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Best Of British Biographies – John Hurt

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There was a meme I saw recently which said “Which singer can you recognise from the first note?” If you are interested, my thoughts ran to Jon Anderson, Peter Gabriel, and Roger Hodgson.  But then I wondered if there was something similar with actors; are there any actors you can recognise as soon as they start to speak? One of the big ones for me was the late, great Sir John Vincent Hurt CBE. I’m not alone. Barbara Ellen in The Guardian said he possessed the “most distinctive voice in Britain”.

My first exposure to him was way back in 1975 when I saw him playing the Stately Homo Of England, Quentin Crisp, in The Naked Civil Servant. Why was he so resonant to me back then? It would be quite nice to say that I was struggling with my sexuality and he gave me the confidence to help me find my place in life. Sadly, I wasn’t getting any because I was ugly and gangling… John Hurt was just a brilliant actor.


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Early Days

Sir John Vincent Hurt CBE was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire on the 22nd of January 1940. His mother, Phyllis, was an engineer and former actor while his father, Arnold, was a mathematician who became a Church of England vicar. While there may not be a Hurt Theorem to match the Bayes’ Theorem, mathematicians taking the cloth is more widespread than I would initially think! Perhaps Thomas Bayes being Presbyterian rather than CofE may have had something to do with it.

1962 – The Wild And The Willing with Ian McShane and Samantha Eggar

The eight year old John Hurt was sent to St Michael’s Prep School down in Kent and it was here that he developed his love for acting. His first role was in The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck and he had already started to demonstrate his range by playing a girl. He later went to Lincoln School. The headmaster there laughed when Hurt told him he wanted to be an actor, saying, “Well, you may be all right in school plays but you wouldn’t stand a chance in the profession.”

What Do Teachers Know?

I like to think that that may have spurred the young John onto greater efforts and I hope he reminded that fool of a headmaster of his words when he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1960. It does make me sad when people in positions of educational authority seem to be more interested in dashing their young charges dreams rather than helping them to take flight. One minute you’re being told that you can be anything you want to be and the next minute they’re saying “but not that”.

1966 – A Man For All Seasons

Apparently his parents also disapproved of his theatrical ambitions and suggested instead that he should become an art teacher, and in 1957, aged 17, he enrolled in Grimsby Art School. In 1959 he won a scholarship to study at Central St Martin’s Art School in London. However, the desire to act was still strong, and in 1960 he won another scholarship, this time to RADA. I’m sure we’re all grateful that the world of academia’s loss of an art teacher didn’t deprive us of his acting talent.

Fresh Out Of RADA

Fresh from RADA in 1962, he started to get a number of parts on television. These may only have been small parts but they were back in the days when there were only two channels to chose from so you did get seen by a lot of people. He had parts in Z Cars, which I remember very well, and in Probation Officer, which I’ve never heard of. Possibly because Probation Officer only ran from 1959 to 1962 whereas Z Cars ran from 1962 to 1978! Still, they got his face in front of the great British public.

1971 – 10 Rillington Place with Judy Geeson and Richard Attenborough

Enough for him to get noticed by casting people! He was cast in his first cinematic feature, The Wild And The Willing, while we were still in 1962. Being honest, I haven’t seen it, but it may hold some sort of record for debuts. As well as being the first time we get to see John Hurt on the silver screen it was also the first big screen outing for Ian McShane and Samantha Eggar. Incidentally, Ian McShane and John Hurt shared a flat while they were at RADA. Anthony Hopkins was also a student back then but, as far as I can tell, not a part of the flat share.

The Stately Homo Of England

Whether it was The Wild And The Willing, the many TV dramas (Armchair Theatre, Play Of The Week, Thursday Theatre, etc.) he was in over the next few years, or his other big screen credit in This Is My Street that got him noticed for the big time I have no idea. But noticed he was, and this led to his first major role in the multi award winning A Man For All Seasons. By multi award winning I’m talking six Oscars, seven BAFTAs, four Golden Globes, and seventeen others.

1975 – The Naked Civil Servant

In A Man For All Seasons he played Richard Rich. Before any confusion arises, I’m not talking about the fictional Richie $ Rich of comic book and film fame. I am talking of the, very real, 1st Baron Rich who was Lord Chancellor during the reign of Edward VI from 1547 to 1552. To keep the budget for A Man For All Seasons under control, salaries were kept on a very tight leash. John Hurt was paid £3,000 for his turn. That may not seem much now but, allowing for inflation, it is roughly equivalent to £62,000 in today’s money. Nice work if you can get it!

No, Not That Caligula!

It was a few years before John Hurt started to bother awards committees in his own right. His first nomination was a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor for playing Timothy Evans in 1971’s 10 Rillington Place. For those that don’t know, 10 Rillington Place is a true story. In it Richard Attenborough played John Christie. Christie was a rare beast in that he was a British serial killer. I say rare because, since Jack The Ripper in 1888, there have been only thirty four known serial killers.

