John Hurt, Derbyshire actor
PUBLISHED: 12:52 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:21 20 February 2013
Ashley Franklin talks to the Derbyshire actor on a recent visit to Derby
In 2005 this magazine revealed, for the first time, the Derbyshire life of John Hurt. Speaking to me then in Londons Wyndhams Theatre, John was celebrating his return to the West End stage in the acclaimed Heroes.
Four years on, it was even more of a pleasure to meeting up with John again, as this time our local hero had returned to Derbyshire. He was here to celebrate the first birthday of Derbys QUAD Arts Centre, of which he is Patron. As he came into the foyer to cut the cake, I again beheld that elegantly craggy face and heard that even more famous, rough-hewn voice, described by one observer as nicotine sieved through dirty, moonlit gravel.
That face and voice have been noticeably busy of late. At 69, John Hurt amazingly appears a deal more chipper than when we last met, compelling evidence that work is good for the soul. Its no coincidence that when recently made a Fellow of the British Film Institute at the London Film Festival the highest possible honour, declares John he had not one, but two films being premiered at the Festival: 44 Inch Chest and The Limits of Control. His worldwide fame can only increase with the forthcoming reprise of his role as Mr Ollivander in the next two Harry Potter films and he could well be the talk of the nation again this month with another, much bigger, reprise: nearly 35 years on from his BAFTA-winning breakthrough role as Quentin Crisp in ITVs The Naked Civil Servant, John can be seen on our TV screens portraying the flamboyant homosexuals later life in America in An Englishman in New York.
John Hurt sits with me as an Englishman in Derby, and hes proud to be so, supporting QUAD as much as he humanly can in between filming. He spoke of initially seeing photographs of QUAD and sensing it was a terrific piece of architecture and being even more awestruck when he saw it with his own eyes. QUAD is an important place that I was privileged to put my name to, declares John. Anything that promotes the arts is of interest to me.
John is also aware that in terms of cinema, QUAD is predisposed to promoting the kind of films he embraces: for every popcorn-sated, popular Harry Potteresque picture he signs up for, John Hurt takes on one of the smaller, braver, budget-cutting stabs in the cinematic dark. As QUAD Director Keith Jeffery concurs: John is ideal for us, not least in that he shares our love of quality film. He has great stature and sends out an important message about culture. There was a real buzz about QUAD when we opened; John has added even more buzz.
There was little buzz about the cinema when a pre-teen John Hurt was living in Woodville, near Swadlincote. His recollection of a grim town with slag heaps pointed up the irony of the slogan for Swadlincotes Empire Cinema which he recalls seeing in the Burton Mail: Come to the Sunny Side of Swad.
The town was very depressed when I was there, recalls John, so the idea of Swad having a sunny side of any sort was ludicrous. When I tell him the town has been regenerated, he replies: I certainly hope so. Life was even harsher, though, in the North East Derbyshire mining village of Shirebrook where he was born in 1940. He revealed to me that he visited Shirebrook recently when he found himself near there, though he found it unrecognisable. This is maybe not surprising as Johns salient memory, as he told me four years ago, is of seeing black-faced miners in their clogs like something out of a Van Gogh painting.
The Hurt familys tenure in Derbyshire ended in 1952 when John was 12, his clergyman father leaving for yet another new parish. Even before then, John was being schooled elsewhere. However, he says he is proud of his Derbyshire roots and equally proud to be succeeding, in effect, the late Alan Bates as QUAD patron at the time of his death Alan was patron of the Metro Cinema which evolved into QUAD. Alan was a wonderful actor, declares John. I always loved his quiet style and Im sorry we only appeared together in one film, The Shout. John admits that he will never be as well known a Derbyshire-born actor as Alan Bates because of his fathers work. Dad was a clergyman so our family, in effect, became a travelling circus. Thus, my relatives background was never established in Derbyshire which is why I never came back to the county there were no relatives to visit so there was no reason to return.
Young John Hurts Derbyshire days were fairly solitary and unhappy, with his rigidly middle-class parents discouraging their children from playing with the local children. It was a world of sham and convention, recalls John. The irony of his religiously benevolent parents choosing to preside over a working class community was further pointed up by their refusal to allow John to attend the cinema, even though it was tantalisingly situated opposite the vicarage. I would gaze at the Saturday matinee queues in envy, he recalls. Cinema was seen by my parents as common and morally dclass rather odd thinking for a clergyman and his wife.
