John Hurt 36

Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK until I was nine years old. Attitudes towards gay people remained extremely hostile in much of society even after it was legalised for people over 21 in 1967. At school, I am sorry to say I shared to a large extent in the sneering and intolerant culture that was prevalent at that time.

In an age where there were just three television channels and nobody watched one of them, a new television play was a major event that could reach a mass audience in the way nothing can today. That is partly why Ken Loach had even more political effect with Cathy Come Home than with I, Daniel Blake. I am convinced that John Hurt’s towering performance in The Naked Civil Servant changed society. It brought the individual confrontations Quentin Crisp had engineered his entire life, and expanded them to confront half of the nation with the existence, and right to dignity, of gay people.

Of course Crisp himself was the hero, but John Hurt took a career threatening risk in taking the part and showed great courage and conviction. Hurt’s ability to manipulate the palette of courage, arch wit, and vulnerability that the role required gave the drama its impact, and propelled it with a shocking force I don’t believe any other actor could have managed.

I am not gay, but in a kind of solidarity I immediately adopted as a boy a number of Quentin Crisp’s mannerisms, including the long fingernails, hair and velvet jacket! I persisted with this for a great many years. A group of us at school adopted similar style, though I don’t recall ever discussing the Crisp influence. In 1978 I was delighted to meet Quentin Crisp, still pushing the boundaries by performing to a Dundee pub.

It was always a joy thereafter to see John Hurt appear in anything. We all have to die, and there is no point in getting maudlin about the death of celebrities. But I thought The Naked Civil Servant effect worth recording.

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36 thoughts on “John Hurt

  • John Spencer-Davis

    I haven’t seen The Naked Civil Servant. But John Hurt has long been my favourite actor (with the possible exception of Alfred Molina, who, notably in this context, brilliantly played Kenneth Halliwell in the superb film about gay playwright Joe Orton’s life and death, Prick Up Your Ears). His performance in Nineteen Eighty-Four opposite Richard Burton was one of the best I have ever seen. Rest in peace.

    • lysias

      Speaking of Burton in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, I recently decided for myself that O’Brien must have been based on Brendan Bracken, so I checked on the Web, and found that others have had the same thought.

      • lysias

        Turns out Bracken was also the model for Big Brother, at least to the extent of having the initials “B.B.” The physical description of Big Brother sounds much more like Stalin.

    • John A

      The Naked Civil Servant was a brilliant play and John Hurt was superb as Crisp.
      I particularly remember when John Hurt has his medical for national service and is rejected because of his very deliberate display of ‘outness’.
      The examiner sneers and says ‘God made man and woman’ and Hurt/Crisp replies ‘And man and woman made me’. Genius.

  • pw

    A good article Craig, but you might have been a bit more exact about the dates of decriminalisation. According to Wikipedia these were:
    1967 (England and Wales)
    1980 (Scotland)
    1982 (Northern Ireland)
    Despite being born in England and proud to have lived in Scotland for well over half my life, I do not find the delay in Scotland on this issue at all surprising.

  • Sharp Ears

    His mellifluous voice was wonderful.

    I liked his portrayal of Stephen Ward, the osteopath, in Scandal, the film version of Honeytrap, about the Profumo affair. He got the upper class outlook at that time completely correct.

    How and why he got involved in the J K Rowling empire’s output, goodness knows.

  • Resident Dissident

    Very sad. I once had the great pleasure of sharing a Guinness or three with John Hurt in an Irish pub in Moscow back in the 1990s. A lovely genuine man with not an ounce of the arrogance or attention seeking often associated with the famous.

  • Michael McNulty

    John Hurt was on the anti-war demo in 2003. I couldn’t make it (no money) so I watched it on the news and they showed John there.

  • Clark

    “Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK until I was nine years old…”

    …and could be again, the way things seem to be going.

  • Republicofscotland

    John Hurt was a fine and versatile actor, I suppose he took a risk on his career, by portraying the outre Quentin Crisp back in the 70’s.

    Then again the Naked Civil Servant, is no more startling than Caligula, another film John Hurt starred in.

    • Shatnersrug

      John hurt was Caligula in I, Claudius – Malcolm Mcdonald was the star of the of the Franco Rossellini Caligula – a film so explicit it caused Sir John Guilgud to remark to McDonald “my dear boy, I belive we’re making a blue movie!”

  • Sharp Ears

    ‘It was Hurt’s extraordinary performance as the defiantly homosexual Quentin Crisp in Thames Television’s 1975 drama The Naked Civil Servant that really put him on the map. Ironic since everyone he knew told him not to do it, that it would wreck his career, typecast him, that it was too controversial. After it was shown the screenwriter Robert Bolt wrote to Hurt saying how after the initial shock of the subject matter it became a story about the tenderness of the individual versus the cruelty of the crowd rather than an essay on homosexuality, which Hurt never believed it was anyway. And yet, the role was to become so indelibly linked with him that Crisp always referred to Hurt as, ‘my representative here on earth.’’

    John Hurt obituary: Remembering a screen icon
    Hurt singlehandedly cornered the market in misfits and outsiders throughout his six-decade career

    Within the article there is an account of the actions of an abusive schoolmaster he encountered at a boarding school to which he was sent aged 8. Poor child. His father was a CoE clergman.

  • RobG

    One of my favourites was the Midnight Express movie.

