A British Icon: John Hurt

This January marks the one year anniversary of the death of John Hurt, one of finest British actors ever to grace our screens. To celebrate his life and work, the BFI Southbank has programmed a season of his finest film and television outings, spanning much of the 55 years that his career covered. What’s immediately striking is the breadth: science-fiction, period drama, fantasy, political thrillers and so on. Then you begin to realise just how many iconic performances he’s given.

Where to begin? Well, if you’ve never seen it – particularly on the big screen – the season includes Ridley Scott’s Alien (the director’s cut). One of the great sci-fi horrors of all time, this tale of a crew of a starfreighter sent to investigate a mysterious transmission in deep space is an expert lesson in how to engineer tension. Hurt’s role as the executive officer Kane features ones of the most iconic scenes in film history.

Also featured are films that won Hurt the two Oscar nominations of his career, Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978) and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). The latter – with Hurt under layers of prosthetics – saw him transform into the real-life Joseph Merrick, a deformed gentleman in Victorian England rescued from a freak show by Anthony Hopkins’ kindly surgeon. Shot in beautiful black-and-white, it’s Hurt’s dignified performance that resonates.

In Midnight Express, another true story adapted this time by Oliver Stone for the screen, it’s tells of the horrifying experiences endured by Billy Hayes, a young American student imprisoned in a Turkish jail for drug smuggling. Starring opposite Brad Davis (who plays Hayes), Hurt offers a deeply touching turn as Max, the fellow prisoner and heroin addict who dreams of escape from this hellish, brutal environment.

Beyond this, he gave a stirring performance as Winston Smith, the worker who tries to rebel against the totalitarian state of Big Brother in the adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). And with the recent passing of Christine Keeler, it seems like an opportune moment to revisit Scandal (1988), the story of the Profumo affair that almost toppled the Conservative government in the 1960s (Hurt plays “fixer” Stephen Ward).

Of his television work, Hurt’s BAFTA-winning turn in The Naked Civil Servant (1975) is undeniably essential viewing. A role that Hurt would always mention as highly significant, he plays Quentin Crisp, the flamboyant actor and raconteur who refused to hide his homosexuality when it was still criminalised in the United Kingdom. It remains one of the signature performances of a superlative career.

James Mottram

The John Hurt Season runs at the BFI Southbank from 1 January to 30 January. For more details, visit: www.whatson.bfi.org.uk

1. Still of John Hurt in Nineteen Eighty Four.