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The bus driver who confessed to stealing a Goya masterpiece

That was the theory, anyway. But in November 1965, a 61-year-old retired bus driver from the northern English city of Newcastle upon Tyne stood up at Central Criminal Court in London and said he had taken table. He never intended to keep it, he added. “My only object in all of this was to create a charity to pay for television licenses [which fund the BBC in Britain] for the elderly and poor who seem to be neglected in our affluent society.”

It was not the story of a malevolent Dr No or a glamorous Thomas Crown committing the perfect crime, but of a fellow named Kempton Bunton who embodied British eccentricity, the rebellion of the downtrodden, the spirit of initiative, absurd luck and thoroughbred wit. And now the stranger-than-fiction story of the world’s most unlikely art thief has been turned into a sparkling comedy-drama, The Duke, starring Jim Broadbent as Bunton and Helen Mirren as the role of his long-suffering wife. One of its executive producers is Chris Bunton, Kempton’s grandson. “It’s always been a story of working class struggle,” Chris told BBC Culture. “The family didn’t have a penny to worry about, they were dealing with poverty as well as a lot of tragedy, and it influenced their psyche and their decision-making process. It’s unlike any other burglary. “

Dreamer and activist

Kempton Bunton was a local Newcastle figure long before the Goya was stolen. He was regularly fired for defending his colleagues against management, he was an aspiring playwright whose scripts were invariably rejected by the BBC, and he was an activist who saw television as a lifeline for lonely retirees, especially World War veterans. One, like his own father. In Britain, it was illegal to own a television without paying an annual license. Believing that the fees were too high for the poorest people, Bunton protested by refusing to pay his own licensing fees and as a result he served three short stints in prison in 1960. “I loved that Kempton had dreams beyond his station,” says Nicky Bentham, producer of The Duke. “And he clung to those ideals, that sense of community, and that idea that one person could make a difference. I thought it was wonderfully uplifting and inspiring that he finally had a flat -shape to share what he meant with the world.”

But, as his grandson says, Bunton’s life was also rocked by tragedy. Directed by the late Roger Michell and scripted by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, the film attributes his temperamental behavior to the grief and guilt he felt over the death of his daughter, Marion, in a bicycle accident when she was a teenager. “I’m not saying that justifies what he did,” Chris says, “but it was horrible, really.”