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Gay Times December 09 - Issue 375

Illegal alien

Darren Scott talks to John Hurt about his role as Quentin Crisp

Modern gay living. A lot of people take it for granted. A lot of people complain about those that do. People falling into the former camp quite possibly haven’t experienced the life story of one Quentin Crisp, as magnificently portrayed by John Hurt in the 1975 movie The Naked Civil Servant. The people that lived through the decades it portrays – before gay sex was decriminalised – likely fall into the latter category.
Cited by many gay people as a turning point in their lives, the movie about the life of a homosexual Englishman created a media storm when first broadcast by ITV. Overnight it transformed Quentin into a celebrity, ensuring his then not so successful book of the same name would become a best-seller. It also firmly cemented John Hurt’s star status. But now, 34 years later, as John sits down with me to discuss the sequel Englishman In New York he explains that it could have gone differently had people gotten their way.
“I was advised by many people not to do it,” he says of the original movie while stirring a pot of tea. “They said ‘you’ll never work again if you do that’. It had exactly the reverse effect. But nobody could possibly have known that. Nobody could have been sure that it was really going to do what we hoped it would do. But it did infinitely more, right across society. It had an extraordinary effect. I’m still stopped today by people whose life was changed by it.
“Literally I’ve never forgotten it of course.” He pauses and thinks for a while. “It was a hugely important piece of my life. That was the piece that changed the public’s perception of me and the profession’s, the business’ perception of me. It was what they call,” he adopts an American accent, “‘the break’. And it was a break. It was a huge break. And unexpectedly.”
That huge break, which won him a BAFTA, launched John on a road which has earned him the status of “veteran actor”. So I’m slightly in awe as I sit discussing his career over tea, from movies like Alien (“If I’m doing a play in town and people come to the stage door for autographs, 30% of them will have that ghastly picture of Alien with the blood everywhere. Amazing really, for half a day’s work,” he laughs) to most recently voicing the Great Dragon in Merlin.
Animated conversations about his role in The Storyteller aside, he gives a mischievous grin as he regales me with tales of how “back in the day” journalists would sooner climb out of window than be seen doing an interview by other publications. He’s had a full day of talking to the press about his return to the role of Quentin Crisp – no surprise given how critically acclaimed and remembered his original performance was.
This, he often points out during our chat, is down to the author. It’s Quentin, he stresses, that by his legacy alone is capable of changing people’s lives. “That’s an extraordinary gift,” he notes.
Ever humble, he tells me that the continued interest in the seminal production is also down to Quentin.
“He’s an endlessly fascinating character. He stands for a lot. I first met him in 75 when I was filming Civil Servant and he came up for lunch a couple of times. I didn’t want to meet him too much because I didn’t want my portrayal to be an imitation, which it never was in fact. It was certainly very useful because he always knew what he was going to say and when he was going to say it. He had quite a contrived pattern of speech, which was dramatically very useful, and also quite insightful into how he worked things out in his own way,” he says, likening Quentin to Oscar Wilde in that respect.

obviously there's a bit more to it, but you'll have to fork out for the new December issue...

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