The Rake's Progress

Politician, diarist and philanderer - Alan Clark was Britain's favourite roué. Four years after his death, his life and crimes are coming to the small screen. John Hurt talks to James Rampton about playing an unlikely national hero

He was fascinated by Hitler and championed by the National Front. He conducted an adulterous affair with a married mother and her two daughters - and added insult to injury by nicknaming the trio "The Coven". He idly wondered whether he'd get the sack for pissing out of the window of his minister's office and "spattering the ant-like minions below". He spoke casually of black people as being from "Bongo-Bongo Land". And he liked nothing better than to unwind in the company of Sid the Sexist and the Fat Slags, in the pages of his favourite comic, Viz. Truly, Alan Clark was the man that PC forgot.

And yet, remarkable to relate, four years after his death, the aristocratic Tory MP is still held in the warmest affection. He never reached Cabinet rank - he toiled away in the second division as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Employment, Minister of Trade and Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence - but the unreformed roué is remembered far more fondly than more influential politicians.

His enduring popularity is, of course, down to his one shining bequest to the nation: a collection of the most breathtakingly frank diaries, which add up to an unequalled portrait of a life in politics in late-20th-century Britain. Alternately snobbish, lewd, shocking, hilarious and revealing, the diaries' three volumes have been hailed from all sides as the work of a latter-day Samuel Pepys. Certainly, they provide a far greater monument to his memory than any long-forgotten parliamentary bill about equal opportunities or weapons procurement.

The diaries - the first volume of which was published in 1993 - turned their author into what he called an "FP", or Famous Person. Even today, it is possible to detect among certain sections of the British public something approaching a Cult Of Clark. And it's a mythic status will surely be enhanced by the enthralling new BBC dramatisation of The Alan Clark Diaries, which star John Hurt as the incorrigible old rogue. f

Hurt is impeccably well cast in the title role. He captures precisely Clark's air of effortless patrician disdain - the firm belief that it is beneath him to tackle his own personal EU mountain of ministerial paperwork. The actor also nails the politician's addiction to the art of flirting. As he wanders along the beach at Hythe, reminiscing about "the golden summer of 1955 when I was running Anne, Mary and Liz, all of them living within half a mile of each other", he can't help smiling wolfishly at a passing blonde. After that tonic, he returns to work "rested and randy".

The actor shares with Clark a raw charisma and a craggy allure - his face is a creased, magnetic amalgam of late-vintage Samuel Beckett and WH Auden. Hurt, like Clark, is a man who has lived a full life and earned his wrinkles. Sitting in the elegant top-floor bar of a swanky hotel, he admires the panoramic view of central London. Dressed in a dark green corduroy suit and black shirt teamed with a rather natty pair of brown boots, the actor initially appears a little withdrawn. When I ask him early on about similarities between himself and Clark, he tries to fob me off with a jokey dismissal: "What do you want? An interview?"

But once he warms up, Hurt grins and admits that "there must be similarities between Clark and me. I didn't find it difficult to get into his space." The actor goes on to reveal himself as a passionate, articulate man, eager to engage with Big Themes. Nearly half a century in the business has imbued him with a wit and wisdom that is painfully absent in many more lightweight actors.

We start by sinking our teeth into that favourite dinner-party topic, the life and crimes of Alan Clark. Here was a politician who was racist, sexist and every other kind of -ist you could possibly find in the politically correct dictionary, but still people adore him. So just what is it that makes this unreconstructed rake so attractive?

Hurt is in no doubt about the answer: it is the dauntless frankness of the man. "He's fascinating because he had a lot of guts," he muses. "He dared to say what he felt and he lived by that code. One of the reasons why he never made the Cabinet was because he was too much of a loose cannon and his colleagues never knew which way he was going to fire - it may well have been at them. English people usually talk in code, but Clark never did. He always spoke his mind."

The actor says that friends of his urged him to grab the role. "When they heard about it, everyone's reaction was 'terrific'. If you mention Alan Clark to people from any walk of life, they're always completely intrigued. He's obviously a politician who really caught the public imagination because he wrote about himself so honestly. In comparison to most people, he lived such a colourful life and he made no excuses about it. He was constantly in hot water - but he was never bland.

"His reply to puritanical critics [of his prolific romantic adventures] was always, 'Yes? It was an affair - I wasn't killing anyone. What's all the fuss about? What's wrong with you?' When people have that thrown back at them, they do begin to wonder what all the uproar was about."

Of course, the other trait that draws people to Clark is his wicked sense of mischief. Hurt realised that was one of the politician's hallmarks during his first conversation with Clark's widow, Jane (who acted as a consultant on the series, and is played by Jenny Agutter). "I said to her, 'I know this sounds a bit journalistic,' " - at this point the actor flashes me a cheeky look and interjects, "Do forgive me" - " 'but what was the quality that you most relished in Alan?' Without hesitation, she replied, 'He was such fun.'

