‘The Duke’: A story of the little guy against high culture

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Goya’s Flight Portrait of the Duke of Wellington – now the subject of a feature film starring Jim Broadbent – still strikes a chord about ‘high’ culture and how it is valued

The paintings have often been a flashpoint for the general public’s annoyance at the art’s exclusive status. There are better things we could spend money on, aren’t there? At the same time, this elite status also generates a perverse and magical fascination – see the constant crowds that gather around the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The Duke (2022), directed by the late Roger Michell, might come across as a charming, warm comedy that suffers from nostalgia for a bygone 1960s Britain. Don’t go to the movies if you’re allergic to tweed suits, smoking pipes, horn-rimmed glasses, beehive headdresses and tea in porcelain cups. But this true story, about a working-class man who stole the portrait of The Duke of Wellington (1812-14) by Francisco de Goya from the National Gallery in London in 1961, still strikes a chord about ‘high’ culture and its valorization, while celebrating the ‘little guy’ who breaks the law for his principles.

Francois Goya, Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, 1812-14. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

Goya’s portrait had just been purchased ‘for the nation’ for £140,000 by the government, to prevent it from ending up in the hands of an American collector, before disappearing on the morning of August 21. For four years after her disappearance, police fought to find any trace of the painting or the identity of its mysterious thief. Speculation flourished – the missing painting became so well known that it made a tongue-in-cheek appearance in the first James Bond film, in 1962 Dr. Noas Sean Connery’s Bond passes by in the titular villain’s island base.

Terence Young, Dr. No, 1962, still from the movie. Courtesy: Eon Productions

But the real thief, Kempton Bunton, was a 61-year-old former taxi driver from Newcastle, who eventually handed over the painting himself, in 1965. Played with dogged enthusiasm by Jim Broadbent, The DukeBunton is a cheerful, quixotic idealist, an autodidact who writes plays that never get made, while exposing the injustices faced by working people – more often than to his exasperated wife Dorothy (played by Helen Mirren), who would rather Kempton maintains a job than to continue his ill-fated individual campaign to have the BBC license fee for the over-75s abolished.

Outraged at the Goya’s purchase, Bunton travels to London where, after yet again failing to interest anyone in the government or the press for his free television campaign, he bursts into the National Gallery and returns in Newcastle with The Duke of Wellington. Writing a ransom note to the police, Bunton states that “the act is an attempt to pick the pockets of those who love art more than charity”.

The Duke, dir. Roger Michell, again. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

For all its light comic touch and golden nostalgia, The Duke stimulates still contemporary frustrations; for starters, it’s incredible that, even 60 years later, there’s still controversy over who should pay the BBC licensing fee. While Britain’s Conservatives and the right-wing press have recently stepped up their campaign to see the mandatory license fee abolished and governance of the public broadcaster renegotiated, Bunton’s campaign continues. While the over-75s had enjoyed free-to-air TV since 2000, the government’s new funding deal with the BBC saw the broadcaster take over funding for this expensive concession, reluctantly returning it to only the poorest pensioners.

The question of whether people should pay for a public service until the day they die is really an ethical question of care and social solidarity. Bunton’s insistence throughout The Duke that we should all be there for each other, that the elderly should not be left to endure their loneliness, may today seem strangely principled or naively sentimental. But if the BBC is a public service “belonging to all of us” (as its recent self-publicity insisted), perhaps it could make the moral decision to “care” about those who, after all, don’t pay more for many public services. services because they have worked, paid their taxes and retired.

The Duke, dir. Roger Michell, again. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, Bunton’s extraordinary acquittal in his trial for theft of The Duke of Wellington (he was cleared of all charges except, notoriously, the cost of the lost picture frame), reminds us that jurors often understand that people break the law on matters of principle: only a few weeks ago, the “Colston Four” were acquitted by a jury of charges of pulling down the statue of Edward Colston, during the Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol in 2020. They believed in their cause and a jury of their peers let them go.

What weaves The Duke is his streak of populist disrespect; for the administration and the “establishment”, embodied in the dull, weary stare of the Duke of Wellington, gazing out of his sashes and medals. The communal dreamer Bunton may have been, but his joyful, petty anarchism, his self-made radicalism, finds its offspring not just in statue-throwing students, but in every ordinary person who decides they have an opinion, and that c is as valid as those held by those in power. “That’s not very good, is it?” Bunton reflects on the stolen masterpiece. Maybe that’s why a Guardian The film critic observed of Bunton, with a note of alarm, that “there’s something a little Brexity about him.” For all its apparent warmth and period charm, The Duke works because it taps into the nervous apprehension of our moment that, right now, the little people might be fed up with power and authority.

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