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From sunny Swad to film stardom

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: May 02, 2014

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FOR John Hurt the seeds of international stardom as one of the leading film actors of his generation were sown in the unlikely surroundings of Swadlincote and childhood screen dreams at the Empire cinema.

A vicar’s son from Woodville, John was attracted to the picture house by the adverts in the Burton Mail.

“They said ‘come to the Empire, on the sunny side of Swad’,” says John in his best South Derbyshire accent. “It has always struck me as being odd as I never found a sunny side of Swad, it was all slag heaps at that time.

“It was such a big colliery area. And if you were going to the cinema, you weren’t really looking for the sunny side!”

John Vincent Hurt was born in January 1940, just a few months after the start of the Second World War.

His father had moved to Shirebrook 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 and founded a Scout group

The family moved on when John was 12 but those early formative years created vivid memories and he’s never forgotten his Derbyshire roots.

You can lay claim to me,” says John. “I really hope you do. I think the Burton Mail was the first newspaper I ever read. We used to read the obituaries. I remember one that said ‘St Peter opened the pearly gates and in walked Mam’. I thought that was brilliant. A dazzling little piece of poetry.”

When he wasn’t watching films like Treasure Island, starring Robert Newton as Long John Silver, the young John Hurt loved nothing better than spending his days cycling through the countryside.

“Outside of things I was expected to do, cycling was my major thing,” he once told me. “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.”

But John admits it was a sometimes a lonely childhood.

“There are parts of that life that were alright and some that were quite difficult. It’s quite a lonely old life when you are the son of the manse. People are a bit shy of you. Then, of course, I was sent away to school and there was all that to contend with as well.

“What I do remember very distinctly about Woodville and Swadlincote back then was all the colliery workers coming back and being completely black with coal dust and the sirens going off – it was like it was still war time, extraordinary.

“It was a tough but rather fabulous community in those old mining days. It had to be, it was a hard life which created its own sense of humour.

“I have been back on a couple of occasions but it’s not the same. Everything has gone and I haven’t been back to Woodville in a long time now.”

John’s mother had theatrical leanings and put on plays for parish events but with his strict upbringing it was considered a pastime rather than a career for a young man.

“I have always said that with my father being a clergyman that acting is the same business, just a different department,” John says. “But there were no other actors in my family, although plenty of clergymen.

“I discovered acting at the age of nine really, in a school play, and having the feeling that I was doing the right thing. I was fortunate that I was at two schools with strong dramatic traditions.”

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 in films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and a new generation of young fans through the Harry Potter movies and the 50th anniversary Doctor Who show.

“You have to keep up with it,” says John. “People’s memories are so short now. So you have to keep up to be relevant. When I talk to people under the age of 20 they don’t know who Alec Guinness is, which is quite alarming. He was my complete inspiration.”

John’s 40 years at the top of his industry truly began with a TV drama in 1975, playing Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant. Its ground-breaking look at homosexuality made it a landmark event.

He made a memorably stomach-churning appearance in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien and starred in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, undergoing a painful make-up process to play the disfigured John Merrick.

Since then he’s worked continually with the best directors and the industry’s biggest stars.

He says: “When you do look back and someone points out your CV you do think ‘how did I manage all that?’” he laughs. “But at the time you just go on and meet people. It’s just life. I have never had particular ambitions it has just happened.

“There’s no trick to it but I must feel on reading a script that it has a chance of succeeding on the level it is intended to succeed on.

“If I read a script and it doesn’t have that chance, there’s no point in doing it.

“Otherwise you say ‘yes’ and ask yourself if there is something you feel you can offer.

“There are still lots of things I would like to do but I can’t tell you what they are, I never could.

“I had no idea my life would turn out the way it has or that I would be offered the roles I have. You are the result of other people’s imaginations. It’s they who see you as something. I would never have seen myself as Caligula – who would? – but Herbie Wise did (for the landmark TV series I, Claudius).”

Despite being past many people’s retirement age, John says he has no plans for slowing down.

“At the age of 74 I can’t say this is the beginning of the beginning but I hopefully can say it’s well before the end.”

John Hurt can be seen at Derby Film Festival, where a selection of his films will also be screened.

Go to www.derbyfilmfestival.co.uk

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