'Alcoholic is a silly word' - John Hurt
From entertaining the masses with character acting in 'Harry Potter' to fronting a new-wave TV show, John Hurt tells our reporter why, at 75, he's still not slowing down, especially now he's cancer-free
Published 18/12/2015 | 02:30
Before I meet John Hurt, the PR who has set up the interview informs me that there is one subject I absolutely must not ask him about. In fact, she suggests, he's so loath to talk about it that it's more or less a condition of my meeting him. Please can I promise not to mention his cancer? We agree that I can ask him how he's feeling.
That afternoon, a buoyant Hurt tells me, seconds after shaking my hand, that he's just come from a treatment.
"I'm completely in remission," he says, as if we were here to celebrate the fact. He orders a black coffee and a glass of red wine.
Far from being reluctant, Hurt is only too keen to tell me about his new lease of life. Who wouldn't be? After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year, he underwent a hefty six-month therapy; he now has gentler, preventative treatments once a fortnight, and thinks even his oncologist is surprised he's clear.
Hurt says he feels better now than he did before he was ill. And although he had to accept quite quickly that he had "a nasty one", it never occurred to him that it wouldn't disappear.
"People say it's the attitude. But I don't put on an attitude. I just knew it wasn't supposed to be there.
"You think: well, supposing it hadn't gone away - people would just think you were in denial and rather silly'. Just like footballers, when they take a long shot and it goes nowhere near the goal, people say: 'oh well how ridiculous, such an ambitious shot from such a long way out'. But if it goes in, they say: 'what a goal!'"
At this, Hurt propels himself out of his armchair, cheering with all his chesty voice. If confirmation were needed, it might be found in Hurt's dapper dress sense.
Today he's wearing a charcoal tweed ensemble, with a flat cap and a faint herringbone pattern in his sharp-lapelled jacket. There's a pale grey paisley shirt, proper braces with leather trim, and round tortoiseshell glasses. The whole look suggests the Artful Dodger has grown up and turned into James Joyce.
Hurt is now 75, and over a career that began in the first years of the 1960s, he has played a vast range of roles, from a flame-haired and florid Quentin Crisp and the proud, disfigured Elephant Man to a balding, drug-addicted prisoner and a spaceship captain impregnated by an alien.
He's not averse to fun - children of all ages will remember him as the man who sells Harry Potter his first wand, and his unmistakably gravelly voice in the 70s animations of Watership Down and Lord of the Rings.
But he has also played something more consistent: variations on a particular sort of buttoned-up Brit with an unreadable hinterland and an incalculable proximity to power - whether it's a well-connected doctor (Stephen Ward in Scandal), a Tory MP (The Alan Clark Diaries), or the head of the British Intelligence service (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
Tom in The Last Panthers is one of these - an "eminence grise", as Hurt puts it. Panthers is a six-part political thriller that begins with a diamond heist and follows the protagonists - insurers, investigators, cops and thieves - into sinister territory throughout Europe.
Hurt, a steely yet humane insurer, turns out to have worked for MI6. He starts to say how dark the subject matter is, and that reminds him: "It's shot very dark, too. I think maybe too dark." Then there's the director, Johan Renck, whom Hurt deems to be "wonderful", but not before clarifying that he "wasn't sure about him to begin with".
There's no reining in Hurt: he'll say whatever he damn well pleases, and today he's looking back on his life, and playing the jovial raconteur.
After a childhood he describes as being governed by fear - his father was a vicar, and he was "beaten and thrashed" at school - Hurt came to London as an art student. He knew it wasn't what he wanted to do, but St Martin's School of Art was on Charing Cross Road, and the nearest place to get a drink was Soho.
There, in the late 50s, he found a world that was "more sympatico than anything I'd ever met in any church ever". Alcohol released his mind "from religion, from the 50s, from the 40s".
But although it's often said that drink contributed to the breakdown of some of Hurt's marriages (he is now on number four), he says he has never been an alcoholic.
"I think those are silly terms," he suggests. "To my generation the jokes were: 'Are you a drunk? No, I can't drink enough.' The word was 'dipsomaniac'."
Soho, he says was "the first place that I put my trust in". "The place was stacked with talent, and basically good feeling for people. They weren't there to bring each other down."
He spent time with the artists: Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, the two Scottish Roberts, MacBryde and Colquhoun. (Hurt still paints - "in fact," he says, "it's rather more important than acting".)
One afternoon, Hurt found Bacon on his own at the Colony Room, reading the papers. "Mmmm," said Bacon, apropos of nothing, "When Pablo [Picasso] dies, I'll be Number One."
Hurt's impersonation of Bacon is impeccably camp. "You see, I can't do the difference between him and Quentin Crisp, I'm afraid. They all come out the same, these queens!"
Another friend was Jeffrey Bernard, whom Hurt played this past summer in a Radio 4 adaptation of Keith Waterhouse's play, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.
Hurt says he was offered the lead in the 1989 West End production before Peter O'Toole, but turned it down. "I think the original play missed the danger of it," he remembers. "It might have been the way I was when I read it - you never know. But it seemed to me that it was too funny. "
Our conversation strays - into quips about his age ("The portrait has fallen from the attic, heftily"); regrets that he hasn't served his own sons (now 25 and 22) well enough because his marriage to their mother broke down. The PR offers a final, nervous prompt to say something about The Last Panthers, and requests that we not give away the ending.
"Don't worry darling," Hurt pipes up, "I can't remember it!" He turns to me. "I'm the worst gossip in town," he says, as if the previous hour had not passed in reminiscence, "I remember nothing." (© The Daily Telegraph)
'The Last Panthers' is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm tonight. The full series is also available via Sky OnDemand
John Hurt's most memorable roles
Kane (Alien, 1979)
Hurt is in one of the most memorable scenes on film, when the alien that had gestated in Kane's chest bursts straight through it.
Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man, 1980)
The dignity and pathos Hurt brought to the disfigured Merrick won him an Oscar nomination.
Quentin Crisp (The Naked Civil Servant, 1975; and An Englishman in New York, 2009)
Hurt played the flamboyant writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp quite brilliantly in 1975, and 34 years later.
Mr Ollivander (Harry Potter, 2001-11)
Hurt reached a whole new generation as the owner of the wand shop.