Tony Earnshaw: Why Sir John Hurt was a real man of the people

Sir John Hurt was one of Britain's true acting legends.
Sir John Hurt was one of Britain's true acting legends.
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It was easy to like John Hurt.

Forget the 100-plus movies, the TV shows and the live theatre. I’m referring to the man.

For John wasn’t starry, snooty or self-absorbed. In fact that incredible versatility that enabled him to bring a touch of class to anything with which he was associated transferred itself into the real world and a universality that meant he could relate to anyone, anywhere.

Back in the days when Bradford boasted four annual film festivals he was my guest for an on-stage interview in front of a sell-out audience in Pictureville cinema. By that time he’d been in movies for nigh on 50 years; we had much to talk about. It didn’t matter that he’d heard so many of the questions before because he answered every one as if it was the first time. His engagement with an audience of strangers was total. Moreover he spoke with affection of the regions because he was a Derbyshire boy who had never lost touch with his roots.

Getting him to Yorkshire had been remarkably easy. The only element that potentially threw a spanner in the works was his inherent employability: he was always busy. But having given his word that he would travel north from his home in Norfolk he kept the diary free and, after five months, confirmed his attendance.

He was intrigued by a season of films that would accompany his appearance. For me it was a minor headache dictated not so much by what to include but what to leave out. In one lengthy phone call we ran through my proposals. One film he was keen on was The Field, the tale of a taciturn Irish farmer (played by Richard Harris) and his obsession with a piece of land. John had a key character role – he was the fool to Harris’s Lear. It was a supporting part but one that informed the entire piece. Moreover it summed up John’s raison d’être as an actor: there are no small parts.

I jumped over all manner of hurdles to find a print and then clear the rights. I might have resorted to stealing as a last resort.

When I presented my final line-up he was delighted. “Do you think they’ll like it?” he asked. (“They”, of course, referred to festivalgoers – the real people that John related to in everything he did.)

Like it? They loved it. And they loved him. That time on stage with John will stay with me forever. Yes, I can say I shared a stage with one of the elect. And it was pure magic.

The sequel followed a little while later at another film festival in Derby. To conclude I asked John to read the final lines of Orwell’s 1984 which he did, effortlessly. That’s the word: effortless. I’ll miss him. We all will.