This morning brought the sad news that legendary British actor Sir John Hurt has died, aged 77. Hurt starred in over 100 films during his career, notably The Elephant Man and Midnight Express, which garnered him Oscar nominations, Alien, 1984 and The Harry Potter movies, as well as TV including Doctor Who. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2015.
In August of that year, an upbeat Hurt discussed his life, career, recent knighthood and current work on Radio 4’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell with Radio Times. Read the full interview below…
“Insane?” asks the newly ennobled actor, Sir John Hurt. “I know I’ve gone mad at times. Of course I have. There’s a thin dividing line between that and sanity and you don’t know where you are a lot of the time. The line is fictitious, and alterable. You can move around within it.”
Thus begins another rollicking conversation with one of our most distinguished actors, twice nominated for an Oscar (Midnight Express and The Elephant Man), winner of four Baftas (including for The Naked Civil Servant), an incarnation of Doctor Who in 2013, and wand merchant Mr Ollivander in several Harry Potter films. He admits some of his 200-plus credits have been “stinkers” for money to finance a hell-raising life, now curtailed, with mates like Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
He was surprised to be knighted by the Queen last month. “I did nothing to encourage it,” he says, and after a pause adds mischievously, “Some people do, you know.” It would be indelicate to discuss names, but we know those who have turned it down. “Albert [Finney] refused because he says he’s only just got used to being called ‘Mr’. And so did Paul [Scofield]. They’re not agin’ it, but didn’t want it for themselves.
“I like being Sir John – it works, doesn’t it? Or John. The only thing that sticks in my craw is when people say ‘Mr Hurt’. I tell them it’s no longer correct.” Yet, vanity seems alien to him. For years he refused to have a mirror in his house. “Acting isn’t about looking at yourself, and I never thought I was good-looking.”
We speak at his home in Norfolk where he’s having treatment for early-stage pancreatic cancer diagnosed in June. Now 75, he once told me he didn’t think he’d live beyond 30. “That’s a generation thing. We were crawling away from the war and the world was a different place. Electronics has brought it down to size, one of the biggest revolutions in human history. I can’t say I worry about mortality, but it’s impossible to get to my age and not have a little contemplation of it. We’re all just passing time, and occupy our chair very briefly. But my treatment is going terrifically well, so I’m optimistic.”
John Hurt in Doctor Who
His elder brother, Michael, is staying with him. He’s called Brother Anselm, a Catholic monk, who left the church to marry and divorce, twice, and is now visiting his daughter. “She and her family have a caravan nearby.” Hurt’s – Sir John’s – father was a peripatetic high-church priest “who chose gruesome places to work – Grimsby and the Midlands – because he believed working-class areas were more truthful. I thought of going into the church – I loved the ritual – when I was young, but reacted against it as a teenager.”
Today he stars in Radio 4’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell as the eponymous writer, roué and drunk whose acerbic Spectator Low Life column is immortalised in the play by Keith Waterhouse. It takes place in the Coach & Horses pub in London’s Soho, where Bernard is locked in overnight, having fallen asleep in the toilet. He muses on his friends and his “wretched” life, which saw him discharged from the Army, working as a stagehand and being sacked from Sporting Life after he’d been advised to take up journalism because he couldn’t hold down a proper job. He died aged 65 in 1997.
Sir John was offered the stage production in 1989, but turned it down. “I’d like to keep that quiet because it could be considered a mistake, but I had specific reasons: I thought Keith wrote something too comic. Jeffrey was a very funny man, but his life was not entirely so. He was good at taking the piss out of himself, and us, and adept at turning sadness into amusement, but there was something underlying it that was not entirely come dic. I met him first in the early 60s, and always liked him. I took him to the races a lot – and back again, which was quite a feat.
“He always had money problems but paid his way and was stroppy if others didn’t. I felt I knew him so well that my approach would have been a version of him, but Peter O’Toole was perfect. He told Jeffrey, ‘Don’t think this is about you. It’s all about me and my entrance to Soho.’ I saw it twice and thought it was brilliant.”