Why a Hollywood star is returning to his roots to play a leading role at our Quad
AS a vicar's son growing up in South Derbyshire, the young John Hurt loved nothing better than spending his days cycling through the countryside.
"Outside of things I was expected to do as a son of the manse, cycling was my major thing," the 69-year-old screen star says. "I would leave the house early on a Saturday morning and not come back until it was dark. There was nothing really on the roads back then and I would cycle off to Repton and places like that– just touching the pretty parts of the county."
memories: John Hurt's love affair with Derbyshire began as a child.
But John admits it was a sometimes a lonely childhood.
"I was mostly on my own," he says, "which goes with being a vicar's son. Everyone suspects you."
John Vincent Hurt was born in 1940 just a few months after the start of the Second World War. His father had moved to Shirebrook, near Mansfield, in 1937 to become curate at Holy Trinity Church. When John was five the family moved to Woodville, where the Rev Hurt became vicar of St Stephen's.
"I lived in Derbyshire until I was 12, not in the pretty parts but in colliery areas," said John. "I remember Swadlincote very well, the big hill and the quarry. There was nothing like the dry ski slope when I was there but I have affectionate memories of the Empire cinema – they said "come to the Empire on the sunny side of Swad".
"The first full-length feature film I saw was Robert Newton in Treasure Island – it may well have been at the Empire but it also might have been in Derby.
"My first taste of theatre was certainly in Derby, a pantomime. I was awestruck by what was happening on stage but I didn't dream of being an actor back then. That wasn't until I was away at school and in a play there."
John's mother encouraged his theatrical leanings but with his strict upbringing it was considered a pastime rather than a career.
"My mother put on plays for various parish events, like the passion play," he said. "She also put on evenings of entertainment that I took part in. She adored the theatre.
"She encouraged me as much as she was able but for my parents acting didn't really constitute either of the two necessities that after the war seemed of paramount importance.
"They were security and respectability and the theatre didn't seem to provide either. I was not that interested academically and there was no security in going to art school but my parents thought that I could have taught art – that seemed to be the only satisfactory option."
But despite their misgivings, John did eventually go to drama school and has become one of the country's most respected actors with a career that began with his movie debut back in 1962 and continues today with recent releases such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
He was a natural choice to be the patron of Derby's Quad Arts Centre which opened in September.
"It seemed to me to be a very splendid idea and an organisation to be encouraged. I can't wait to see it," said John, whose first official visit will be on March 27 when he will be attending a fund-raising dinner.
"The major thing is it gives them a figurehead, but I would like to be reasonably involved," he said.
At Quad, John will find his film debut in The Wild and The Willing stored in the British Film Institute archives housed at the arts centre for public viewing.
"Is that really in there?" he asks. "That was my first film after drama school. It was jumping on the band wagon of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as only Rank could. It was Rank's contribution to social realism. The studio was styled as England's answer to Hollywood which was a disastrous way to go as culturally it was nowhere near what England was about."
After that, John mixed film roles in dramas like The Man for All Seasons with stage work (including the RSC) but it was a TV play in 1975 that brought him fame, playing Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant. Its ground-breaking look at homosexuality made it a landmark event.
"Without any question it was the piece that changed not just the business's perception but the public's perception of me," said John. "I had no idea it would make such an impact. It was hugely timely and altered a lot of people's lives.
"Many people suggested I shouldn't make it as it would be damaging to my career. I never believed that, I saw it as a piece that went far beyond its obvious subject matter. But I never thought it would have the effect it had."
But it is John's stomach-churning appearance in Alien that he is most remembered for. In Ridley Scott's 1979 film, the parasitic alien grows inside John's stomach, before bursting out in spectacular and bloody fashion.
"There were no computer effects back then so it was all worked up between two props men over a false body that was laid on top of me after I twisted on to the top of the table. All the goings on was really Alf from under the table pushing through the alien on the end of a stick. And then these caps exploded which the cast didn't know was going to happen. There was blood all over the place."
John always knew that Alien would be a landmark movie.
"There was a feeling that certain directors of the time were going to make it," he said. "They were our new wave, especially Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. Ridley was a marked man as it were. And Alien was regarded as quite a big film even if it only cost $10m."
A year later, John starred in David Lynch's The Elephant Man, undergoing a painful make-up process to play the disfigured John Merrick.
"I was seven hours in make-up so they had to devise another way of shooting as I could only do it every other day as it was exhausting. I had to be at the studio at 4am and I was not ready until nearly noon. We then shot until 10pm and then it took another two-and-half hours to get it off. But how much more thrilling could it be for a young actor to work with a young David Lynch, a major name in cinema, on such a fine work?"
Lynch is just one of the many great directors John has worked with.
"It was good fun and great to work with Steven Spielberg," he says. "But there are no two directors the same. Fred Zinnemann was my screen godfather for years after I did a Man For All Seasons with him. What a fabulous person he was. Then I got to the age when the directors were the same age as me and the relationships change. I have been lucky enough to work with Michael Caton-Jones on three of his best pictures, including Scandal."
"When I started in films the industry was only 50 years old. Now it's still only 100 years old and I have lived half of it."
John is still busy with a string of projects, one of which could well be reprising his role as wand-maker Ollivander in the final Harry Potter film.
"I'm in negotiations at the minute because Ollivander comes back into the books," he says. "My son was 12 when it all first started and he was thrilled at the time that I was in it. And all things being equal I will be back."
John's own father did live to see him become a major star but died before the actor was given an honorary degree by the University of Derby in 2002.
"I was very pleased," says John. "I just wished my father had still been about to see that."