1976 – I, Claudius

Christie was not only a serial murderer but also a necrophiliac. He killed at least eight people including Beryl Evans and her baby daughter Geraldine. Christie managed to divert suspicion away from himself and on to Timothy Evans, husband and father of Beryl and Geraldine. Timothy Evans was convicted of both murders but was later exonerated when Christie confessed in 1953. This wasn’t much good to Timothy as he had been executed in 1950.  

All Over Our Screens

Film and TV parts were rolling in quite regularly now. During the five years from 1970 and 1975 he had twelve credited roles. TV series, mini series, films, and big screen films were all grist to his particular mill. But it wasn’t until the aforementioned The Naked Civil Servant in 1975 that he was nominated again. This time, though, he won! He was declared the BAFTA Best Actor which would put him into the same club as Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, Robbie Coltrane, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Benedict Cumberbatch, not to mention others about whom I am yet to write!

1978 – Midnight Express

The following year saw John Hurt as one of the most arguably cruel, perverse, and insane tyrants the world and, indeed, our screens have ever seen. He was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus more commonly know as Caligula! The programme in question was a thirteen part mini series named I, Claudius and based on the 1934 Robert Graves novel of the same name and the 1935 sequel Claudius The God. 

It Must Have Been Something I Ate

It tells the history of the Roman Empire from 24 BC to AD 54 as told by Claudius (Derek Jacobi). In particular, it concentrates on the lives and times of the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Lives and times is a shorthand for the kind of intrigue and shenanigans that would make Machiavelli gasp! Assassinations, arranged marriages, convenient adoptions fly through thick and fast. In the middle of this is the mad as a box of frogs Caligula and I like to think John Hurt had a whale of a time as the pantomime villain.

1979 – Alien

The late seventies saw John Hurt contributing to some films which made him a star, a household name, and well into the A-List. His first big role of this period was Max in Midnight Express. Max is a character that John Hurt seemed to grow into; slender, fragile, seemingly out of touch with reality but, somehow, with his finger on the pulse. Although a hopeless addict, it is Max who helps Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) navigate the Turkish prison and legal systems and, ultimately, helps him to escape. For this role John Hurt was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar and won the BAFTA in the same category.

I Am Not An Animal!

Next up came the film that really got people talking and got John Hurt noticed even more. Particularly due to the infamous, much mythologised chest burster scene in Alien. I still remember seeing .  in the cinema. You jumped when Kane looked into the strange egg and the thing leapt out and attached itself to his face. But that jump was as nothing compared to the mess room scene. Kane has been separated from the alien and is back eating with his crew mates and everything is happy and jolly.

1980 – The Elephant Man

Then Kane seems to have swallowed something the wrong way. He coughs and tries to clear his throat but then it gets worse. He retches and gags. His crew mates become concerned. He stands up and falls back onto the table screaming in agony. He arches his back and… blammo! His shirt stains with blood, bulges, and bursts open. Thus ends one of the biggest scares in cinema history.  Incidentally, Brad Davis (John’s co-star in Midnight Express) was originally meant to play Kane but was taken ill at the last minute.

Thoughtcrime Is Death

His next big screen outing was another iconic role which played into his wheelhouse; a misfit, an outcast, a victim…The Elephant Man. He nearly died during filming when he almost suffocated under the prosthetics. He had to stay upright but forgot…exactly like John Merrick died in the real world. Again he was nominated for an Oscar but, this time, it was for Best Actor. Unfortunately though he picked a bad year to be nominated. His fellow unsuccessful nominees were Robert Duvall, Jack Lemmon, and Peter O’Toole. 

1984 – 1984

All four of them had the deep misfortune to be nominated in the same year as one Robert Anthony De Niro Jr teamed up with Martin Scorsese to make Raging Bull. Surprisingly enough, Sir John never troubled the Academy judges ever again. Despite only being under a quarter of the way through his acting credits he was only nominated for another two roles and didn’t win either of them. He received a BAFTA Special Award but that always smacks of “we need to give him something!” However, he was recognised in other ways. In 2004 he was awarded a CBE and in 2015 he was knighted.

Of Course He’s A Cultural Icon

In 2012 he was chosen as one of the British cultural icons selected for Peter Blake’s reimagining of his Sgt. Pepper album cover. In 2014 he received the Will Award from the Shakespeare Theatre Company.  He received an honorary degree, two honorary doctorates and was appointed provost of Norwich University of the Arts. Perhaps a more permanent memorial is The John Hurt Centre which is an education and exhibition space located at Cinema City, Norwich.

2006 – V For Vendetta

But lack of awards didn’t mean lack of work. Richard Attenborough offered him the title role in his 1982 film Gandhi. He declined the offer as he felt that, by the 1980s, it had become inappropriate for a Caucasian European to portray a person of Asian descent. He did audition in full make up and costume as a favour to Sir Richard before formally backing out. The role instead became a big break for another British classical actor, Ben Kingsley, who was of genuine Indian descent on his father’s side; Sir Ben’s birth name is Krishna Bhanji.

