Dame Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent star in The Duke, a film about the life of Kempton Bunton who was charged with stealing Goya’s Duke of Wellington portrait from the National Gallery. Kempton (played by Broadbent) strongly and truly believes in the common man, and is vehemently against paying a TV licence as he sees it as a tax he shouldn’t have to pay as an elderly man – a debate which rumbles on in 2022, still. Radio Times magazine spoke exclusively with Helen Mirren (who plays Kempton’s wife) and Jim Broadbent about The Duke, the BBC, and what’s next for the acting royalty.
Dame Helen Mirren, looking like a slightly wayward prima ballerina just back from some barre work – thick pigtail to one side of her pale face, framed by a wide leopardskin scarf as a hairband, and leotard-like T-shirt – throws back her head and roars with laughter.
This comes à propos of my making a glancing reference to her as an old glamour-puss. “It’s so interesting that you should say that, Ginny, and I will now confess something to you… one minute before our interview [on Zoom, from her home in Italy], I checked myself and I looked so awful that I went running off to the bathroom to put lipstick on and mascara and I was in such a rush [acts daubing her face in a frenzied way] that I missed my mouth and the mascara went all over the place and now – I just look like a mad old lady. So I’m not really glamorous!”
We may all beg to disagree – even pushing 70 (she’s 76 now), she was still being described as a sex-pot, which, incidentally, irritated her – but what is unarguable is that Mirren is definitely far from glamorous in her new role. In The Duke, the final film from director Roger Michell, who died last September, she plays charlady Dorothy Bunton, the drab, worn-down, perpetually on her hands and knees wife of real-life character Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent).
What attracted her to play Dorothy? “I loved the character and because the Queen is sticking to me like an old Band-Aid…” Sorry? We both collapse into laughter. “While I am profoundly honoured,” Mirren adjusts herself and does a little bow, “and I honestly couldn’t think of a more interesting and profound person to be stuck on me, nonetheless I am an actress and so I did want to break free a little bit.”
Mirren has played the “old Band-Aid”, aka the Queen, to award-winning effect – landing an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Bafta for The Queen, and a Tony and Laurence Olivier Award for The Audience on stage. She also played Elizabeth I (the only actress to have played both Elizabeths on screen) in the eponymous 2005 television series.
“But the minute I saw the first scene, of Dorothy on her knees scrubbing out the fireplace,” Mirren says, “I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a great role,’ and obviously working with Jim is absolutely delightful.”
The story of The Duke is that of a real-life Newcastle cab driver prosecuted in 1965 for the theft, four years earlier, from the National Gallery of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington. Kempton Bunton is an infuriating but rather wonderful man of 60 – working-class, self-educated (he’s forever writing plays and sending them to the BBC, only to be rejected) with strong beliefs and many bug-bears, chief of which is that the television licence is “an unfair tax on ordinary people for those who can’t afford it”.
In the film, he creates placards with the slogan “FREE TV FOR THE OAP” and tries to get people to sign petitions and agitate with him. The stolen painting is part of the plot (which has a twist) to raise awareness of the loneliness of the elderly and their need of a TV set for company.
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The subject of the BBC’s licence fee could hardly be more topical. Mirren says that she “strongly believes that the BBC has to be protected… it’s such an amazing thing, especially when you live in a country – like I do in America a lot of the time [with her American film director husband, Taylor Hackford] – which doesn’t have anything like the BBC. Well, it has PBS, which is full of BBC programmes, but that just scrapes along with a lot of investment by very kind wealthy people.
“It would be terrible if that were to become the fate of the BBC. It’s a fine, fine institution. It’s so interesting,” she says, with a definite glint in her eyes, “that as politicians find themselves teetering on the pinnacle of their ambition, they all turn their beady eyes on the BBC because the BBC is turning its beady eyes on them! And they can’t stand it. One after the other, they attack the BBC – and that is exactly why we need the BBC!”
When I speak to Broadbent, he says, “If Kempton was around now, he’d have been fighting to save the BBC; he’d be on the side of the BBC against the Government.” He also says that he is prouder of this film than anything he has been in. Mirren smiles when I tell her. “And he’s right, because he’s absolutely wonderful in it. I’d always known at the back of my mind that Jim and I would be a pretty good pairing, although it’s an unlikely pairing – but sometimes the best pairings are the most unlikely.”
