Sir John Hurt has never been out of the public eye, but there are a few reasons why his profile is high at the moment. Firstly, his knighthood, on which the paint is still wet; it was awarded in this year’s New Year’s Honours List, and not before time. Secondly, of course, the War Doctor, another casting coup for the resurgent Doctor Who, which has enlisted some highly acclaimed actors ever since Sir Derek Jacobi and Eccleston himself in 2005. And thirdly, he is busily promoting the work of his favoured charity, Project Harar, an initiative to create centres of excellence in maxillofacial surgery in Ethopia. As part of his promotional drive for this cause he is giving an onstage interview to journalist Patrick Strudwick today, the ninth of May, in Notting Hill.
Before Sir John comes on stage there is important work to be done. The evening is framed like a Comic Relief telethon, with sessions of interview interspersed by video links showcasing Project Harar’s valuable work. Footage is shown of children in Ethiopia whom the Project attempts to help, some very small, none older than twelve or thirteen. The children are shown talking seriously to doctors and nurses; travelling silently on buses; playing together in the hospital grounds. Each child is instantly identifiable as a potential patient, because the Project deals in children who have severe facial deformities.
Each child that catches sight of the camera tries to offer the viewer an endearing smile. Some of them cannot, because facial clefts give them no control over their mouths; others have not seen the camera because enormous tumours, several inches in diameter, grow across or near their eyes. In discussion with the charity workers before the interview it has become apparent that the videos don’t show every problem that their children can face – the poor wretches who have no lower jaw formation, or those with nutritional disorders that have eaten holes through their cheeks, remain behind the scenes. What we do see in a variety of clips from their daily life is that until they meet each other in the hospital playground, these children simply do not talk to anyone. A combination of the social stigma brought about by their appearance, and the crippling shyness they feel themselves, has isolated them completely from the people that surround them.
These are the children that Sir John Hurt wants to save, and he’s here today to explain why this means so much to him personally. As he walks onto the stage there is not a ripple of applause but a cloudburst, as the audience gratefully grasps at the respite from sorrow. This is a largely middle-class crowd here in Notting Hill; nice, well-meaning folk. If they are guilty of a little smugness, a little complacency perhaps, in their daily lives then there is no longer a trace of it in the atmosphere; the Project Harar videos have done their job, and there is a sense of disequilibrium in the room, a feeling that people will go home tonight and break out their pocket calculators, counting and re-counting their blessings as the children sleep across the hall.
Sir John, consummate stage professional, greets the applause with a kindly wave and a half-smile. He knows that now is not the time to tighten the screws; he can hear the nerves jangling and his demeanour is avuncular and warm, a blessing no doubt for Mr Strudwick, who seems at first a little overawed by the occasion. Whether this is due to the taut ambience of the room, the impact of the videos, or the eminence of his interlocutor is hard to tell; but Sir John has a safe pair of hands, and soon the audience is nestled in their palms.
“It’s not on the passport yet, but it will be next month”, he assures us, in response to a question about the new knighthood. And does he ever get annoyed when people forget to use it on introduction? “Of course!” he smiles, “I catch myself all the time thinking, ‘that’s Sir John to you, you horrible little man!’”
It’s a peculiar position for Hurt to find himself in, suddenly an establishment figure with a title. This is, after all, a man who shot to prominence playing Quentin Crisp – at a time, as he reminds us, when any sort of link to homosexuality was considered the kiss of death in British public life. He also reprised the role more recently in one of a very few occasions when he has appeared in a sequel of any kind.
“There had been a whole sexual revolution in between the two,” he remarks, “and Quentin as an older man was no longer the unique figure he had been; in fact, he no longer really represented the gay community, who wanted, I think, acceptance in quite a different way. But he had been, if not the only one, very much a pioneer of the gay rights movement”.
Crisp, as Strudwick astutely points out, is only one of a host of characters Sir John has played that are noticeably at odds with the societies they live in. One only has to think of the literal alienation of the quarantined Kane in Alien (he doesn’t rate the sequels, by the way), or the isolating insanity of Caligula in I, Claudius. The Doctor, of course, is always lonely; but the War Doctor is loneliest of all, being shunned even by his other selves. And then there’s the Elephant Man…
The total head prosthesis in The Elephant Man, transforming Hurt into Merrick, was not just director David Lynch’s idea but at his insistence, we are told. Those early prosthetics took seven hours in the make-up chair to prepare. And when Hurt was first presented to the cast and crew in full make-up, there was a stunned silence, broken finally by one word from Anthony Hopkins: “Remarkable.”
Everyone knew, of course, that Hurt would be arriving in heavy disguise. But he says that it wasn’t until they saw Joseph Merrick in the flesh, animated and unmistakably human, that a real sense of what his deformity had cost him could be portrayed. This, says Sir John, is the lesson that he took with him to Project Harar. “The photographs only show you the disease”, he explains, “what you don’t see is the spirit. You don’t see the spirit in those children. That’s what we’re working to protect.”
“Of course, in the West we don’t see these problems, because we catch them much younger and can treat them more effectively”, explains Strudwick, “and so we’re much more judgemental about looks here. But even at home these children are isolated, they’re teased and bullied, because they look different and there’s no help for them.”
“There’s only so many you can deal with”, agrees Sir John, “and that’s why we’re all sitting here. Because we want to do more, we want to expand. Because these children, who are terribly ill or have been mauled by animals, will get absolutely ignored unless we take any notice. And the same will happen, there’ll be more and more ‘elephant men’, so to speak. It’s a different situation, but it has its similarities.” A clip from the film, recently played, is fresh in our minds: Hurt being harried through a train station by unthinking children, chased by a crowd, cornered like a hind at bay before crying “I am not an animal!” and we can see just how Hurt has come to identify with these children. The only things he knows about Merrick’s plight, he insists, are in the performance; but the performance makes it clear he can empathise greatly with these outcasts.
And speaking of outcasts, the last word is saved for the War Doctor. Would Hurt return to the role in future? “It’s a fascinating context in the whole word of Doctor Who. I think what was said was what needed to be said, and to do more would be a bit too far. I can’t think of any reason for him to return – but somebody else might. Would I do it if asked? I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything.”
For those who are interested in the work of Project Harar and would like to know more, please visit their website at http://www.projectharar.org, which features videos of Sir John Hurt discussing their work.