John Hurt Talking Pictures


John Hurt

A look back at the life and work of Sir John Hurt - one of Britain's acting greats, who died last month aged 77 after a career that spanned six decades and took in over 100 films.


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Transcript


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John Hurt once said that acting was just

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"a sophisticated game of cowboys and Indians."

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If that's the case,

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it was a game at which he excelled.

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In a career that spanned six decades and over 100 films,

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he brought life and humanity to some of the most remarkable

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characters ever captured on the big and small screen.

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My name is John.

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I'm very, very pleased to meet you.

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He was never a heart-throb,

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but the camera loved him.

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Especially as those features grew increasingly craggy with age.

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And he was blessed with a voice

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that audiences couldn't help but respond to,

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whether it was dealing with fact...

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It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure,

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so don't die of ignorance.

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Or whether the words were wrapped around fantasy.

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None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin.

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And none of us can escape it.

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I like hearing your voice.

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What a great tool to have.

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Have you cultured that, or is that just the way it has always come out?

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It's a family voice, really.

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I mean, my voice is the same as my brother, who's a monk,

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and my father, who was a clergyman.

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But then it's all same business, different department, really.

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Selling something, in a different way, yeah!

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John often said that growing up in a vicarage surrounded by religion

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always made him feel slightly separate from others.

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He knew he wanted to be an actor

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after a school performance at the age of nine,

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but waited several years before telling his parents.

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That was when I was 13 and they said...

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They sort of said, "No, no, no -

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"you can't possibly do that,"

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and so on. "You're much too young,

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"you've got to have an education" and so on. And of course,

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to my parents, though they loved the theatre,

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they couldn't for the life of them begin to understand what...

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That one of theirs would actually be IN it,

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be the people that you go and watch.

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John's reputation would evolve over the years.

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For a while, he was known as a hard-drinking hell-raiser,

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four marriages hinting at a tempestuous private life.

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But then he was also, always,

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the warm, thoughtful figure

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captured in numerous television interviews

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who seemed to gravitate towards playing troubled outsiders

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and figures from society's fringes.

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I've always been interested in the misunderstood.

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It's the fact that my father was a clergyman

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and I was attached to the vicarage

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and...for that reason,

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you're already set slightly apart from a society

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because there is something because of the nature of religion...

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It is something which people are superstitious about.

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And they think, "Ooh, better not say THAT."

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John first gained widespread attention in 1966

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playing the villainous Richard Rich

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in A Man For All Seasons.

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In 1971, he earned a BAFTA nomination playing Timothy Evans,

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the man wrongly hanged

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in 10 Rillington Place.

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But the part that really made John a star

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was that of the gay icon and raconteur Quentin Crisp

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in the ground-breaking TV drama

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The Naked Civil Servant.

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-Mr Crisp...

-Stand up.

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Have you any other witnesses to character?

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About ten, I think.

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I'm tired of this recital of your praises.

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There is insufficient evidence to convict.

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'It was extremely risque at the time, it was, er...'

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a contentious piece, and many people

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advised me not to do it,

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on the grounds that playing

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a homosexual was going to...

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..end my career, basically.

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And it was my opinion that it was...

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Although it was... He was, although Quentin Crisp

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was an effeminate homosexual, of which his life was a crusade,

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but in a sense, that's not

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what it was about - it was about all the things that went with it.

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It was about the... It was... Robert Bolt put it

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in a letter to me afterwards and said,

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"This is about the tenderness of the individual

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"as opposed to the cruelty of the crowd."

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And that is indeed what it was about.

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I just knew that it was a superb script.

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I did, I really... I thought it was wonderful

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and it did everything that I love in drama.

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It made you laugh, it made you cry, it made you think.

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It was a magical piece.

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It was watched from people, you know, from 16 to 80

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and changed people's minds

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about their own personal bigotry and so on.

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I mean, it really did have a colossal effect.

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The world is full of aborigines who don't even realise

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that homosexuality exists.

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I shall go about the routine of daily living

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making this particular fact abundantly clear to them.

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Do you go to these extremes to test yourself,

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to prove that you're a clever actor?

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Oh, no - I'm not a clever actor!

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All I try to do is to get as near as I can to the truth of

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the character that I've been asked to play,

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that I've been kindly invited to play.

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Did you make any preparation with Quentin Crisp before

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-you played this part?

-I did a certain amount of preparation.

