From 'Scandal' and 'Elephant Man', to 'Midnight Express' and 'Alien', Hurt was a hero
Barry Egan gets misty-eyed as he recalls a very special lunch he enjoyed with the late John Hurt
It's not every day you have lunch with John Hurt. It's not every day you share a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape with him either. So it was in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin on St Patrick's Day, 2013...
"I'm hugely religious in so far as I believe that humanity cannot deal without religion," he began, "I am as atheist, I think, as I could possibly be. But that is religious, if you see what I mean."
I asked him does he enjoy life. He looked at me with absolute scorn.
"That's like saying 'Are you happy?'" he snapped. I was hoping he wouldn't get sudden chronic indigestion from the question - and like his character Kane in Alien, have some monstrosity burst suddenly from his chest.
"Here's some wisdom just for you, young man! You cannot be happy," he continued with a soothing smile.
"It is not a state. It is something that you pass by and you have happiness. Like your childhood. You ask anyone about their childhood. Say, C'mon really think about it. You will find most people will say, 'Yes, that was quite happy, I quite enjoyed that... Oh, I hated that. Oohh, that was horrible. Oh, that was wonderful. I loved it when we went on holiday. Ohh, well, I didn't like it when that happened'."
"There are moments. Life is made of moments. That's what it is about. We are ephemeral. We are passing through."
"I have some fantastically happy moments now and I have moments when..." he smiled.
"You see you want answers for you," he almost chastised me. "There are no answers. The great story is the man who went to find the guru in the Himalayas. He finally knocked on the door of the monastery and they said: 'What do you want?' He said, 'I've sold everything. I have come over from Ireland. I want to find out the meaning of life'.
They said go back down the mountain and stay there for a year and come back again. He comes back down, and a year later the guru finally sees him. He says to the guru, 'I want to know the meaning of life'. The guru says, 'Life is a bowl of cherries'. The man says, 'I have sold everything and you tell me that life is just a bowl of cherries?' So the guru says, 'All right, life is not a bowl of cherries'
"It's as simple as that, really," John Hurt said. Thus endeth the lesson. He looked at the menu.
Then the famously furrowed forehead arched momentarily when it was revealed by the waiter that the Irish stew on the menu was not quite traditional. It is almost enough to hear John Hurt, in that remarkable voice of his, gently upbraid the manager: "Well, it shouldn't be billed as such then..."
The air of melancholy lifted when the 73-year-old living legend of stage and screen ordered a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape and asked for the hake "while he's at it". Then we settled down for a 90 minute lunch in one of Dublin's finest five-star hotels.
The greatest English actor since Laurence Oliver is immediately off into a journey of the past where better meals could be had. He recalls coming over to Ireland in the mid-Sixties "for 18 quid return on the plane. You could be sitting in Hampstead in London and decide to go see someone and go out to the airport and catch the next plane to Dublin. And smoke on the plane!" he chortled.
"It was pure fun in those days! Then I'd go straight to the Soup Bowl in Molesworth Street. This was a time when there wasn't good food in Ireland. It was long before Ballymaloe. The Soup Bowl was great. It was fun. You'd go there and when you finished there and had A fabulous old time - and generally saw someone that you knew - and then I'd go, without calling up, out to Woodtown Manor outside Dublin to see Garech," Hurt says referring to Garech de Brun, Guinness heir and son of the fourth Lord Oranmore and Browne.
"I'd get there at three o'clock in the morning. It was always open and there were always musicians there. So I walked into music. It was a long time ago."
Hurt was in Dublin to talk-up Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett at the Gate theatre, in which he starred in a one-man virtuoso of a show. In it, Krapp, a wearish old man of 69, reflects on his life and his past, love and death, talking, "those things worth having when all the dust has - when all my dust has settled..." When Hurt said these words in the play, I am actually thinking - but don't refer to it at the lunch - about a memory that must be forever engrained in Hurt's psyche: in 1983 when he and his partner of 14 years, Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot, were horseriding in Oxfordshire when she lost her stirrup and landed on her head. She died.
I asked Hurt are there particular moments in his life that he looks back on when the dust has settled.
"Not that I can describe. Those are bigger than memories," he says. "My dust. Very interesting. They do go through your mind but I think they present and create images in your mind which are ever-changing."
Hurt's father was the Vicar of Shirebrook (in Derbyshire), the Rev Arnould Herbert Hurt, a mathematician who became an Anglican clergyman, Perpetual Curate of Holy Trinity church. Hurt once said in an interview with The Guardian that he wanted to agree with Richard Dawkins's anti-religion tome The God Delusion, but he found Dawkins every bit "as dogmatic as his father had been, only in the other direction".
