John Hurt’s last interview with Radio Times

Speaking to Radio Times after first being diagnosed with cancer in 2015, an upbeat Hurt discussed his life, career, recent knighthood and current work

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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.

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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.”

He recorded the radio play over three days in a London club, Gerry’s, a favourite haunt of Waterhouse, where Bernard worked as a barman during the six months he gave up alcohol. “I remember him complaining how bored he was.” It is a brilliant tour de force. “The nice thing  about radio is you can make it so personal, which you can’t on stage, and the sound is different to that in a studio.”

Even though it can’t be seen, he performed the Waterhouse “egg trick”, where a biscuit tin lid is placed over a pint glass of water, an egg is balanced on the sleeve of a matchbox, and the lid is hit with a shoe so it slides away and the egg plops into the water – or soaks onlookers in yolk.

“I did it twice at the recording and it worked both times. You could have knocked me over with a feather, I tell you. I thought there might be a hell of a mess.

“Jeffrey made a life choice and was very much a character of his period. Now it would not be acceptable. No one drinks so much. People don’t give in to temptation and everything is controlled.” He mourns today’s lack of adventure, reliance on market research, petty bureaucracy, timidity, and he’s surprised actors employ publicists to sanitise their image.

Peter O’Toole in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell

“Society is much more homogenised, and we’re all supposed to conform. People are censorious but the pendulum will swing back, as it always does. There were difficulties in those days, obviously, but life was more fun. We’ve become obsessed with the dangers of alcohol – you get newspaper articles that are entirely over the top. There’s political correctness as well. I wonder who instigated that. Where does it come from, and who says what is or is not politically correct? And as for the way you have to treat women these days…”

You can’t make a pass in case it’s harassment? “Yes indeed. I don’t know how you ever make a date. On the internet? Oh my God, I’d be sunk. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘The only thing to do with temptation is give in to it.’ I’ve been known to do that, and at times I drank too much.”

He was married first at 22 to an actress who claimed, inaccurately, that she was pregnant; then a Texan barmaid with whom he built a mansion in Kenya too optimistically called “Wingu Kenda”, Swahili for “Cloud Nine”. He left her for a production assistant on the 1988 movie Scandal, with whom he had two sons, Alexander and Nicolas, before she went off with the gardener in 1994. For the past ten years he’s been married to actress turned-TV producer Anwen Rees-Myers, aged 59. “I’ve had a lively life,” he says wryly. “That’s a very good way of putting it.”

Bernard also married four times, and claimed, “God is a woman, probably a Guardian reader. They should all have a government warning on their head.” “Is there a man alive who hasn’t thought that?” asks Hurt. He didn’t live quite so dangerously as Bernard, who recalled one woman throwing him out with just a suitcase and three carrier bags. “I don’t think that happened to me,” Sir John mutters. “Well, I don’t remember it.”

Bernard first went to Soho in 1946, where he said he encountered a life of sloth, envy and self-pity. “I know what he means; his life was dependent on being self-derogatory. You can’t analyse it because it’s all in the language. You either get it or you don’t. There were moments when he was a curmudgeonly drunk, really unpleasant, but lots of times when he danced with amusement. He was very witty – ‘Never trust people who mean well,’ he said. Oh, that’s so true. And, ‘We all know reliable pipe-smoking men’ – don’t we indeed!

“There used to be an enormous camaraderie in Soho, encouraged by licensing laws, which restricted opening times, so various drinking clubs sprang up. They attracted louche, creative people. Our present-day, moralistic thinkers assume everyone was rolling around drunk, but that wasn’t the case.

“I had endless conversations with Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jeff and others. People go out today with the intention of getting smashed. We never had that intention, although it might happen. We hated binge drinkers. They were boring and if you slipped into it, you’d be told to pull yourself together. We wanted to seek, to find, to be interested, heighten awareness, talk.”

Yet, he told me once, Bacon only worked when hung over. “That’s true, and I don’t understand how he did it. I can’t think of anything less pleasant.” Sir John went to art school before Rada and still paints. “I don’t treat it as relaxation nor a hobby – I’m not a hobby man. I should paint every day but I’m not at the moment.” He leaves the reason hanging.

“The danger for Soho today is that corporations are buying up everything, but it’s a strange old place, a red-light area, which tends to look after itself and won’t accept middle-class changes imposed on it. London alters: Bloomsbury still houses a lot of writers, but they’re not a movement as they were. Hampstead [where he lived for 15 years with French model Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, who died in a horse riding accident in 1983] used to be artistic, but I’m not sure it is now. The problem is no one can afford the prices, and if that happens to Soho it will be disastrous.”

The old world is gone. Listen to Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell and decide if the new one is any better.

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Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is on Radio 4 today (Saturday 15th August) at 2.30pm