    With regard to British tv back in the day, ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ was brilliant, as were ‘The History Man’ and much of ‘Play For Today’, and ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’, etc. The same could also be said for Spitting Image, and even the early ‘Eastenders’ soap (remember Arthur’s nervous breakdown after he got layed-off at the paint factory in Thatcher’s Britain?). This sort of stuff would now never be allowed on mainstream tv. In fact the death of the arts is a hallmark of fascism, and it’s been very notable over the last decade or so. In 2017 where are the great writers, artists and musicians that we had in the past?. There’s nothing except corporate pap.

    • Node

      In 2017 where are the great writers, artists and musicians that we had in the past?

      Starving in their garrets.

      Richest Living Writer : J.K.Rowling – 1 Billion USD
      Richest Living Artist : Damien Hirst – 1 Billion USD
      Richest Living Musician : Andrew Lloyd Webber – 1.2 Billion USD

      • RobG

        Whilst I do not question that these are all very talented people, J.K.Rowling was born in 1965, Damien Hirst was also born in 1965, Andrew Lloyd Webber was born sometime during the Meszoic Era.

        When I lived in London during the late 1980s and 1990s I used to follow the ‘Young British Artists’ (YBAs). People like Hirst and Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas and the Chapman brothers. I was a regular at places like the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly (and was there for the ‘Sensation’ exhibition in the late 90s).

        Whether you like this kind of stuff or not, the question is: where are these kind of up and coming young artists in our present age? Likewise with writers and musicians, etc.

        • Node

          Whilst I do not question that these are all very talented people …..

          I do.

          JK Rowling isn’t in the top 100 fantasy writers but for some reason she was a good fit to front a $multibillion global hype-fest.

          Damien Hirst isn’t even an artist.

          Name a decent Andrew Lloyd Webber song.

          • RobG

            Well, you could say that they’re talented at making money!

            But I would still hazard that in their early days Rowling, Hirst and Lloyd Webber were talented people. Once we get onto who is or isn’t an ‘artist’ it’s very tricky ground, because it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

            My own definition of an ‘artist’ is firstly someone who creates totally original work that can be defined as saying ‘something’, and secondly someone who takes what others have done and reinterprets it.

            Back in the day I also went to an exhibition at the Camberwell College of Arts (in south London). The exhibition was quite literally shit, in that all the exhibits were made out of pooh, both human and animal (dried pooh, so it didn’t stink the place out). Now, can this be described as art? I would say so, because it was interesting how each artist took a taboo subject (in most western societies) and presented it in various ways to make the viewer think.

            At the time Hirst & Co were big time in the central London galleries, and were getting all the press, so the pooh in Camberwell got a bit overlooked (even though some quite big names exhibited). Does anyone else remember this exhibition at the Camberwell College of Arts? It must have been sometime in 1997/1998.

          • Node

            I don’t know what art is but I know what it ain’t. If I can do it, it ain’t art. I can pickle fish.

          • RobG

            But I doubt if you could write a half-way decent Spenserian sonnet.

            I suppose it comes down to what has more value: pickling fish, or the huge amount of brain power it takes to write even a half-way decent Spenserian sonnet. Have a go at it if you don’t believe me.

            As dear old Oscar once said, those that know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

          • Node

            I agree, I couldn’t write a decent Spenserian sonnet. That takes talent.
            But it doesn’t take talent to pickle fish. A shark in formaldehyde isn’t art.

        • giyane

          Rob G

          My elder daughter spent 3 years at Camberwell, which I only encountered in the Meszoic era when I was training to be a book binder. While she contemplates the deep and very real shit of her parents’ Thatcher era divorce, she roams alone or in company either in India or California. The values of Thatcherism, me first, although temporarily punctured by the financial crash of 2007 have been totally spiked by her generation. I’m not sure if there’s a market for spiked consumerism, but its melody, its soul, its heartbeat, is very very strong.

        • Shatnersrug

          I remember the poo exhibition Rob! As for writers who dare to challenge – they’re there but they are dying on there arses.

  • nevermind

    Agree with all the comments here.
    Craig will be pleased to hear that his favourite NCFC stopped at 77minutes into the game, against Birmingham, the grand old age John hurt reached, honouring his life with a minutes applause. They proceeded to win 2-0, Gianfranco is not very happy

    • RobG

      I agree that Hurt did a good job of Winston Smith, much better than Richard Burton, but for me the best one was Peter Cushing in a BBC tv adaptation of Orwell’s book in 1954, not many years after it was first published. For anyone interested you can still find it on YouTube…

      Although the production values are obviously very low, once again you will never see anything like this (that overtly challenges authority) on today’s tv screens.

  • Dave Moir

    great article and comments – what a great read before 2 dental crowns. Just allow me to quickly mention the film ‘The Hit’ which is John Hurt in existential magnifence as a hit-man after an ex-pat target (Terrence Stamp) of rather grumpy London gangsters, and the film has as raft of up & coming stars.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Yes, a great actor. I always used to bracket he and Tom Courtenay, for some reason.

    Btw, velvet jackets and long hair was the absolute norm for teenage boys and young men in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Think, say, of Twink (John Alder), the drummer from the Pink Fairies (and The Pretty Things and Tomorrow and who, incidentally, later became Muslim) and millions of others.

    I preferred that look, actually, to the militarised male monochrome look which has become increasingly ubiquitous since the 1980s.

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