Monday, February 20, 2017

John Hurt - Our Man For All Seasons


I had been thinking about John Hurt some days before his death on 25th January 2017 - recalling to mind The Pied Piper movie from 1972 which I watched on television several times as a child. This strange feature was directed by Jacques Demy, filmed on location in Bavaria and had Hurt playing Franz the Baron's son who wants the dowry of the mayor's daughter to fund his army. It also starred the Scottish folk singer Donovan, Jack Wild, Donald Pleasence and Diana Dors. As for the Pied Piper himself, the legend can be read as a metaphorical representation of youth emigration from Lower Saxony to the East, multiple deaths of young people from disease or a even Children's Crusade - likewise it could be a dark mirror on historic sex crime or cult activity.

Hurt's acting profile of course became truly global at the end of the Seventies and early Eighties with his appearances in the hit films Midnight Express, Alien and The Elephant Man but his earlier career incorporated some interesting roles as well. This alongside the three very well-recalled television appearances as Emporer Caligula in I Claudius, the murderer Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and as gentleman homosexual Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant.

Hurt's first film was 1962's The Wild and the Willing - a romantic drama of student life which also saw the first movie appearance of Ian McShane. The following year Hurt featured in an educational short film for The Spastics Society called The Contact as a physically handicapped teenager with cerebral palsy. 1964 saw Hurt appear in the London drama This Is My Street with the original Avenger Ian Hendry. He then portrayed Richard Rich in Fred Zinnemann's 1966 story of Sir Thomas More - A Man For All Seasons - while in 1967 he was cast in the British drama The Sailor From Gibraltar.

The last year of the Sixties saw Hurt appear in three films which have all faded out of memory - the comic lead in Sinful Davey about a Scottish highwaymanBefore Winter Comes starring David Niven and set in an Austrian displaced persons camp after World War Two and the American drama In Search of Gregory with Julie Christie.

10 Rillington Place - released in 1971 - had Hurt take on the role of Timothy John Evans who was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife and daughter by John Christie in Notting Hill. The same year he appeared in Mr Forbush and the Penguins which was filmed in Antarctica and traces the personal catharsis of a skirt-chasing biologist when face to face with survival dynamics in the animal world. After The Pied Piper Hurt's next appearance in cinema was the political comedy Little Malcolm in 1974 - the first feature film produced by George Harrison for Apple Corps. In 1975 he portrayed Tom Rawlings in the still quirky horror movie The Ghoul with Peter Cushing which was set in Cornwall and then an RAF officer in the Italian language film La Linea del fiume.

Prior to the major breakthrough of Midnight Express in 1978 Hurt appeared in four movies the previous year - the British-Canadian thriller The Disappearance with Donald Sutherland, "The Island" segment of horror anthology Three Dangerous Ladies, Paperback alongside Paul Morrissey and the independently produced colonial drama East of Elephant Rock. Between Midnight Express' junkie Max and doomed executive officer Kane in Alien Hurt starred in The Shout with Alan Bates which was another horror movie set in the English West Country. He also provided voices for the animated features of Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings - narrating the characters of Hazel and Aragorn.

As noted, Hurt's contemporaneous television work in the Sixties and the Seventies ranged from Z-Cars to The Sweeney, a  1974 production of Sygne's The Playboy of the Western World and appearances in long-running drama series Armchair Theatre, ITV Playhouse and Play for Today. In 1976 he starred in The Peddler in the latter series as an anti-depressant salesman.

The scope of Hurt's talent was truly extraordinary - from the time of his major breakthrough in the late Seventies and right up to his portrayal of James Parkin in the 2010 remake of the MR James ghost story Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad. His work incorporated White Mischief, Scandal and The Field on the big screen and television appearances from The Alan Clark Diaries to the eponymous narrator of The Storyteller children's series to the dramatic adaptation of the Birmingham Six case where he portrayed campaigner Chris Mullin.

I well recall seeing The Elephant Man at the ABC Cinema in Belfast when it was released - the scene he shares with Hannah Gordon when Joseph Merrick reflects about his mother is an incredibly moving  piece of cinema which captures such profound human sadness and empathy. Thirty years later and every day of the working week here in the disfunctional and corrupted capital of our country I pass the London plaque upon George Orwell's former domestic residence- Hurt of course having portrayed Winston Smith in the 1984 version of 1984.

John Hurt was born in 1940 in Derbyshire and during his 77 years lived in Oxfordshire, Norfolk, London's Bloomsbury, County Wicklow in the Irish Republic and Kenya. He was truly one of the greatest ever actors to come from the British Isles without question and a man of considerable passion and depth. Hurt's death after a six decade-long career in acting is a melancholy early marker within what is already a deeply troubled year - here in a world where one can take one's pick of mischief-making pied pipers of all political complexion and agenda.

1 comment:

  1. The role of the uptight yet somehow paternal figure of Stephen Ward in Scandal implores greater examination than the brief mention made here, as does Hurt's similarly idiosyncratic performance of Christopher Marlowe ("illiterate zombie phillistine!" on Shakespeare) in Jim Jarmusch's intoxicating 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive, a film which ostensibly appears nothing more than an analogue hipster vampire love story but is in actual fact an allegory of the decline of america and a treatise on the current state of arab/western relations.

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