The Hurt locker
Jack O’Connor recalls enjoying a drink or two with the actor Sir John Hurt, who died last month
10 February, 2017 — By Jack O’Connor
I FIRST came across John Hurt in a pub in Covent Garden in the mid-60s.
He was with a group of actors who could have been art students. These were pre-hippy days and the long-haired bearded thesps were performing as beatniks in a West End production. They had just finished playing and followed the band to the nearest pub.
The play was Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs and John played Malcolm. The Beatle George Harrison was so knocked out by the production that he later produced a film version for the Beatles’ Apple film company, starring Hurt as Malcolm and David Warner as one of his confederates. The film was not a commercial success but went on to win awards at festivals including Berlin and Atlanta.
The theatre production went to Broadway and the title was changed to Hail Scrawdyke. Malcolm Scrawdyke’s character is an expelled art student who formed his own political party, The Party of Dynamic Erection, which declares war on eunuchs. The play had a short run.
In his early days John was making a name for himself as a boozer and I used to see him in various pubs in Soho and he was a regular in The Flask in Hampstead.
Like the other legendary drinker Oliver Reed, John lived in Ireland for a period. Reed allegedly challenged him to a drinking contest and claimed: “I can drink you under the f*****g table.” John replied mildly: “Why don’t you just enjoy it?”
Little Malcolm was written by the actor and former art student David Halliwell, who was a student with John at Rada in the early 1960s. The play was first performed at The Unity Theatre in Camden Town with Halliwell as Malcolm and directed by the then relatively unknown writer/director Mike Leigh.
I directed Little Malcolm many years later at the Epsom Playhouse. Morning Star critic Tom Vaughan attended my production and informed me that he was involved with Unity at the time. He said there were many tensions between director and actor resulting in a bar room brawl.
I attended a screening of the film version at the BFI with John and Mike Leigh present. At the Q&A session Leigh was not impressed with the inclusion of the female character played by Rosalind Ayres – although her character does appear in the last act of the play. John told the audience that he was new to the film business at the time and went along with the production team.
The movie – directed by Stuart Cooper – has now been claimed as a minor classic. John became notorious in his drinking lifestyle claiming he would drink half a dozen bottles of wine a day.
However, of the actor-boozers’ A-team – which included Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Ollie Reed – he was the only one to be knighted.
Sir John received a knighthood in 2015 after a wonderful career making many a great film. His breakthrough role was the obsequious Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons. Other films included Midnight Express, Alien, and the extraordinary Elephant Man. Its director David Lynch said of Sir John that he was “simply the greatest actor in the world”. I’ll drink to that!