John Hurt: an indelible British treasure

From his charismatically gruff, genial presence in an endlessly varying procession of screen roles to his torch-bearing for the art of British cinema (not to mention the spirit of old bohemian Soho), BFI Fellow John Hurt, who has died aged 77, richly deserves his place in the annals of British film and television. Here Sight & Sound editor Nick James offers his own insight into what made Hurt great.

☞ John Hurt obituary: a pure and unswerving trouper

Nick James

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I, Claudius (1976)

If, like me, you have worked and socialised a lot in London’s Soho, then John Hurt was someone you saw all the time. Passing you on the street, yes, in a pub, sometimes, at a film party, often, on the screens of the preview theatres, very often and always with a touch of joy. This tended to amplify that feeling you get with famous actors or movie stars anyway, that you’ve known them for years.

As the unfortunate Kane in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)

As the unfortunate Kane in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979)

I think, in truth, I’ve only ever had about five or six conversations with him, one of them an interview for Atom Egoyan’s film of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in which he was characteristically riveting. The interview took place in the Groucho Club and I had a strong feeling listening to that magnetic voice that our conversation was drifting into a world of endlessly entrancing anecdote and that the afternoon could easily disappear blissfully into it. Inveterately honest – often against PR briefings – Hurt was always an inclusive talker.

For many of us in film he was as much a link to that legendary bohemia of London in the 1950s, of Francis Bacon and the Colony Room – and, of course, to the world of Quentin Crisp, whom he so memorably incarnated in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant – as he was, originally, to the studio days of British film. But his first film role, for Ralph Thomas (producer Jeremy Thomas’s father) in 1962’s The Wild and the Willing, is more like a marker of the fact that the Rank era was over. Though he’s there in such solid 1960s prestige films as A Man for All Seasons (1966) and 10 Rillington Place (1971), it was initially through TV drama that Hurt impressed himself on the public consciousness. He became vivid in mine not only for his Crisp but also through his portrayal of Caligula in the BBC’s landmark 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel I Claudius (which of course also established Derek Jacobi as an acting titan).

As a vampirical Christopher Marlowe in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

As a vampirical Christopher Marlowe in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The films and television dramas that would follow are legion and are celebrated elsewhere on this website. For some reason what’s sticking in my mind as I write is his role as the elderly vampire Christopher Marlowe in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), where he perhaps lampoons his own love of the red stuff, by which I mean wine. That is the congenial latter-day John Hurt that I last met a couple of years ago at the London Critics’ Circle Awards, where his all round graciousness was wonderful to behold. (He and his producer wife Anwen Rees-Myers were also held dear within the BFI for their stalwart support of the institution and its mission to champion film as art.) If there was a Mount Rushmore for British Film giants, it would be bereft without him, for he carried so much of what’s great about British film and TV in his very features.

An in-depth S&S obituary of John Hurt will be published on this website on Monday.

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