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I remember I asked him to Sunday lunch a couple of times.

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I remember also distinctly asking him if he would like a drink

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and he said he would like a Guinness and after he'd had a Guinness,

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I said, "Would you like another?" and he said, "Yes".

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So I gave him another and then later in the afternoon, I said,

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"Would you like another?",

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and he said "No, any more would be a debauch."

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LAUGHTER

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The sort of extent I knew him to, to that extent.

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Do you immediately pick up the way of speaking?

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Cos you're doing it now. Did you immediately pick up his pattern?

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In actual fact... Yes, it's a pattern that I use,

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I didn't really imitate it,

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because actually it's inimitable

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and also, it would take forever.

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But I notice in the film, that you or he, or both of you,

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or in the concealment that lights the art, that you stop before you

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actually give any answer to a question, almost.

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-Did I?

-Yeah.

-Ahh...

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-Or HE does.

-Well, maybe it WAS clever acting!

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LAUGHTER

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It certainly felt that way.

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But there was more clever acting

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to come in 1978, in Alan Parker's

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Midnight Express, based on

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the true life story of Billy Hayes.

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John played Max,

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a heroin addict enduring a cruel prison regime in Turkey.

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Best thing to do is to get your arse out of here.

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Best way you can.

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Yeah, but how?

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Catch the Midnight Express.

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What's that?

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It's not a train!

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It's a prison word for...

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..escape.

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HE GIGGLES

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It doesn't stop around here.

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That performance brought John international acclaim -

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a BAFTA, a Golden Globe

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and his first Oscar nomination.

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Certainly for a British actor, it is...

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to be nominated is the most important thing - to win the Oscar

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would certainly be sugar on the cake, but...

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It is very useful, because...

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it does give you a standing in America.

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When you're doing a part,

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I was reading that you don't do much research,

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you work very much to the script, what the script presents to you.

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-Is that right?

-That's right, yes.

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So you've really got to then have a marvellous script

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that really gives you the feeling,

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because I believe one thing Billy Hayes said, it was so amazing when

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he saw you as Max, you were so like the real Max in that Turkish prison.

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I believe they thought they'd got the real Max back at one stage

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-when he first saw it.

-You did that just simply from the script?

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Yes, it's not entirely my invention, but between the team - the make-up

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and costume and everybody, and Alan, and ideas thrown in,

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it's...what we invented.

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The success of Midnight Express came when John was going through

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one of his drinking phases,

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which were notorious, even though

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he said they were "largely exaggerated".

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"Your love life and your drinking" - what does that mean?

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I mean, er... It's...

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Come on, you yourself said,

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"I was drinking five bottles of wine a day."

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Oh, yes, I was provoked into saying something,

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somebody made me say something which I just...

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It's amazing how somebody sees one little snippet

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in a newspaper and then...

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hangs onto that for the rest...

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For year after year after year

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until it becomes decades!

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And, and...

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But did you spend a large part...

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One little remark that I probably made because it was rather provoked,

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in a sense, somebody was being holier-than-thou or something,

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and I made some flippant remark...

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-So you weren't half-cut a lot of the time?

-Hmm?

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-You weren't half-cut...?

-No! Even if I was,

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you wouldn't have known it.

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-You know?

-But you stopped drinking...

-I'm cleverer than THAT!

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You've stopped drinking now, though?

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And that was during Midnight Express,

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which I was nominated for and got a British Academy Award for,

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plus several others, so I mean, it's...

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And it is true, it's a fact that I did use alcohol on that film.

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But whether it was five bottles,

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I think that's probably going over the top!

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But you recognise this image of yourself as having a turbulent past?

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Well...

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Or not?

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Well, yes, I suppose, um...

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Yes, it was a turbulent time I lived in, really.

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'60s.

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You know? O'Toole, Harris.

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A lot of those people, you know?

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They were people that I looked up to immensely, O'Toole, particularly.

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I was watching him on TV from...

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When I was sort of sitting up in Grimsby, you know,

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wondering how I was going to manage to do what I wanted to do.

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So I suppose so, yes.

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But I just think that too much is made of it, in a sense,

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but it's made into, like, a way of life...

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That, um...

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As though this is the way you live every single day of your life -

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well, I mean, it would be impossible to go through my CV

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if I lived that way.

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You know? I've made over 80 films!

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-Not to mention the theatre, not to mention the television.

-OK.

