John Hurt has said that he had long been reluctant to reprise the part that made him famous - that of gay raconteur Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s 1975 biopic The Naked Civil Servant - that he preferred “to let sleeping dogs lie”. The dogs in this case were presumably those who might bark about cherished memories of such an iconic television drama being sullied by a potentially inferior sequel. To some it must have been seemed as if John Cleese had suddenly announced that he was going to write a new series of Fawlty Towers. Tantalising but horrifying at the same time.
In the end it was the quality of the writing in last year’s eventual ITV follow-up, An Englishman in New York, that persuaded Hurt to once again don Crisp’s trademark silk scarves and theatrically precise diction, and that judgement seems to have been justified when it was announced yesterday that the actor has been nominated for a Bafta award 34 years after winning one in the same role.
Hurt slipped back in the guise of Crisp - in the later film a septuagenarian celebrity in 80s and 90s Manhatten, where he is initially happy but increasingly alienated from the politicised gay culture in his adopted home (fatally for his one-man speaking career, he described Aids as “a fad”) - and wondrously the part still fitted Hurt like a glove, or the limp black fedora that Crisp habitually wore over his bouffant hairdo.
It would be tempting to write that the twin Bafta accolades have bookended Hurt’s career, except that, aged 70 and making three or four films a year, his career is by no means ready for such symmetrical closure. And if Crisp was the self-styled (later self-exiled) “stately homo of England”, Hurt himself, with his haggard, deeply lined faced and mellifluously rasping diction, has become something of a national living treasure.
A vicar’s son from Derbyshire, he lost God but discovered acting while, as a pretty boy at prep school in Kent, being cast in a variety of female roles - preparation in depth for the determinedly effeminate Crisp. Hurt trained originally as a painter, winning a scholarship to St Martin’s College in London, before changing disciplines and moving to Rada. Largely eschewing the stage for film and television, his first prominent role was in A Man For All Seasons in 1966, while in 10 Rillington Place (1971), he was harrowing as the weak, wife-beating fantasist Timothy Evans, who took the drop for Richard Attenborough’s manipulative psychopath John Christie. But it was as Crisp - a role that, such were the attitudes of the time, he was advised to turn down - that Hurt became a household name.
Crisp once said, “I told Mr Hurt it was difficult for actors to play victims, but he has specialised in victims. When he stopped playing me, he played Caligula (in the 1976 BBC adaptation of I, Claudius),
which was only me in a sheet. Then he played The Elephant Man, which was only me with a bag over my head.” Beneath the wisecracks , Crisp did have a good point, and Hurt’s gallery of victims also include Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the society osteopath fall guy, Stephen Ward, in the 1989 film about the Profumo Affair, Scandal, as well as Kane, the spaceship officer in Alien who had the monster burst through his chest.
His hugely moving, Oscar-nominated performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man – Hurt’s second unsuccessful brush with an Academy Award after stealing the Turkish prison drama Midnight Express as a drug-addicted lifer - marked the high point of any sort of conventional star trajectory. His subsequent choice of projects has revealed a taste for varied a largely non-mainstream fare, few other actors of his calibre can have had such a diverse career, mixing leading and supporting roles with some excellent voiceover work on animated films like Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings – work that showcased his expressive vocal qualities.
His best performance in more recent years - and Hurt’s own favourite - was Giles De’Ath in the 1997 adaptation of Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death On Long Island, in which he played an ageing gay author humiliatingly obsessed with a young man. Hurt says that people often assume that he himself is gay, despite the evidence of four marriages (his current wife is film producer Anwen Rees-Myers). However his defining performance will almost certainly be as a gay man.
Hurt and Crisp remained in touch until the latter’s death in 1999, in the unlikely suburban setting of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester, the ninety-year-old raconteur having been preparing for a nationwide tour of his one-man show. Actor and subject enjoyed an extraordinary symbiotic past, both men having found celebrity with The Naked Civil Servant. ITV’s Englishman in New York (the title taken from the song that Sting dedicated to Crisp) got rather lost amidst the Christmas TV schedules, which is a pity. Intelligent in what it says about the evolution in gay life and culture, poignant about growing old alone and (Crisp being Crisp) very funny, it deserves a swift repeat - whether or not Hurt next month beats off Kenneth Branagh (Wallander), Brendon Gleeson (Winston Churchill in Into the Storm) and David Oyelowo in Small Island to the Bafta. And if he does it, let’s hope that the award is given for more than mere sentiment alone.