared details on where to find it with a local newspaper. Kempton then handed himself in to the police six weeks later.
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He was taken to court for the painting's theft but the jury only found him guilty on one count - stealing the painting's frame, which was never returned. As his defence team argued, Kempton never wanted to keep the painting, thus meaning he could not be convicted of stealing it. He spent just three months in jail before being released.
However, the plot thickened even more after Kempton was released. In 1969, eight years after the crime took place, Kempton's son John (called Jackie in the film) revealed that he was actually the culprit after being arrested for an unrelated minor offence.
This wasn't made public knowledge until almost 50 years later in 2012, when a Freedom of Information request regarding the investigation was submitted. Despite his admission of guilt, the Director of Public Prosecutions told the police at the time that there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute John. Matters would be made even more complicated because they would have to prosecute Kempton for perjury at the same time.
Kempton sadly passed away in 1976 and his death went largely unreported despite his infamy just years earlier. It was through Kempton's grandson, Chris, that the story has now become famous once again as he pitched the idea of the film to set the record straight.
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