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GP Jill Purce who stole Steve McQueen photo doesn't deserve to be laughing stock

Who among us can say that they've never had a moment of madness they later regretted, asks Gail Walker

Published 25/10/2016

Dr Jill Purce
Dr Jill Purce
Dr Jill Purce carrying the Steve McQueen artwork
Dr Jill Purce
The artwork with Bill Wolsey
Video still of two women making off with an iconic print of Hollywood legend at the Bullitt hotel, in Belfast

In the end - aptly, if somewhat ironically - it wasn't much of a mystery and it wasn't much of a chase. Most bitingly of all, it wasn't even cool. The release of footage of a woman dressed in a zebra print jacket and carrying a walking aid and her accomplice staggering down Belfast streets under the weight of a 6ft 4in recently snaffled poster of movie star Steve McQueen caused much merriment throughout Northern Ireland - and further afield.

True, the theft of the £15,000 print from Belfast's recently opened swish Bullitt Hotel - named after the 1968 McQueen film in which the star reached the epitome of impeccable coolness and also featuring a legendary car chase - was no laughing matter for the owners. Theft is, after all, a crime. Even if it has its ludicrous dimensions.

Still, the denouement of their daring raid was more Laurel and Hardy than San Francisco Police Department Lieutenant Frank Bullitt: the print was too big for the getaway car and had to be abandoned outside a well-known local restaurant.

Now a Co Antrim family doctor, Dr Jill Purce, has stepped up and confessed to the theft.

She held her hands up after a reporter on our sister newspaper, Sunday Life, called at her home in Ballymena. "My friend has gone to the police station, I'm just waiting for the police to come," she said.

She added tearfully that it had been "a moment of madness" that had left her too ashamed to leave the house.

While in no way condoning Dr Purce's actions, only the hardest of hearts would have no sympathy for her.

After all, we have all done stupid (if not technically criminal) things. Most of us are lucky not to have our greatest humiliation caught on CCTV and going viral on the internet.

It is hard not to feel a smidgen of pity for Dr Purce. Can you imagine the humiliation? As we say in these parts, you would never live it down. Never live it down - just think about the words.

What will Jill Purce be remembered for? Years spent in dedication to the health of others? No, she will be forever "thon woman who stole the Steve McQueen picture".

The Ballymena GP faces years of intense humiliation - much of which, as is often the case with this type of insanity, will be self-inflicted. The lash will be never ending.

After all, Dr Purce admits that part of her motivation was her adoration for the Hollywood icon: "I think I did it maybe because I could do it, it was a bit like The Thomas Crown Affair. I'm just a huge Steve McQueen fan, I have photographs of him, signed photographs."

Imagine not being able to think of your hero without being reminded of the lowest point in your life? Now the very mention of Steve McQueen will have Dr Purce blushing from head to toe with sheer mortification - rather than excitement and anticipation of another screening of Bullitt.

And, by their very nature, the reminders will be constant and unending. "And now on BBC1 Northern Ireland, The Towering Inferno with Paul Newman and STEVE MCQUEEN, Dr Purce, STEVE MCQUEEN" (Okay, the continuity announcer will not swerve into such personal territory, but in Dr Purce's ear that's roughly what it will sound like.)

Christmas? Forget it. After all, what is Christmas without The Great Escape? Steve getting all hetted up when wee Shughie McFee from Crossroads gets machine-gunned trying to climb the camp's barbed wire? Steve racing across the Alps on a groovy motorbike giving the Germans a hell of hard time catching him before himself getting caught up in barbed wire at the Swiss border? And the ending - Steve The Cooler (in all senses) King complete with baseball and mitt?

Nope, that would be like someone having footage of "that" Christmas party. The reminders would be everywhere. Bookshops. Those weird pop-up stores selling calendars and posters of ... (you've guessed it).

And then, of course, accidental reminders. You couldn't watch 12 Years A Slave from the acclaimed British director Steve McQueen without having your humiliation shoved in your face again.

True, it may be Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo getting all sophisticated and sexy in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, but you know they are only stand-ins for McQueen and Faye Dunaway.

Ditto the recent re-boot of The Magnificent Seven. Eighties pop band Prefab Sprout's second album, anyone? Or the Sheryl Crow song. Or Hugh Laurie's pet rat in House.

Even people just called Steve would involve a light searing of your soul. And references to the Queen would shake you to the core. Which is some fate for a GP in her sixties.

So, between the laughter and sneers and the mock indignation, we should remind ourselves to summon up an ounce or two of pity and empathy.

As the old saying goes, the man - or woman - who never made a mistake never made anything. People are always best viewed in the round, not just for one "moment of madness".

Steve McQueen once said: "I live for myself and answer to nobody." Which is fine if you are the King of Cool. Most of us aren't the King (or Queen). In fact, most of us aren't even cool. On the contrary, we are a bag of neuroses and mistakes.

It may not be much comfort for Dr Purce, but I prefer this McQueen nugget of wisdom, from The Magnificent Seven.

"It's like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, 'Why?' He said: 'It seemed to be a good idea at the time'."

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