"From the diaries, it's clear that he wasn't always fun, however. He was prone to depression and got angry about things, but still he always made Jane laugh. That's a great sign of love. She just adored him and thought that life was much more dreary without him."

Hurt is quick to add that Jane, Clark's wife of 41 years, is very far from a doormat. "She's no mousy chickette," he observes. "She has a certain sophistication, and his misbehaviour drove her mad because it was in the public eye."

When he was still alive, she commented that Alan "is a S.H.1.T. I could quite cheerfully kill him, but I throw things instead. I did actually throw an axe at him once. He's impossible, absolutely dreadful half the time, you do want to throttle him. But I still love him."

The actor takes up the theme. "She even left him once, but she says, 'I came back because life was so boring without him.' Alan was very good at exciting people's lives." Hurt pays tribute too to Jane's amazing fortitude. "Whatever Alan did, she just took it on board," the actor marvels. "At the height of the 'Coven' affair [when Clark was revealed not only to have had sexual relations with the wife of a South African judge, but also with the couple's two daughters], Jane was even prepared to smuggle him home in the boot of the car to avoid the waiting journalists. You wouldn't expect a wife to do that." I'll say.

It certainly can't have been easy handling a husband with such an overheated sex drive, even when he wasn't lusting after his boss. "By God, she is so beautiful," he wrote of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. "Made up to the nines, of course, but still bewitching as Eva Peron must have been, I could not take my eyes off her. I radiated protective feelings - and indeed feelings of another kind. She has wonderful small feet and attractive, not bony ankles."

Clark himself was always splendidly blasé about his extra-marital activity. "I don' t see anything scandalous about it," he used to drawl insouciantly. "What's wrong with two human beings of the opposite sex feeling attracted to each other?" Hurt's explanation is that "he was a pretty highly sexed fellow - it's as simple as that. He loved the company of women but, as Jane says, 'It was rather Greek. His career was brought to an end by women. He'd like that nice Greek twist.' "

Despite everything, Hurt thinks that Clark may have been doing us all a service with the shamelessness of his philandering. "We're terribly puritanical in this country," he muses. "We can be so prudish, but these affairs are going on covertly all the time. That sort of behaviour would have to come under the category of hypocrisy. Clark exposed that. As he put it, 'What would you rather have? Someone with red blood? Or a silly old buffer?' "

Jane cooperated with the production to the extent of lending the film-makers her and Clark's marital home, the stunning Saltwood Castle in Kent, as a key location. She also helped out the production by loaning them her husband's sit-down mower, clothes, tea set and, most impressively, his 1910 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.

All the same, Jane herself concedes that the whole idea of a dramatised version of her husband's diaries was initially intimidating - but she was swayed by the casting suggestion for the lead role. "It was brilliant when they said John Hurt," she has said. "They brought him down to meet me, and I thought he was absolutely fine. When he smiles, he's just got that wonderful mischievous look. He smiles with his eyes as well. I thought, Yes, he'll see the point of Al.' "

A youthful 63, Hurt, the Chesterfield-born son of a clergyman, can look back with pride on a career that spans more than a hundred movies and is studded with triumphs - including 10 Rillington Place, The Naked Civil Servant, I Claudius, Midnight Express, Alien, The Elephant Man, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Hit, Scandal, Love and Death on Long Island, and Krapp's Last Tape. And yet he has no thought of retiring to polish his awards yet.

"Actors don't retire - except by force," he laughs. "That definitely hasn't crossed my mind. The one real joy of being an actor is that when everyone else gets to retirement age, that's it; but we move with the age we are. When you're 20, that's fine for playing 20. And when you're 90, that's fine for playing 90. There'll always be 90-year-olds - although quite a few of them have dropped out of the tree."

Hitting his rhetorical stride now, Hurt concludes that, "Some people are content with what they've done, but I think there's always more to be done. Heaven knows what it'll be - I find that immensely exciting. The most important thing for humanity is not to lose your sense of enchantment with the race of which you're part. I do everything I can to foster that. At one's bleakest, one worries about losing that.

"But the more you're aware of it, the more you cling on to what Nabokov called 'this brief crack of light before entering the second dark eternity'. While you're here, you've got to keep the lights on."

And as Hurt speaks, the thought occurs that these are sentiments of which Clark himself would have been proud. Somewhere, you imagine, the nation's favourite bounder must be smiling and twinkling and nodding his head in agreement. E

'The Alan Clark Diaries' goes out on BBC4 next month and on BBC2 later in the spring.

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