Acting legend John Hurt picks up a Bafta award for his outstanding contribution to cinema this weekend. Now living near Cromer, he tells Richard Batson about his career and craft.

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We have watched in horror as an alien erupted from his stomach, shuddered and shed a tear as he played a grossly disfigured “elephant man”.

But these days you are just as likely to see John Hurt in cap and coat savouring the “wonderful emptiness and space” of the north Norfolk coast around his home near Cromer.

Just days after his 72nd birthday, and starting his 50th year in the movie industry, the evergreen actor is still in demand and enjoying an acting career that has given him many unforgettable roles in more than 150 films.

They range from award-winning character performances such as flamboyant gay civil servant Quentin Crisp, to more recent cameos as Harry Potter’s wandmaker Mr Ollivander, while his voice has also come from the mouths of animated rabbits and dragons.

Bafta chairman Tim Corrie has described Mr Hurt as an “extraordinary screen presence”, an iconic figure who brought utter conviction to every role he undertook.

His three previous Baftas - for the Naked Civil Servant in 1975, Midnight Express in 1978 and the Elephant Man in 1980 - were all won against competing nominees.

But his outstanding contribution accolade has simply been bestowed on him by his industry colleagues - which he cherishes.

“I am most grateful and very touched because it is being given to me in the country which allowed me to do what I want to do all my life,” he explained over a cup of coffee, as black and sugary as his distinctive vocal tones.

“I was completely surprised and it is totally unexpected. It is wonderful to be recognised by one’s profession but it is difficult to know what I have done to deserve it.”

Well how about this? A film and TV career stretching back to the Wild and the Willing in 1962. Critically acclaimed parts including wrongly-hanged Timothy Evans in 10 Rillington Place, evil Caligula in I Claudius, Max the tortured Turkish prisoner in Midnight Express, space crewman Kane the fatal first host to the Alien. Parts in King Lear alongside Sir Lawrence Olivier, and more recently Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Brighton Rock and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Then there’s the voice of heroic rabbit Hazel in Watership Down, the Horned King in Disney’s Black Cauldron and the dragon in the Merlin TV series.

It is a CV - embellished further with a CBE in 2004 - that has touched almost everyone’s life, whatever their age or entertainment preferences, way beyond the world of just “film buffs”.

Mr Hurt modestly said it had just been a matter of being a “character actor really” - switching between a range of people.

He regularly gets asked how he acts, but confessed: “the one thing I cannot answer is how I do it.”

Acting is a flame that has burned in him since childhood however. The son of a vicar and amateur actress, he enjoyed drama and “entertained and improvised” as schoolchild. When he took his first part in a school drama he felt he was “in the right place”.

He switched from art school to drama, after earning a scholarship at RADA at a time when he had “no money at all”.

Once his talent was spotted he worked regularly - but confessed to having “no burning ambitions to play Hamlet, just to be acting”.

The buzz came from the challenge of each role.

“You take on a part for full enjoyment of it - being able to solve problems and deal with difficulties in a way that is fulfilling and thrilling - the same as a writer with a story.”

It has been said his early days as an artist - a passion he still pursues in the studio at his home - helped him as an actor, because of the observational skills needed.

But Mr Hurt said: “You can watch people until you are blue in the face, do research and understand psychology, but it also has to be a leap of imagination. Without that it doesn’t work.”

He was reluctant to pick favourite characters as the roles were so different so it was impossible to say one was better than another.

However he conceded Quentin Crisp was “a character that changed my life and took me to another plane”.

Elephant Man was “a tough film physically” - initially involving 12 hours in make-up later trimmed to seven, and another two to soak off the glued parts - either side of a shooting day lasting from noon to 10.30pm.

“They found a way of not making me enjoy filming, but we only shot every other day,” he explained.

Mr Hurt has lived in Norfolk for three years, having been introduced to the county by an artist friend.

“It’s a wonderfully empty county. I like the space, which is difficult to find in this country.”

Local people did not pester him. They were “charming” and if they did introduce themselves he was “always happy to talk”.

He has even been the compere at Cromer Pier theatre - once again for the movie camera; a small part in a film called In Love with Alma Cogan which his wife Anwen produced for Holt-based Capriol Films.

Home life involves gardening, painting, and new terrier dog puppy, But there is still work in the diary.

Next month he heads to Prague for a sci-fi film called Snow Piercer in which he will play an ex-revolutionary on a train set in a future man-made ice age. There is some Henry V television work and more voicing for Merlin’s dragon, despite his first ever vocal work being Mars bars adverts in the 1960s which he was “hopeless at and hated to start with”.

But first he will head to Covent Garden on Sunday to collect his Bafta in a ceremony compered by fellow Norfolk celebrity Stephen Fry to receive the deserved plaudits of his peers.

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