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So I mean, it's unlikely that that would be...

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that would be my daily routine.

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I suppose it's really rather like being at school,

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when I was at school. If I was out of bounds, I was caught.

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If I do anything wrong, I seem to get caught.

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You ask me, am I a victim? Perhaps I am!

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Perhaps it comes from way back, you know?

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John was definitely the victim in one of his next roles.

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But it didn't come from way back -

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more burst out from the front -

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and made him the first person to suffer a gruesome death

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in the hugely successful Alien franchise.

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Was the working process, the experience of making the film

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-a pleasurable one?

-Ooh, science fiction is always a tricky one,

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to say... Of all the genres,

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I would say that science fiction was the trickiest.

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The least enjoyable, really.

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There's so much waiting, and also, with Ridley, at that time,

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particularly.

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And Ridley was terrified of actors, so the minute you asked him

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a question, he'd go and hide behind the camera, you know? It was...

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It was his first major film.

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He'd done The Duellists before, that's all.

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But, er...it was endless.

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You'd be in full stuff - full make-up,

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and full costume and you'd get down and work out a huge track and so on.

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You'd then... There'd be a little hustle of conversation

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they'd decide to change the whole thing,

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so you'd all go upstairs and come back

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and we did, I mean, three, four days in full costume, make-up,

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without doing anything at all, you know?

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You can't say that that's particularly enjoyable.

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But what an incredible film.

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But when you were DOING it, it was great. Yeah. Terrific film, I agree.

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It was a completely different sort of gruesome

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that John explored in another Oscar-nominated role -

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that of John Merrick,

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in David Lynch's 1980 film

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The Elephant Man.

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His unforgettably moving performance

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revealed to audiences not a monster,

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but a man, complex and suffering.

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Somehow, he achieved this

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whilst working under layers of restrictive make-up

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and without initially a clear idea of his character's voice.

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I had not the slightest idea

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what it was going to sound like.

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And I didn't have any idea until I was fitted with gums and...

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HE TRIES TO ARTICULATE SOME WORDS

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All the things that add to your imagination.

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This is John Merrick.

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Hello.

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My name's John Merrick, I'm very pleased to meet you.

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I'm very pleased to meet you.

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How are you feeling today?

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II feel much better.

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Are you comfortable here?

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Everyone's been very kind.

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'I wanted to play what he dreamt of being.

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'So, in other words, that's why I chose a rather middle-class voice.

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'Because that's what he dreamt of.

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'He wanted to be part of society, he wanted to be accepted,

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'and I wanted to play that area of him that was like that.'

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The weight of that thing, presumably,

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was quite astonishing, the weight of the...

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Well, the weight was astonishing, insofar as it was very light.

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-Ah.

-It is like, it is like touching solid air.

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And that was one of the great difficulties of it,

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because it has to be so accurate when you're putting it on.

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There you are now, in full gear there.

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Were you affected by it?

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-Affected by it?

-Yeah.

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Well, yes, in a sense, because it takes seven hours to put on.

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So, in other words, you've done a day's work, really...

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What time did you have to be there?

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Well, we started about five o'clock in the morning and finished

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at noon, and then we'd shoot from noon through till 10:30 at night.

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And, er...

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So... During that period of make-up, though...

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was probably the best period of time any actor ever had to prepare...

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-Because you could think about...

-Well, you could think about it...

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-And you could think about John Merrick, yes.

-Could you eat?

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No... You could eat, but 9:00 in the morning was my last meal,

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which was orange juice mixed with two raw eggs through a straw.

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AUDIENCE MURMURS

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Could you hear?

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I could hear, yes. I did manage actually...

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You won't like this at all. But I did manage a way to smoke.

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LAUGHTER

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With a very long holder.

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-No, no, I managed a way of getting the teeth out.

-Ha-ha!

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I did that surreptitiously in the dressing room,

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-without anybody knowing.

-Right, right.

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Throughout this chapter of his life,

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John's partner was Marie-Lise Volpeliere-Pierrot,

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a former model. They had been together since 1967

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and after 16 years, were planning to marry.

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But whilst out riding together,

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as part of John's preparations for the 1984 movie Champions,

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Marie-Lise was thrown from her horse

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and died later the same day.

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Despite the tragedy,

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John fought through his grief and completed the film.