Is there anyone else she longs to share the screen with? I’d love to see her in a British remake of Netflix hit Grace and Frankie… “It’s not really my sort of thing – I watch documentaries. But if I was Grace, I’d have a real Frankie – Frankie [Frances] de la Tour, because I sort of grew up with her. She was my colleague at the Royal Shakespeare Company and I used to stand in the wings and watch her on the stage – she’s just standing there talking and the audience is loving it and laughing and I could never do that. I always watched her with absolute wonder and admiration.”
And how would she like someone like Phoebe Waller-Bridge to write something for her?
“Well, you know, of course!” she says. She recalls sitting at a table with her at the Golden Globes in 2018 when Waller-Bridge was there with her boyfriend, Martin McDonagh, who’d written, produced and directed the film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, which won two Golden Globes.
“Fleabag had been on television in England but no one in America knew her. So I was very excited to be sitting next to her and her guy kept winning everything so our table filled up with Globes. Just as we were leaving, one of the major American comedians recognised her and went up to her so I could see the beginning of the huge success she eventually experienced, and is still experiencing.”
I seem to be creating quite a lot of future work for you. “You are, but it’s all comedy! I would rather it was tragic. I’m Russian [she was born Mironov, to an aristocratic Russian émigré and a working-class Englishwoman] and I do have this melodramatic bent.”
She gently nudges us back to The Duke “because although it absolutely has comedy –that wonderful, gentle, realistic comedy – it also has real tragedy and feeling in it. I’m hoping that it will become a film that people love as we have loved it.”
She talks about seeing Roger Michell, the film’s director, just two weeks before he died, at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. “We lost a really great British film talent there.”
Mirren has played unglamorous women before in her long career; going back to her standout role as DCI Jane Tennison in Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect. Then there was her housekeeper in Robert Altman’s period mystery Gosford Park, where, she points out, “I had no make-up on and was very restrained” – but her Dorothy is Mirren as we’ve never seen her before: drudge-y and joyless with the pressure of having to cater to her maddening, idealist husband Kempton.
“Yes, it’s frustrating for the pragmatic person who has to put food on the table. That’s the position women have been put in so often – forced into pragmatism. They don’t necessarily want to be pragmatic and realistic and practical but they’re forced into it because if they’re not, then their family’s not going to eat,” she says.
“Women are always on the front lines in wars. It’s women you see running to get the water, trying to escape the snipers, and the men are the snipers. So women have always been on the front lines, in a way – just without a gun in their hands, and with no means of defence.”
Front lines may be on her mind as she has recently been filming Golda, in which she plays Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 at the centre of the story. The film has drawn controversy around whether a Jewish actress should be playing Meir, prompted by Maureen Lipman, among others. Previously Mirren played a Mossad agent in 2010 thriller The Debt, immersing herself in studies of Hebrew writing and the Holocaust when she was in Israel. She also mentions her character, a Jewish refugee, in 2015 drama Woman in Gold, “so I’ve done it a couple of times, but I think this discussion absolutely has to be had, because it is in the context of playing a very high-profile, highly committed Israeli Jewish woman.”
The Israeli director Guy Nattiv insisted that Mirren was the actress he wanted for Golda, when she gave him the opportunity to withdraw the offer. “I said, ‘Look, I’m not Jewish – and really, really think about it because if you want to withdraw the offer to me, I have absolutely no hard feelings. I would absolutely understand if you want to go another route.’
“He did think about it and he said, ‘Yes, I want you to do it,’ and so that gave me, in a way, the confidence to go forward.”
She adds that the whole issue of casting has “sort of exploded from the inside out… but I do agree that if you have, say, a brilliant disabled actor and there’s a great disabled role, maybe we should start talking about it – because it’s all about opportunity. And without opportunity, you can do nothing. And if the discussion has to be had around my performance then – oh my God – I hope that I’m all right as Golda, because if I’m not…”
Jim Broadbent appears on the screen, blinking and as gently off-beam as the characters he plays; more reserved, if anything, with his voice occasionally sinking into a mumble like a verbal shuffle. In the background of his London study, a fire is blazing, walls of books on either side, with curious puppet sculptures in glass domes on the mantelpiece or perched on the edge of shelves.
