How We Met: John Hurt & Hugh Millais


John Hurt, 67, is an actor twice nominated for an Oscar, who has won a slough of Baftas. He is best remembered for his portrayal of John Merrick in David Lynch's The Elephant Man and for having a creature burst out of his chest in Ridley Scott's 1979 horror flick Alien. He lives in Bloomsbury, London, and is married with two sons

I don't remember exactly the first time I met Hugh but it must have been about 20 years ago when we were both living in London. I think it was over dinner, and we spoke about Ireland; it was something we had in common. He'd lived in Blackwater Valley and Cork in his youth, so he had stories from down there, while I had stories from the west of Ireland, where I spent a lot of time in the 1960s it was an era when you could really escape, when mobile phones didn't exist.

Hugh and his wife Anne then got very involved in working on the house I had in Ireland it needed things doing to it and we worked closely together. I look up to Hugh because I started as a painter, and obviously Hugh's family history is fairly hefty; his great-grandfather [John Everett Millais] has taken over Tate Britain [where a retrospective is showing until January]. And his dad isn't bad either: [Raoul Millais] was a painter-illustrator of some considerable importance. Hugh is the only one, to my relief, who couldn't paint at all. Amusingly, when one of his dad's friends was 96, he asked Hugh what he did and his response was that he didn't know.

Hugh is known for his fabulous parties; he was always wonderful for singing in a West Indian style; I guess it came from his many travels. He once told me a story about a boat he owned, which he sailed all round the Caribbean. The story went that three Venezuelan medical officers during the revolution stole his boat and sailed away with it, but later crashed. All he had left was the tiller, which had fallen off.

We see each other a lot now; I go to Oxfordshire to see him frequently, and stay at their place, in Kirtlington, where he has stables. I am genuinely impressed by Hugh. I have the hardback of his cook-book [Hugh's Who: The Name-Dropper's Cookbook], which I think is well considered. I like the goose recipe. It's incredibly rich but it's not nouvelle cuisine.

Hugh Millais, 78, is the great-grandson of the painter John Everett Millais. He has been variously a yachtsman, movie actor, club entertainer, design consultant and Pamplona bull-runner. He turned to cooking after settling in the Oxfordshire countryside, where he lives with his wife. He has three children

We met in the 1980s. I think it was in Ebury Terrace, a house of a mutual friend of ours, Hermione Owen, in London. Shortly afterwards, John came to dinner in our tiny dining room at our house in Kensington. We chatted away for a long time and talked a lot about food: it's mainly what I talk about. I was about to have my 60th birthday which puts it at 18 years ago. It was a time when Anne and I had just made our current house out of an 18th-century ruin in Kirtlington, Oxfordshire.

I thought I'd met God when I met John, because I'd made 15 films and finally met a real actor. I didn't think Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, who I'd worked with [on the 1971 film McCabe and Mrs Miller], were proper actors. I saw John first in the The Naked Civil Servant way back in 1975. I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if I knew him one day."

Shortly after that first dinner, I had a meal in Oxfordshire to celebrate my birthday and invited John. At this he asked, "How did you like Ireland?" and I said I had lived there for a large part of my life. He then asked my wife to design a house for him there; I was her business partner.

We jumped at the chance to work on the house. But I'm not the design talent in the family; Anne is. As a client, John was unbelievably good to work with. He always knows in a sense what he wants, though the job was a structural challenge. We had to remake the whole building, including the stairwell across three floors. The original building was an 18th-century farmhouse. At that time, John had two fantastic dogs, retrievers, Rack and Ruin, and we did quite a lot of cooking for them.

We soon realised that we had a lot in common, especially cooking. And so we did all sorts of things together. John makes the best soda bread in the world. We would also talk about how Ireland for 500 years was the poorest country in Europe. And when you've spent 500 years begging, you're an expert. When the EU turned up with finance in the 1990s, it became the richest country in Europe. It was inundated with vast money.

I've seen John ever since, between films, but never once in the film business. He's an enormous talent though I don't know what my favourite of his films is. I loved The Elephant Man and Captain Correlli's Mandolin. Actually, we don't talk about films, because it's not a huge interest in my life; we talk about the things fellas talk about: girls and food.

'Hugh's Who: The Name-Dropper's Cookbook' by Hugh Millais is available in paperback, priced 30. You can purchase it at www.lulu.com/content/1370281

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