John Hurt

PUBLISHED: 14:39 09 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:36 20 February 2013

John Hurt

John Hurt

Actor John Hurt discovers the art of life in Norfolk

Portrait of the actor

He is one of our nations most talented screen actors. Now John Hurt tells Angi Kennedy he is discovering the art of life in Norfolk.

By his own admission, John Hurt CBE didnt come to Norfolk to be sociable. But four years after settling into a beautiful farmhouse nestling in the north Norfolk hills, this exceptional British actor who was presented with a BAFTA award this spring for his outstanding contribution to cinema is very much part of the countys artistic life.
Recently announced as Provost of the Norwich University College of the Arts, he is delighting in this opportunity to return to his own arts background.
I am so thrilled to be a part of it, because I think the object of the exercise is to have future students saying I couldnt get into NUCA, so I had to settle for the Royal College instead. I can see it happening, because its not that far off and it has a huge reputation, he says.
His home, just outside Cromer, has its own studio and is filled with art Johns own paintings and life drawings, as well as pieces by his son Alexander, currently at a painting academy in Florence, and by Peter Unsworth, the artist friend who encouraged John and his wife, producer Anwen Rees-Myers, to settle in Norfolk.

I had been to Norfolk many times in my childhood I dont know what my father had to do in Norwich, but we used to go to the city quite often and I had forgotten how fantastic Norwich Cathedral is."

He knew we were looking for a new home and suggested that we come to Norfolk because it is an empty county you dont travel through it, you have to go there, smiles John. I liked that.
I had been to Norfolk many times in my childhood I dont know what my father had to do in Norwich, but we used to go to the city quite often and I had forgotten how fantastic Norwich Cathedral is.
Anwen, who hails from near Birmingham, also had memories of the county. I came to Cromer as a child and we stayed at Hunstanton. My father was a very keen drawer and I remember sitting with him when he drew one of the windmills, but I havent been able to find out which one.
John continues: It took us a long time to find this house, but we are very happy here. We usually get out into the county, and we do the garden. You have to give yourself lots of things to do in Norfolk in the winter because those are long months you need to have a few things on the diary!
Weve been on the Coasthopper bus to Kings Lynn and we take the dog up to the coast. Weve also booked up for at least three things at the Holt Festival Courtney Pine, of course, Miriam Margolyes and dear Alan Bennett.
I didnt come here to be sociable, but as you live in a place it is kind of inevitable and right to become interested in the life of where you live, so hence my involvement with the Holt Festival.
And this month, 72-year-old Johns artists eye will be to the fore as he presents a prestigious new art prize, which is part of this years festival.
Along with writer and curator Ian Collins and head of contemporary art of the Fine Art Society Kate Bryan, he will be selecting a shortlist of works to be exhibited at The Ben Nicholson Gallery in Holt. John will announce the winner of the 1,500 prize who will also have their entry shown at a major exhibition in Londons Bond Street at a private view on Monday, July 16, before the exhibition opens to the public the following day and runs throughout the festival until Saturday, July 28.
I am looking forward to it, he says. I have judged an art show before; it is quite difficult because the pieces can be so diverse. We are three quite different judges and should have varied views, which will make it very interesting.
His own artistic endeavours began when he was a teenager. I was never academically interested at school and until long after school, explains John, who was born in Chesterfield, the son of a vicar.
From the age of nine I wanted to act, but the world was a much bigger place then and I had no idea of how one went about being an actor. We just didnt think we could aspire to be something like that. However I loved acting and I knew I could do it because I could feel it.
There came that awful parental moment of What are we going to do with him? And so they came up the idea of me going to Grimsby School of Art when I was 17 and I rather liked that idea.
It was the late 1950s and art schools were getting very interesting. So I started as a painter, really by dint of what else could I do?
I was never interested in becoming an amateur actor and just didnt want to go near it because, being an actor, I had put every ounce of my heart into being a fantastic art student. But every time I saw fabulous things on television because these were the days when we would have Paul Scofield in Henry IV or Olivier in Ibsen at prime time then I knew.
John won a scholarship to study at St Martins College in London. But by the start of the 1960s he was pursuing his true dream. Accepted into RADA, it wasnt long before young John was appearing in the first of his 150-plus film and TV performances.
His first major role came in A Man for All Seasons in 1966. In the decades that have followed, Johns iconic performances have include the flamboyant gay writer Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant; the crazed Roman emperor Caligula in I, Claudius;
John Merrick in The Elephant Man, for which he won a BAFTA and was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Actor.
He won a BAFTA and Golden Globe for his performance in Midnight Express, and provided one of the most memorable scary film moments as the victim of the title creature in Alien. He was Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the High Chancellor in V for Vendetta, and younger cinema-goers recognise him instantly as Mr Ollivander, the wandmaker in the Harry Potter films.

I love it, I still relish it, says John. This is my 50th year in the business and Im just making another film thats all I aspire to; I keep going along.

I love it, I still relish it, says John. This is my 50th year in the business and Im just making another film thats all I aspire to; I keep going along.
His latest project is Snow Piercer, adapted from a graphic novel about life on a train that perpetually circles the snow-covered Earth after experiments to fight global warming go wrong. He stars with Captain Americas Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and The Helps Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.
Filming is in Prague, so this year John has been travelling to and from the impressive set as well as supporting Anwen in her own busy film career. In Love with Alma Coogan, which she produced, is due to be released in the autumn. Written and directed by Holtbased Tony Britten, it stars Roger Lloyd Pack and Niamh Cusack and was filmed on Cromer Pier.
Anwen is now working with Tony and his Capriol Films company on a drama-documentary exploring the teenage years of Lowestoft-born composer Benjamin Britten. This is being filmed at Greshams in Holt, where Britten went to school between 1928 and 1930, and focuses on his pacifism and hatred of war that underpinned much of the composers work.
Were filming at Greshams and have many of the drama students at the school, some of the musicians and choir, as well as some of the students working behind the camera, which is excellent, explains Anwen.
Funding for the film is through a combination of commercial investment, pre-sales and government tax credit to help British films. But the company is turning to crowd funding to find the 50,000 shortfall through its website,
We are now trying to find people who would like to help it be made even if they only buy in to it for a matter of a few pounds, says Anwen, who is also on the board of directors of the 2012 Holt Festival.

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