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His determination echoed the main theme of Champions,

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which told the story of Bob Champion, the jockey, who famously

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fought his way back from cancer to win the 1981 Grand National,

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and Aldaniti, the winning horse that had been written off

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after a career-threatening injury.

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You had a great personal tragedy yourself,

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just before you started the film, didn't you?

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When Marie-Lise was killed.

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Did that in any way deter you at all from making the film?

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Or did it in a curious way, did it help to have suffered,

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as you must have done?

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I think the second is probably nearer, it made the determination

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stronger, partly because I know that that she would have been...

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deeply upset if I'd turned it down. If you can... You know...

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Difficult to say that about someone who has died, you know, but...

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In your head you can't help thinking that way.

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At least, I can't help thinking that way. And, erm...

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It just made me the more determined, I think.

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What is...I would have thought was difficult about the film,

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in some ways, is that everybody knows the outcome.

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Yes, I mean, I could be difficult and say

0:18:160:18:20

they know the end of Hamlet as well.

0:18:200:18:22

Admittedly, it doesn't have the same track to go through to get there.

0:18:220:18:26

But it certainly...

0:18:260:18:28

It is a film with immense problems, I mean,

0:18:280:18:30

we're dealing with cancer, we're dealing with horse racing,

0:18:300:18:33

we're dealing with an end that you know.

0:18:330:18:36

And perhaps it's a great arrogance to take on all three at once.

0:18:360:18:40

Here at Aintree racecourse,

0:18:400:18:42

a few days after the real Grand National,

0:18:420:18:44

director John Irvin's task is to recreate the atmosphere

0:18:440:18:47

and excitement of one of the most famous sporting events in the world.

0:18:470:18:51

Racehorses and jockeys and a cast of 1,000 are mixed together

0:18:510:18:54

to make it look authentic.

0:18:540:18:56

As for John Hurt, well, while he doesn't haven't actually

0:18:560:18:59

have to jump Becher's Brook, he does have to look convincing.

0:18:590:19:02

I've never ridden as a jockey, which is totally different,

0:19:020:19:05

you disobey all the rules,

0:19:050:19:07

which kind of pleases my sense of rebellion, in a certain sense.

0:19:070:19:10

You can do everything that the Pony Club tell you

0:19:100:19:12

you shouldn't, if you see what I mean.

0:19:120:19:13

-Keep the horse as close to the rail as you can.

-Yeah.

0:19:130:19:16

Otherwise it becomes difficult

0:19:160:19:18

to get you, the horse and the winning post in on this camera.

0:19:180:19:21

-Right.

-So, as tight as you can to the rail.

-Yeah.

0:19:210:19:24

One of the things that chemotherapy, which is the...

0:19:240:19:28

the therapy that Bob underwent,

0:19:280:19:30

one of the things it does is that it gives you alopecia.

0:19:300:19:33

So in order to be able to do that, because, of course,

0:19:330:19:35

films are not all shot in sequence,

0:19:350:19:37

in order to be able to do that, then we...

0:19:370:19:40

I'm bald underneath everything, really.

0:19:400:19:43

We also have a marvellous wigmaker, who makes me look

0:19:430:19:46

infinitely more attractive with a wig on than I do with my own hair.

0:19:460:19:49

So I'm quite pleased about that too.

0:19:490:19:51

Surprisingly, it was Aldaniti himself

0:19:530:19:56

that John was riding in the film.

0:19:560:19:58

Actually, I've been up on him first time today,

0:20:020:20:05

and he is a magnificent animal, no getting away from that, fantastic.

0:20:050:20:08

Fantastic ride.

0:20:080:20:10

But I'm not sure that I'd like to be doing the whole race with him,

0:20:100:20:13

because I think I might finish up in Blackpool, frankly.

0:20:130:20:16

Another two lengths and a little more separation between them.

0:20:160:20:20

You mustn't mistake fact for truth. That's basically the thing.

0:20:200:20:24

You have to make the piece work as if it were a piece of fiction.

0:20:240:20:29

It has to work in its own right, in other words, you can't just keep

0:20:290:20:32

saying to the audience, "You've got to believe this

0:20:320:20:34

"because it happens to be true."

0:20:340:20:36

It may be factual, but you have to find the truth, anyway,

0:20:360:20:38

as you would do even if it were fiction.

0:20:380:20:41

CHEERING

0:20:430:20:45

It's an unusual film.

0:20:460:20:48

People say, "Well, you're making this cancer movie."