His late parents, Doreen and Roy, were both artists as well as keen amateur actors, and their son inherited both interests and talents, as well as their love of Lincolnshire where he was born in 1949 and, until recently, owned a house himself. Broadbent and his wife Anastasia Lewis, a painter and former theatre designer, spent their entire lockdown there but sold the house recently to move back to London: “It simplifies life to take away responsibilities as you get older.”
The dearly loved actor has done some amazing work and, like Mirren, has won awards galore: an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his supporting role as Iris Murdoch’s husband John Bayley in Richard Eyre’s Iris; a BAFTA and Golden Globe for playing Lord Longford in the television film Longford, as well as being in a roll-call of practically any cherished British film you care to mention.
The Duke, in which Broadbent plays the lead role of Kempton Bunton, is one of those slightly deceptive English feel-good films with appealing characters and wry, sometimes sly humour, but which is, au fond, about important issues.
“I loved every aspect of the script [by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman],” Broadbent says. “The humour, the characters and the story. And the fact that there is a point to it. It’s a dig at the Establishment, which is always fun, and is always needed. The Establishment is portrayed beautifully. They get a good kicking!”
Do you admire Bunton? “I sort of loved him. His heart is so much in the right place and he’s so flawed and he’s such a muddle. He loves his wife but he lies to her.
“But then I’ve been fairly selfish myself with my career and putting myself out there. I’ve been obsessed with acting to the exclusion of other people’s interests. I must have been extremely frustrating to my wife an awful lot. Hopefully, I haven’t lied blatantly,” he says, with a sound somewhere between a sigh and a chuckle. “Well, I’m not anything like the degree of obsessive I used to be but it’s something I recognised in Kempton.”
I point out that his wife seems to have stuck by him for a long time (they’ve been married for over 30 years), and she was in the business, so… “Yes, she knew what she was in for!”
Broadbent says that the BBC is very important to him, but he doesn’t have any of the answers as to how it should be funded. He agrees with David Dimbleby’s comments that you can’t have public service broadcasting without paying for it, but the poorest shouldn’t be charged the same fee as the richest – “That seems reasonable to me.”
Kempton Bunton seemed to go to prison on something of a regular basis for his principles: has Broadbent ever been to prison himself? He says that as a student he performed at Holloway and when preparing the role of Lord Longford (the great champion of prisoners’ rights, including, controversially, those of Myra Hindley) visited several different prisons in Lancashire.
“I did spend a night in prison once when I was a student,” he admits. “I was with some student friends and I’d had too much to drink so I said I would lie in the back of a friend’s car to sleep it off. But as I was getting in, I was arrested.
“I said, ‘What are you arresting me for?’ And the policemen said, ‘For being drunk and incapable.’ And I said, ‘What am I incapable of?’ And they said, ‘Looking after yourself!’ and that’s when my argument stopped! It was just one night, so I was in and out.”
I ask him if he considers himself rebellious? “In a sort of understated way,” he says. “I’ve taken risks in the work I’ve chosen to do – with Ken Campbell and Mike Leigh in the early days, when it was a strange thing to go into rehearsals with no script to create your own character.”
At 72, he says his health is all right, but memory loss is annoying. Nowadays he makes sure he learns his lines well in advance, whereas he used to wait until rehearsals started. His mother suffered from dementia in her early 80s and he played a character with dementia in Paul Abbott’s 2011 mini series Exile with John Simm. “I think it’s something that worries everyone,” he says, “like when you can’t remember the name of someone you know so well.” Is he given now more to hope or despair? “Despairing hope.”
Finally, we talk about how he declined an OBE, saying that there were more deserving recipients than actors. “We get treated well all the time. Actors who get these awards have all won lots of treats along the way doing what they love doing – they don’t need more presents.”
And then he adds, with a glimmer of mischief: “But the main reason for turning it down is this. Richard Eyre, when asked why he accepted his knighthood, said, ‘Vanity’, and when I’m asked why I turned it down, I say the same. ‘Vanity. Not a good look. Didn’t suit me.’ ”