I’m a sucker for a good art heist, like I’m betting a lot of you are. But the reason the BBC’s new podcast The Missing Madonna makes for such an affecting story is less about the glamour and chutzpah of lifting an objet d’art and more about Robbie Graham. If you’re ever looking for a larger-than-life, cheeky charmer of a character on whom to hang your tale, you couldn’t do much better than this lovable Liverpudlian.
And there’s a reason he’s the protagonist of this particular tale of derring-do and arm chancin’: he’s the father of the host, Olivia Graham, who narrates the entire tale over nine episodes.
The story starts on August 23rd 2003 with the arrival at Drumlanrig Castle, home of the Duke of Buccleuch, of two unsavoury individuals who accost the tour guide before prizing a 16th-century masterpiece by none other than Leonardo da Vinci off the wall with an axe and absconding in a getaway car. It’s a careening, brake-screeching beginning to a tale that soon expands beyond the brute force of the crime to include a host of grifters and schemers, consummate characters the podcast host comes to call the likely lads.
The painting is the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with her arm around the infant Jesus, who twists away from her to play with a cross-like tool that’s used for yarn.
How this work of religious iconography and artistry found its way into the world of Robbie Graham, his business partner Jackie Doyle, and the one with the suit, a lawyer named Marshall Ronald, is the meat of this podcast, told with all the subjectivity and heart you’d expect from someone so closely connected to this bunch of colourful Scousers.
Graham and Doyle, who have their fingers in a fair few pies, had a side project called Stolen Stuff Reunited, a business with the stated aim of reuniting stolen goods with their rightful owners. So when a man approached them claiming he might know a thing or two about the famous lost painting, it started Graham, Doyle and Ronald on a journey into the criminal underworld involving bags of cash, pub car parks and a freak, act-of-God storm that brought Graham into near miraculous proximity with a work of sacred art.
Graham, known locally as the Silver Fox, was the kind of geezer you’d expect to find regaling a rapt audience down the pub or flirting with your granny. His daughter astutely lets us hear from her late father whenever she can, through old recordings he made and, less directly, through the fond recollections of his pals.
Which is why the way this story goes – I’m saving the spoilers here – is such a gut punch, and why we end up rooting with such gusto for Graham and his wild encounter with something finally as big as his boundless personality. There’s sadness here behind the divilment, and Olivia, as Graham’s daughter, has all the dogs in the fight, but she’s a smart storyteller and knows how to build the tension as the tale spins towards an ending that lands something profound despite its lack of easy closure.
Delightfully deadpan interjections from the Dutch art detective Arthur Brand also enliven the narrative, which is in part a search for justice and in part a piece of family lore. A quick google will tell you what happened in the end to the missing Madonna, but it will take this podcast for you to understand why it matters.