Remembering John Hurt

I was very sad, though not surprised, to learn this morning that John Hurt had died, aged 77. I first met him twenty years ago, when I interviewed him for Time Out about his role in Love and Death on Long Island, Richard Kwietniowski’s terrific adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s novel. John’s performance in that movie as Giles De’Ath, a fogeyish writer whose waspish wit bore no little resemblance to Gilbert’s own, may not be as well known as some others, but it is as perfect as anything he committed to film; very funny, very touching, meticulously detailed, beautifully balanced, and extremely subtle from start to finish.

Over the years our paths crossed many times; I can’t say I got to know John well, but he was a warm, sweet man, and – like his wife Anwen – a true cinephile, so we always found plenty to talk about whenever we met. I have some very fond memories of him, not least an evening in April 2000. It began with my interviewing him on the stage of the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) as the highlight of a retrospective of his films I had curated; he was characteristically articulate, intelligent, modest, down-to-earth and enormously entertaining. (You can read a transcript of the interview here and here.) Afterwards, we moved on to Joe Allen’s for dinner, not to mention wine; no hell-raising – those days had passed – but certainly sufficiently bibulous fun to stick in the mind (even though the details, inevitably, are somewhat vague).

There was another occasion, three years later, when John was on-stage at the NFT, this time to interview his old friend John Boorman about ‘Adventures of a Suburban Boy’, an autobiographical book the director had just had published. It had been John B’s idea for John H to host the interview; the trouble was, as we discovered just a few minutes before the pair were due to go on stage, that John H hadn’t had time to read the book, or indeed to prepare any questions to ask John B. What to do? Happily, Boorman is a wonderful raconteur so there was no risk of the talk drying up. But a few questions, at least, were needed to get the ball rolling. Together, the Johns came up with a solution. They insisted that I sit in the front row, immediately in front of John Hurt, so that I could prompt him with questions. So that’s what happened. It was an odd arrangement, and I have to confess that I felt pretty self-conscious sitting there at the front of the audience whispering loudly to John H; a couple of times he didn’t catch what I said, and asked me to repeat the question for him. But somehow it worked. Once the conversation was up and running, my contributions were no longer required, and a splendid time was had by all.

hurt-as-evans
John as Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place

I can’t recall the first time I saw John on screen – for all I know I may even have unwittingly caught his turn in Z Cars since I used to watch it religiously as a schoolkid – but I became very aware of him soon after I started work at the Electric Cinema Club in 1977. We used to screen 10 Rillington Place regularly (notoriously, the murderer Christie had been a relief projectionist at the Electric at some point), and we even opened Stuart Cooper’s film of David Halliwell’s Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, a play which had helped John to establish himself as an actor in the theatre. (I myself only saw him once in a theatrical production, in 2000: Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, an extended monologue in which he was predictably superb.) And it was while I was still at the Electric that John had won himself widespread international acclaim with performances in Midnight Express, Alien and The Elephant Man. The rest, as they say, is history.

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John in Krapp’s Last Tape (photo by Tristram Kenton for the Guardian)

I have a photograph of John, taken by Gary Oldman on the set of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; John’s sitting there alone, clearly enjoying a moment of quiet relaxation, with a cigarette. (The image is captioned ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ and you can find it here.) I like the picture enormously. Like many I will remember John for that remarkable lived-in face, and that equally remarkable voice – as warm and rich and smooth as fine hot chocolate – which were as distinctive as his enormous talent as an actor. But because, thanks to my work, I got to know him a little over the years, I’ll also remember him for his smile, his quick, insightful intelligence and his impish sense of fun. He really was one of our very greatest actors, and he will be very much missed.

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