0:20:480:20:51

It isn't a cancer movie.

0:20:510:20:52

And other people say, "You're making this racing movie."

0:20:520:20:54

It's not a racing movie. All of this is part of it,

0:20:540:20:57

part of it in the background and so on. But...

0:20:570:20:59

Basically, its main theme is that of courage, I think.

0:20:590:21:03

It's an upbeat, massive courage.

0:21:040:21:07

Champions was one of the three big successes John enjoyed in 1984.

0:21:090:21:14

As well as the Grand National hero,

0:21:140:21:17

he was a gun-toting professional killer in Stephen Frears'

0:21:170:21:20

highly-praised film, The Hit.

0:21:200:21:25

And played Winston Smith in Michael Radford's

0:21:250:21:28

adaptation of George Orwell's classic novel, 1984.

0:21:280:21:33

The range of skill displayed in these three performances earned

0:21:350:21:38

huge acclaim, and combined, they won him that year's best actor prize

0:21:380:21:43

at the Evening Standard Film Awards.

0:21:430:21:47

APPLAUSE

0:21:470:21:49

Your Royal Highness, my lords, ladies and gentlemen...

0:21:510:21:55

As most of my best friends know, I'm very easily embarrassed. Er...

0:21:560:22:01

Probably stemming from the fact that when I was at school,

0:22:010:22:05

I found it very difficult to come anywhere near the top of the form.

0:22:050:22:11

And it embarrassed my parents and therefore it embarrassed me.

0:22:110:22:15

However, I find it even more embarrassing to find myself

0:22:150:22:18

at an evening where I seem to have come top of the form

0:22:180:22:21

in three different classes.

0:22:210:22:23

Certainly, my parents would never have expected me

0:22:240:22:27

to come top of the form for sport, let alone marksmanship.

0:22:270:22:33

And the last, certainly, they would not have expected me

0:22:330:22:36

to come top of the form, was history.

0:22:360:22:38

It seems to me that someone has been playing with the records.

0:22:380:22:42

It had been ten years of hit after hit,

0:22:450:22:49

and you would probably expect one of the wonderful characters

0:22:490:22:52

from that period to rank as John's personal favourite,

0:22:520:22:56

but for him, his best performance came over a decade later

0:22:560:23:00

in the film Love And Death On Long Island.

0:23:000:23:03

He played a loner who travels to America to meet a young actor

0:23:040:23:09

he has become obsessed with.

0:23:090:23:10

To John's annoyance, despite his best work

0:23:120:23:15

and excellent reviews, the film was largely ignored.

0:23:150:23:19

-What exactly are you trying to say, Giles?

-(Please.)

0:23:210:23:24

Look, Giles, I would like to believe all of things that you said

0:23:240:23:27

about my career, but...

0:23:270:23:30

you got things all wrong.

0:23:300:23:32

Ronnie, Ronnie, listen to me... You don't understand...

0:23:320:23:36

Giles, I think I do understand, and... I have to go now...

0:23:380:23:42

How can you act like this?

0:23:420:23:44

When you know...

0:23:440:23:46

you must know...

0:23:460:23:48

how completely...

0:23:480:23:50

how desperately...

0:23:500:23:52

..I love you.

0:23:540:23:55

'Well, I was upset that Love And Death,'

0:23:580:24:00

that had been so well-received, worldwide, I mean,

0:24:000:24:05

and in depth in terms of notices and so on,

0:24:050:24:08

and certainly in terms of reportage,

0:24:080:24:12

of people that had seen it and talked as I say, in depth about it.

0:24:120:24:16

That it wasn't just a slight understanding of it...

0:24:160:24:20

I was upset that it was not taken more seriously

0:24:200:24:22

by the film establishment,

0:24:220:24:24

such as the American Academy and the British Academy.

0:24:240:24:27

Because it seemed to me that if you had something which was

0:24:270:24:31

that well-received, on the one side, that it should certainly have caused

0:24:310:24:35

a little bit more comment in terms of the establishments of film.

0:24:350:24:39

-But why do you think that is?

-I don't know, I have no idea.

0:24:390:24:42

Certainly, in my opinion, it's one of the best performances

0:24:430:24:47

I've given on screen, and when you're talking about, you know,

0:24:470:24:50

"Do you change?"... Well, I think, do you? You...

0:24:500:24:54

How can I say it?

