The loss of Harry Potter star John Hurt will leave a gaping hole in British drama

John Hurt arriving for the World Premiere of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. Picture: Ian Nich

John Hurt arriving for the World Premiere of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. Picture: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire - Credit: PA

While the loss of East Anglia's John Hurt was not unexpected, his death at the weekend has left a sizeable gap in the British acting community.

John Hurt at Cinema City in Norwich for a screening of The Elephant Man.
Picture: Bill Smith

John Hurt at Cinema City in Norwich for a screening of The Elephant Man. Picture: Bill Smith - Credit: Bill Smith - Archant

He was that rarest of acting treasures a character actor who was also a star.

Most stars become stars because they invariably play variations of themself. Their public persona, their image is larger than life and so every part becomes them.

John Hurt was different, he had the ability to lose himself in the role, become the character he was playing and yet still be recognised as John Hurt.

It's a trick that not many actors can pull off.

But, what made John Hurt really stand out from the pack was his choice of roles. Whereas many stars want to play the hero, want to be the good guy, want to have that final wise crack as the screen fades to back to allow the credits to roll, John Hurt preferred to be the misfit, the loner, the outsider.

He wasn't a showy performer either, he didn't upstage his co-stars but he left an indelible impression on whatever film or TV show he was in. He brought a humanity and a dignity to his characters.

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In his hands these weren't weirdoes or people to be shunned but flawed, sometimes damaged human beings who we could recognise and sympathise with.

Even in his first big screen role in A Man For All Seasons, the story of Sir Thomas More's battle with Henry VIII, opposite such titantic co-stars as Paul Schofield, Robert Shaw and Orson Welles, he refused to be bowed and offered a striking portrayal of an otherwise trustworthy young man caught in a game that he couldn't possibly win and ends up betraying his patron.

Even this early role, you could see Hurt delivering a nuanced performance. This wasn't a black and white villain but rather a callow youth swept up and manipulated by forces he couldn't control. His confusion, his embarrasment and indeed his ambition are there for all to see, thanks to Hurt's skill as an actor.

For many people John Hurt was a film actor, that is where he refined his craft and gathered his fans, but throughout his career ocasionally he returned to the home of British acting, the stage, to prove to himself and his peers that he could still do it.

In the mid-1960s he created a mini-cult around his performance in the short-lived play Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs and in 1999 he delivered what many considered to be his finest stage performance in Krapp's Last Tape – a solo performance, which formed the central attraction of the Samuel Becket Festival. Twelve years earlier he had starred in a well-reviewed version of Chekhov The Seagull oppposite Natasha Richardson at the Lyric Hammersmith but as his film and TV fame grew he seemed less inclined to strut his hour upon the stage.

For an actor who got his first breaks in Z Cars, Play For Today and Armchair Chair, all TV staples, it was right and proper that it should be TV that made him into a household name first as Quentin Crisp in the groundbreaking TV movie The Naked Civil Servant and then as Caligula in I, Claudius.

These were both career defining performances in TV landmark shows but he resisted the urge to resort to cliche. In both roles he explored what made the person who he was. He had no interest in making Caligula a monster or Quentin Crisp into an stereotyped homosexual.

He expended a great deal of effort discovering who they were as people.

One of the best weapons in his armoury was his magnificent voice which grew more gravelly, then more raspy and more dissilute with each passing year. His voice and his wonderfully pointed delivery gave his otherwise sidelined characters, a sense of authority that perhaps they may not have enjoyed in real life.

John Hurt's characters rarely enjoyed a happy ending. But, during the 1970s and 1980s, as his career took off, he became the embodiment of the principalled underdog. His characters were beaten but not bowed. He played them all with a fierce intelligence, with a resilient twinkle in his eye, which invited us, as audience members, to take up arms on his behalf.

My personal highlights of Jurt's career have to be his completely unsentimental portrayal of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, his stoic Winston Smith opposite Richard Burton in 1984, his touchingly amoral performance as Stephen Ward in Scandal, the story of the Profumo affair and his almost shadow-like Control in the 2011 remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. If he looked alarmingly frail in Tinker Tailor, he was back to his boisterous self in Doctor Who two years later when he played a scathing War Doctor, who put his previous selves firmly in their place.

John Hurt epitomised the loveable rogue. He gave his role dignity and intelligence. They were not the heroes of the story but they were the real people, the honest people, and we are not likely to see such loving attention given to such complex characters again.

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