Hurt told me at that lunch in 2013 that he used to have discussions with him about God as a boy, "until I decided I didn't go for God". he smiled. "And then it made the after supper conversations extremely difficult."
Did you say to your father that as a mathematician he could therefore work out that there couldn't possibly be a God?
"Oh no. I ain't as clever as that!" Hurt laughed, putting on a voice. "In conversation, it did occur to me that there were an awful lot of things for there to be a personal God. And, of course, I lived in a period where to be able to hold that belief was a possibility. But you have to remember if I had lived 200 years previously I couldn't have held that belief because I would have been burnt. It is only as easy as your period of life. I'm quite sure that Galileo would have laid philosophically into the whole idea of ecclesiastical thinking but he knew he couldn't. He'd have been burnt. And he was brilliant. You had to be careful."
Hurt added that his brother, "seven years older than me, became a Catholic".
I said to Hurt that he would have had his head cut off 200 years ago in England for that. "He certainly wouldn't have had the ability to change," Hurt replied. "My father had been brought up to believe that Roman Catholics were anti-Christs. And I was younger than all of them so I'm sitting there listening - none of this made much sense."
Krapp in the play ponders on whether he sang as a boy. Hurt roared with laughter when asked if he ever sang in his father's church as a boy. "Sing? He'd be very pleased I didn't sing," he chuckled. "But I was never in the choir. I was a server, or what I think is called here, an altar boy. But Krapp's Last Tape is riddled with that. This is a deeply religious play. "Thank God, that's all over. I'm well out of that, Jesus yes."
Krapp says thank God that his youth is all over and done with. Do you?
"I can't tell you. Beckett writes big stuff. It is parochial but meaningful. It is the same as The Elephant Man. The Elephant is absolutely parochial. This horribly deformed boy in the East End of London wandering around. But the image of what he is means a vast amount to a vast amount of people."
Michael Colgan, Hurt's friend and artistic director at the Gate, joined our table at this stage. They immediately remembered a dinner in Los Angeles a year earlier. It was a disaster, laughs Hurt setting the scene.
Hurt: "I'll have the gnocchi."
The waiter: "It's off."
Colgan: "I'll have the halibut."
"Hurt: 'I'll have the hake."
The waiter: 'We have the hake but we don't have the halibut."
Hurt: "Two hakes then."
Waiter: 'We've only one."
Colgan: "Can you cut it in half?"
Hurt's headmaster at Christ's Hospital School in Lincoln, Mr Franklin, laughed when Hurt said he wanted to be an actor: "You wouldn't stand a chance in the profession." Yet he is surely one of the greatest actors to have come out of Britain.
It perhaps says all you need to know about Hollywood that Daniel Day-Lewis at the 85th anniversary of the Academy Awards won the Best Actor statue for the third time while John Hurt had yet to win it once. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Midnight Express in 1978, and in 1981 for the lead role of John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
"John Hurt is simply the greatest actor in the world," said David Lynch, who directed him in The Elephant Man.
In a profile by Michael Norman in the New York Times in 1990, a close friend of the actor said: "The thing you must remember most about John is that he found himself at an early age in disagreement with all those deeply conservative religious values of his family and was always kicking against his father's principles, always gripped by his own intrinsic individuality;" adding, as a consequence, that the characters he would embrace in his movies - Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, Winston Smith in 1984, Stephen Ward in Scandal, Caligula in I, Claudius, Kane in Alien - Hurt was something of a misfit of sorts. Be that as it may, Hurt's characters have certainly plumbed the depths of the human condition.
I ask him why he was drawn to the characters he has played.
"How would I know that?" he says, and stops. "I see what you're getting at and I see what you're trying to say too, but it is very difficult to answer."
Asked do we learn anything from who John Hurt is from the roles he plays, he answers: "I think you must, but I couldn't tell you what it is. I really don't know."
What of kind of man are you?
"You're asking me?"
If I tickle you under your arms, would you laugh?
"Oh, I'd laugh. I'm certainly that sort of man, but I'm not at all sure what kind of a man I am. I am absolutely the victim of other people's imagination. I have played the roles that other people have seen me play. Now whether they are the roles that I saw myself play as well I couldn't answer you because I don't know. But they have certainly as other people see. If they see me as a victim, I'll be a victim. If they see me as a hero, I'll be a hero."
John Hurt was a hero.