0:24:540:24:56

You hone your performances to a degree and you begin to

0:24:560:25:00

understand more about what a camera can do, and it's...

0:25:000:25:04

To be able to use it, to be able to get you,

0:25:040:25:07

to be able to take you into the privacy of a life...

0:25:070:25:11

And it was a kind of lifetime's achievement, in a sense,

0:25:110:25:16

in being able to pull that one off,

0:25:160:25:19

and also in a script that I think was a brilliant adaptation.

0:25:190:25:23

Taken from...

0:25:230:25:26

Gilbert Adair's book,

0:25:260:25:28

a novella, which was written in the first person, which is known to

0:25:280:25:33

be one of the most difficult things to translate into a screenplay.

0:25:330:25:37

For obvious reasons, because you are dealing with the inside of

0:25:370:25:40

somebody's head, how do you manage to do that?

0:25:400:25:43

And also without a single word of dialogue.

0:25:430:25:45

And Richard Kwietniowski, who both wrote and directed it...

0:25:450:25:48

I mean, his adaptation was stunning, it was quite brilliant,

0:25:480:25:52

it was one of the best pieces of writing in film I've ever seen.

0:25:520:25:55

So, I mean, I was surprised that it was not... That having had...

0:25:550:26:02

the acclaim that it had had through, you know,

0:26:020:26:07

Time magazine, and Newsweek and all of the big magazines,

0:26:070:26:11

and the big papers and so on, with rave reviews,

0:26:110:26:15

that it was not taken more seriously with the establishments.

0:26:150:26:18

That's all.

0:26:180:26:19

Occasional disappointments like that

0:26:220:26:25

couldn't dent John's love affair with acting.

0:26:250:26:28

And he reached a whole new generation of admirers

0:26:280:26:31

by appearing in three huge franchises.

0:26:310:26:35

There was adventure with Indiana Jones,

0:26:350:26:38

a spell as Ollivander the wand maker in Harry Potter,

0:26:380:26:43

and an appointment with Doctor Who.

0:26:430:26:46

Playing an incarnation of the Doctor himself,

0:26:460:26:49

it was an inspired piece of casting

0:26:490:26:52

that left Whovians wishing it wasn't just

0:26:520:26:55

one way of marking the programme's 50th anniversary.

0:26:550:27:00

WHOOSH

0:27:000:27:02

Anyone lose a fez?

0:27:020:27:04

You.

0:27:060:27:07

How can you be here? More to the point, why are you here?

0:27:070:27:10

Good afternoon. I'm looking for the Doctor.

0:27:100:27:17

-Well, you've certainly come to the right place.

-Good, right.

0:27:170:27:22

Doctor Who provided confirmation, were it needed,

0:27:250:27:29

that John had acquired national treasure status.

0:27:290:27:33

And in July 2015, he became Sir John Hurt,

0:27:330:27:39

knighted by the Queen for services to drama.

0:27:390:27:42

I mean, I'm just very lucky, I like doing what I do,

0:27:420:27:46

I just like acting.

0:27:460:27:47

It's really as simple as that.

0:27:470:27:49

I'm one of the most fortunate people in the world,

0:27:490:27:52

that I've been allowed to do what I really, really love doing,

0:27:520:27:56

and make a living from it.

0:27:560:27:58

Just a few weeks earlier,

0:27:580:28:01

John revealed that he had been fighting a battle with cancer.

0:28:010:28:04

He eventually lost that battle last month, aged 77.

0:28:060:28:10

Summing up the thousands of tributes perfectly

0:28:110:28:15

were the words of his wife, Anwen, who said,

0:28:150:28:18

"John was the most sublime of actors,

0:28:180:28:21

"and the most gentlemanly of gentlemen,

0:28:210:28:25

"with the greatest of hearts.

0:28:250:28:27

"It will be a strange world without him."

0:28:270:28:30

A look back at the life and work of Sir John Hurt - one of Britain's acting greats, who died last month aged 77 after a career that spanned six decades and took in over 100 films. In a selection of rarely seen interviews, we find John discussing some of his most iconic screen creations - most notably Quentin Crisp from The Naked Civil Servant, John Merrick from The Elephant Man and Max from Midnight Express. The conversations also cover John's personal perspective on the craft of acting, the tragedy that claimed the life of the woman he planned marry and his reputation for being a hard-drinking hellraiser - which he felt was largely undeserved.

Narrated by Sylvia Syms.


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