Never predictable, frequently disconcerting, the actor John Hurt—who died at 77 on January 27—made the work of Britain’s earlier theatrical knights look staid by comparison. Here is a memory of a brief encounter with him during the filming of Scandal.
Along with his quota of hubbies and officials, even the odd theatrical luvvie, Hurt created a tumultuous gallery of weasels, weaklings, degenerates, killers, scoundrels, and world-class neurotics. Fallen angels, too: he showed us the beauty and wit of Quentin Crisp and Joseph Merrick, aka “the Elephant Man.” He popped an alien out of his chest. He gave Harry Potter his first wand. As the War Doctor, he imparted disbelief and world-weariness to Dr. Who. It’s fair to say we shall not see his like again.
The acting process may not have held much mystique for Hurt. When I visited the London set of Scandal in 1988, he chatted heartily away between set-ups. Wearing a wife-beater and chain-smoking, he spoke at times with donnish objectivity about his character, Stephen Ward, at other times in a quizzical tone, as if he were contemplating him for the first time.
A perfect match for Scandal‘s Stephen Ward
Ward was the charming but unstable social-climbing osteopath who, fancying himself a Svengali and an influential intriguer, brokered the sexual involvement of his 18-year-old showgirl flatmate Christine Keeler (played in the film by Joanne Whalley) and the British MP and Secretary of War John Profumo (Ian McKellen). Profumo was forced to resign after he lied to Parliament about his involvement with Keeler. He said he did not pass on any secrets to her, but since she had also slept with Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet diplomat (and spy), Profumo was judged to have risked national security.
Deserted by his high society friends and targeted by the media and the police, Ward, 50, was tried at the Old Bailey for living off the immoral earnings of Keeler and fellow Ward protegée Mandy Rice-Davies (Bridget Fonda). He took an overdose of sleeping pills (or was murdered by security forces) and died on August 3, 1963 before learning that the jury had found him guilty. Coming as it did during the Cold War, the Profumo Affair contributed to the downfall of Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government.
Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Hurt was 23 at the time and living in London. After studying at Saint Martin’s School of Art (he sold nudes to help pay his tuition) and RADA, he had joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at the New Arts Theatre. He made his film debut as a self-deprecating student in 1962’s The Wild and the Willing (see video below). In September 1963, he appeared in the first staging of the play based on The Dwarfs, Harold Pinter’s only novel, which is about young male friendship and rivalry in Hackney. Len, Hurt’s character, diverts himself from his tedious Euston Station job by cogitating on abstract mathematics.
Hurt’s comments on playing Ward
During our conversation, Hurt mused about the long-gone London of that time — which, as Scandal showed tangentially, was unforgiving to West Indian immigrants and sexually active young women. “This was a period when you went to the local newsagent in Earls Court to find a room,” he reminisced, “and 90 per cent of the notices said, ‘Blacks and Irish need not apply.’ There was no thinking of racism and sexism in those days. I’m not a political animal, so I don’t remember realizing that the whole [Profumo] affair was being used politically at the time — but it was impossible to avoid reading about it.”
Despite his ability to act without getting too Method about it, Hurt admitted playing Ward did not come automatically to him: “It was very hard to find Stephen at first,” he said. “He wasn’t a regular guy. He was eccentric in his own way, although he had a tremendous ability to enjoy people and make them enjoy him. But as someone who wanted to be a member of the establishment and was also anti-establishment, he was playing a double game—and that undid him.”
Back in front of the camera in the boxy living-room set 30 minutes later, Hurt hunkered down with Joanne Whalley. Suddenly, Hurt was Ward—a strange mix of loucheness, pushiness, and neediness. The transformation was disarming.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, Scandal was hardly one of the best films to star Hurt. A little tabloid in style, it was over-larded with gratuitous upper-class orgying and sign-of-the-times significance, as if it were straining to be a visual equivalent of the Philip Larkin‘s poem “Annus Mirabilis,” which starts: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” But the movie is reasonably sympathetic to Ward, Profumo, and Keeler as victims of their needs and the vengeful establishment. (Rice-Davies, made of teflon, never needed a film to rescue her, though Keeler, now 74, survives her.)
Hurt, of course, is razor-sharp as Ward. He catches the voyeuristic glee of a man who was seemingly asexual, his genuine affection for Keeler and sleazy exploitation of her, and his delusional belief that he could hack it as a pandar to men of power. It’s hard to think of another actor who could have burrowed into such complexity and made the troubled Ward so poignant and relatable. But then Hurt (in I, Claudius) humanized Caligula, too—just about.
Below: film critic Barry Norman’s reports on the Scandal production.