Hard Times

It was around that time when his life was turned upside down. His partner of fifteen years, Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, and they had planned to get married in the near future.  On the morning of 26th January 1983 they went out horse riding and Marie-Lise was, before John’s eyes, thrown from her horse and landed on her head. She was rendered comatose and died later that day. This tragedy was responsible for his descent into alcoholism and, at his peak, he was drinking seven bottles of wine a night and partying with the likes of Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, and Peter O’Toole. However, he had overcome his addiction and stopped drinking altogether by early in the new millennium.

2011 – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This also saw John cut back on big budget productions and look into smaller independent projects. He tended to find a lack of enjoyment in the bigger films and generally preferred low-budget independent films. “I’ve spent a great deal of my life doing independent film,” he remarked in an interview, “and that is partly because the subject matter interests me and partly because that is the basis of the film industry.” His philosophy seemed to be to find the positive in any project even if it was just the location. It didn’t stop him being asked though; he turned down the role of Hannibal Lector in The Silence Of The Lambs.

Big Parts, Small Parts

He didn’t cut them out altogether though. He turned up in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. As a film, Indiana Jones 4 does tend to get a fair amount of, quite reasonable, criticism and, frankly, ridicule which may only be minimised by the upcoming Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny. However, in the middle of it, you have Professor Harold Oxley. Is he mad? Has he been broken by years of intense, single minded study? Or is it something else related to the titular crystal skull? Regardless, who better to portray that intensity than John Hurt?

2008 – Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull with Harrison Ford

As I’ve already said, his range was very, very extensive. As well as being the put-upon Winston Smith in 1984, he was also the Big Brother figure in the dystopian thriller V for Vendetta. He could also be devious and ruthless heroes and villains. Sometimes you weren’t sure whether he was a hero or villain; he was delightfully opaque as Control in 2011’s Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. Then again he was beautifully weak and passionless as Phil Corkery in the 2010 remake of Brighton Rock. I remember enjoying reading that for English “A” Level and I’ve loved both the film versions.

The Most Perfect Instrument

I’ve mentioned before about the quality and distinctiveness of John Hurt’s voice. Obviously that meant he had, over the years, got a lot of voice work.  It started in 1978. He had two voice roles that year. One was as Hazel in Watership Down; a kind of Planet Of The Apes for rabbits. The other was as Aragorn in the 1978 animated version of The Lord Of The Rings. From that he went on to do sixteen roles across fifteen projects. My most memorable was him voicing the Dragon throughout the TV series Merlin.

2013 – Doctor Who

Thirteen episodes into the seventh series of the rebooted Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston was  asked to return for a few episodes. As is well known, he was the incarnation that successfully rebooted the show after a break of sixteen years, if you don’t count the feature length 1996 episode. At the time of his departure the reason for Christopher Eccleston leaving after only one season was that he didn’t want to be typecast; a reasonable assumption given his renowned part picking. However, it was later revealed that things on the set weren’t as peachy as first thought.

Doctor…Who?

In interviews, Eccleston said “I wasn’t comfortable. My relationship with my three immediate superiors – the showrunner, the producer and co-producer – broke down irreparably during the first block of filming and it never recovered. They lost trust in me, and I lost faith and trust and belief in them.” Unfortunate for Mr Eccleston, but it did mean that we got to see the grizzled, haggard  War Doctor. Who better than John Hurt to portray a figure who has witnessed millennia of torment, misery, and hardship.

2001 – Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone

John made appearances in three of the eight Harry Potter films. Is that such a big deal you might think. Wasn’t every working British actor given a part at some point? Well, apart from Judi Dench, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Michael Sheen, Anthony Hopkins…actually, it must be a bigger deal than you first think! Anyway, he was excellent as Mr Ollivander the wand seller. This role could have been made for John Hurt. It demonstrated his range from being mischievous and delighted while Harry nearly destroys his shop in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone to the tormented and haggard prisoner in the two Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows films.

Towards The End

I know that he did more things, but I’m going to finish with two of his that I particularly enjoyed. The first of these is his third dystopian outing after 1984 and V for Vendetta…Snowpiercer. Bong Joon Ho’s adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige was also his first English language film. Gilliam (named after Terry Gilliam) is the spiritual leader of the tail section; a mentor and a guide who has seen horrors, made sacrifices, and has secrets to keep…every one of which shows through the lines on his face and the depth of his eyes. You might as well just have named the character “John Hurt” and had done with it!

2013 – Snowpiercer

The other recent film of his that I’m thinking of came out in the same year. It was 2013 that saw the release of Only Lovers Left Alive.  This is, to my mind a beautiful, romantic, and, frankly, undefinable film. What’s it about? A group/family of vampires. Except that the word “Vampire” is never mentioned. They do refer to the non-vampiric humans as zombies though. Director Jim Jarmusch was asked by the studio to put in more action scenes. Instead he promptly went back and took the ones he’d already shot out! In amongst the group is Christopher Marlowe. Yes, that Christopher Marlowe! The one shrouded in mystery, intrigue, and speculation as the possible amanuensis for one William Shakespeare. 

2013 – Only Lovers Left Alive

Guess who plays Kit Marlowe…

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