Is The Duke based on a true story? Kempton Bunton's grandson explains
Chris Bunton speaks exclusively to RadioTimes.com about the real family history behind the new film.
At first glance, the story told in new movie The Duke – which sees an elderly man steal a valuable painting of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London – might seem a little too far-fetched to be true.
But believe it or not, the story is based on real events. Kempton Bunton (played here by Jim Broadbent) was indeed a real man, and he really was involved in an unlikely heist back in the 1960s.
It was Chris Bunton, Kempton's grandson, who first pitched the idea of a film, having himself been told the story by his father when he was 14 years old.
"I was on an overnight ferry trip with my dad," Chris explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com. "And there's not much else to do on ferries but to sit in the bar. My dad likes his beer, so he'd had a few beers and when he told me the story I thought he'd had one too many, to be honest – it was like such an out-there, wacky story.
"But he didn't go into all of the details that we've now researched, and that are behind the film. So I didn't understand the sheer magnitude of it then. The most entertaining thing to me at the time was learning [that the painting] was used in Dr No, so it wasn't until years later, really, that I got more heavily involved in the story."
Read on for everything you need to know about the true story behind The Duke.
The Duke true story
According to Chris Bunton, one of the reasons he was so keen to pitch the idea in the first place was that he felt some of the information that was already out there wasn't entirely fair to his grandfather.
Although the case wasn't that widely known to the public, it started to gain some attention in 2011, when a couple of newspaper articles and a segment on The One Show covered the theft to mark the 50-year anniversary.
It was then that Chris decided to do something about it. "My dad had given me all my granddad's writings, he'd done a number of plays and I read his memoirs," he explains.
"And I felt that the information out there publicly, a lot of it was accurate, but a lot of it was kind of speculation. And I felt some of it was actually a little bit unfair to my grandfather. So I was motivated mainly by wanting to tell his full story, which I felt would do him more justice. And then I thought, well, he was an amateur writer, why don't I try and write a screenplay?"
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In the end, Chris's pitch attracted a fair bit of interest from production companies, and his script was redrafted by screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman. And even though his initial screenplay was reworked fairly substantially, Chris is very pleased with the end result.
One of the first things he points out is that although some dramatic licence is taken in the film, pretty much every event depicted did happen in some way or another – Kempton really did take the blame for the theft even though it was his son who carried it out, and he really was acquitted on all charges save for the theft of the frame.
"Literally every scene is based on the true events," he says. "The writers have just... I like the way that they changed some things to make it more comedic."
He references an event towards the end of the film, in which Kempton returns the painting directly to the gallery – in reality he actually returned it through a left-luggage office at Birmingham New Street railway station.
"But they did give it back, so it's still based on the truth," he explains. "They did give it back, just the circumstance around it and minor details are changed, but the key point is they give it back.
"But yeah, every scene is based on true events," he continues. "Even the one in the bakery where he walks out [in protest at racist treatment of a co-worker]. He didn't stand and quote Gandhi, but he did take a stand and walk out for those reasons.
"And then even the court case was taken primarily from the court transcripts. So, like the bucket story, I think, is just a wacky story that he's trying to pretend he doesn't know where his lodgings were because I think they were after details on where was the frame. And he said he left it at the lodgings and then he comes up with that bucket story. But that was all taken from the transcripts!"
One change to real events that Chris was happy to see was the inclusion of his mother, who actually didn't meet Kempton's son until after the events depicted in the film.
"That was creative licence because my mam didn't meet my dad until 1971," he says. "But my mam passed away actually in 2017, so while we were in the production stage, and that was just something nice – a nice inclusion.
"But even that is based on true facts, really. When my dad confesses – people wonder why would he confess so many years later – but he had it hanging over him and he thought it might come up down the line and then he wanted to get married, he wanted to get on with his life and get married.
"So that's just a minor detail, and even the dress that they have my mam wearing is taken from the job that she did. So, [producer] Nicky Bentham's attention to detail on everything is unbelievable, to be honest. Lots of little details that make it very authentic."
He was happy too, with Jim Broadbent's portrayal of his grandfather – even if he thinks the actor made him a little more lovable than he was in real life.
"He's definitely a quirky character, and he was no saint, he's a contradictory character," he says. "I think Jim actually mentioned these are the characters he likes to play – they're not like perfect superheroes, they've got good traits and bad traits.
"And I think, first and foremost, getting the right actor to play him, we couldn't have dreamed of getting Jim but he's a perfect person to convey those different elements and bring forth his lovable side. I don't think my granddad was quite that lovable, but even though he had his faults he definitely had good intentions and was a good person and he really wanted to do the best at the end of the day.
"He wanted to do some good for his society, obviously, with the campaign. But his main motivation here was to do the best thing for his family. Now, a lot of the time he wasn't the best family man. He wasn't the best father or husband but then I guess in some ways it's a redemption story too, as he kind of really redeems himself – I mean, he does an extraordinary feat for his family.
"That's his goal, is to protect his family. And in light of the grief that they'd already suffered, I don't know if Dorothy could have handled her youngest son getting in trouble like that."
Speaking of grief, a nice touch that Chris especially appreciated is that the photo that appears in the film of Kempton's daughter Marion – who died as a child – is actually a real photo of her that the family owned.
"The picture of Marian – that's the real picture," he says. "After she passed away, you couldn't get full coloured pictures. You had to get them hand-painted. So she had to get it hand-painted, and she had to pay it off weekly, because she had that little money. And then it was hung in the living room, on the wall in the living room, exactly. Like you see in the film."
Given all these personal touches, it's not surprising that Chris and the rest of the family are very happy with the film.
"My dad's only seen it once, and I don't know if it's really sunk in for him, to be honest," he says. "In fact, the first time I watched it, it didn't sink in. It was just too surreal. It took a few watches. But I'm interested to get my dad's view after it comes out and he can go by himself and really absorb it.
"But my cousin, who's also Kempton's grandson, his wife was in tears when she watched it. And yeah, they just were all blown away by it."