However, John was allowed the odd theatre visit and fondly recalls annual pantos at the Derby Hippodrome. Theatrical childhood games with brother Michael and a flair for painting showed a strong creative streak in young Hurt but although he went on to St Martins School of Art in London, John had a keen sense of where his vocation lay from the age of nine when he made his stage debut in a school production I just knew I was in absolutely the right place, he states. Eventually, he got into RADA at a time when it was hallowed land and seemingly out of reach. After a spell on stage, he cast a spell on TV in his daring yet heralded performance as the outrageously camp gay transvestite Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, swiftly followed by his gloriously demented and decadent Caligula in I, Claudius. John had already shown an aptitude for portraying extraordinary, flawed, victimised characters, a reputation cemented by his Oscar-nominated roles in Midnight Express in 1978 and especially The Elephant Man in 1980. With his chest-bursting moment of fame in Alien in between, John Hurts career ascended. He has worked prodigiously and constantly extended his range to the point where director Michael Caton-Jones, who worked with him on Scandal, Rob Roy and Shooting Dogs, describes him as one of the greatest screen actors ever, and one of the bravest because hes all about honest emotion. People think actors have to pretend or lie. The best actors, like John, know they have to search for the truth.
John had to search again for the truth behind Quentin Crisps sojourn in the Big Apple in returning to play the character after 34 years. Naturally, John was the only choice to play Crisp, not least because after the first TV drama, Quentin declared that John Hurt is my representative here on Earth. So how did it feel donning the cloak once more of that self-confessed English stately homo.
Very interesting, replies John, because so many things have changed over the years, especially the shifts in society. For that reason, this drama is not as startling as the first one but its still a fascinating study of an extraordinary man. In The Naked Civil Servant, we see Quentin Crisp not only coming out of the closet but brazenly showing everything that was in there, living life openly as an effeminate gay with all the concomitant difficulties in a world that still treated homosexuality variously as a sin, an outrage or at least with distaste or suspicion. However, The Naked Civil Servant was both a commercial as well as critical success it was the only TV drama to have been broadcast on all four original terrestrial British TV channels and is No 4 in the British Film Institutes top 100 list of important TV programmes. Whats more, it had a significant impact on the gay rights cause and Crisp swiftly became a gay icon, eventually moving to New York, which is where John Hurt picks up the story depicted in this new film: New York was a huge adventure for Quentin. When I was working with him, he spoke of this being the twilight of his life and he was younger than I am now he was 67. I said that when The Naked Civil Servant comes out, youll be able to call it the sunset of your life and he rather liked that. As it turned out, his time in New York became the sunset of his life for 20 years.
Throughout that time, Crisp lived alone in a pokey, shabby apartment but attended numerous parties, living on peanuts and champagne while making a fortune as a wit from public speaking engagements and TV appearances. However, there is a note of conflict in this drama, as John Hurt explains: He was invited to speak in America because The Naked Civil Servant was a big hit. On one big TV station in Los Angeles, it was the only film to be repeated the same night by public demand. He then embraced New York because he felt his eccentricity and flamboyance would be more accepted there and it was. As he said himself: Happiness rains down from the sky in America. However, he made a few gaffs which nearly destroyed him, notably in saying glibly that AIDS was just a fad. He didnt realise what AIDS would become. Also, he was a huge homosexual activist and some of the gay movement didnt like him behaving as he did they wanted a more macho gay rather than the effeminate type he paraded. So he got lost in a fog.
John Hurts performance has already been hailed a triumph, one reviewer referring to Crisps aphorisms being rendered with immense poise and charm, with praise also for the way John reveals some of the mans doubts and loneliness.
John has also earned plaudits for his performance in 44 Inch Chest, which is released in the New Year. Described as a provocative and darkly comedic thriller, Johns character is described as vile and hilarious. John will subsequently be seen by millions around the globe as he returns as Mr Ollivander, the wand shop owner, in the next two Harry Potter films. Hell be very different from the first time you saw him, John points out. In the first film, he was in his own shop and everything was going well. Not so here. Also, that first film was all owls, kids magic and Quidditch games. Now its darker and dealing with death. Indeed, Ollivander finds himself a prisoner of Voldemort where he is tortured in a bid to find out about the Elder Wand.
John also mentioned a possible film project with the director Richard Kwietniowski who worked with John in 1997 on one of his most underrated films Love & Death on Long Island, in which John played a respectable writer who becomes besotted by a movie poster boy. Knowing this to be one film that he loved, my final question was whether there was a film he was most fond of? Oh dear, he replied, thats like asking someone who their favourite child is. However, he went on to mention The Hit, an independent cult success in which he plays a world- weary assassin. I tend to like the smaller films, he added, then mentioning one of his higher profile successes as the tragically disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man an Everyman picture, says John, though not every man would have endured the seven to eight hours in make-up he had to spend every other day of filming. I couldnt have gone through that every single day because it would have exhausted me, explains John. For one thing, it was a further two and a half hours to get the make-up off. But it was a thrill to work with the director David Lynch.
John admits he has been in some stinkers, remarking that youve got to make a living but there are more than enough triumphs to justify John Hurts place as one of our greatest ever actors. When asked why he likes to act, his words to The Independent on Sunday a few years ago include a poignant note of regret at his unhappy upbringing in Derbyshire: You want to act in order to show people that you are more than you appear to be; that you have more to offer than had been allowed at school or within the vicarage.
An Englishman in New York will be screened on ITV this Christmas.