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Hurt paid a price for self-discovery

10 February 2017

VOCATION is a curious thing. Sir John Hurt, the actor who died the week before last, knew that he wanted to act from the age of nine. He reported that, on stage, he had “an extraordinary feeling that I was in the place that I was meant to be”. This set him at odds with his parents (his father was a clergyman), and he spent a troubled and rather lonely childhood. To many who followed his early career, he carried a sadness about him, which he drew on as he developed his craft.

He became, of course, a fine character actor with an extraordinary gift for getting inside the lives of all kinds of misfits, victims, eccentrics, losers, and tragic innocents.

His brave portrait of Quentin Crisp not only put him on the map but helped to change public opinion towards homosexuals. His sympathetic portrayal of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, earned him an Oscar nomination.

His older brother, Michael, took a different vocational path: he became a Roman Catholic, and a monk at Downside. Both were flawed characters. Sir John was married four times and had other lovers; he drank prodigious quantities; he accepted rubbish film roles to support his hell-raising life-style. Michael left the monastery after a police caution, married and divorced twice, and then returned to monastic life at Glenstal Abbey, Ireland, where he produced a book of recipes.

A few years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with the Pulitzer Prizewinning American novelist Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead, Home, and Lila (Features, 2 January 2015, Reading Groups, 1 April 2016). Her stories reflect a Calvinist theology: she is fascinated by the idea that our character and circumstances lead us inexorably to play the unique part that God has given us. We all have a basic script, but are expected to improvise our way through life as best we can, while God is the audience, watching to see what we make of it all.

The point she is making is that we overestimate our capacity for free will. What is in us is likely to come out, whether we like or not, and this is where human experience meets divine predestination. We are damned and saved by the will of God; sometimes at the same time.

Sir John was not a saint; nor was his brother. They were the product of pious parents whose failure to understand them triggered them to find their different destinies. Both paid a price for self-discovery. Both succeeded and failed to live the life they chose. Sir John may have had little time for Jesus Christ (although he did play him once), but the rejected outsiders he portrayed with such sympathy were surely known to the Lord.


The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

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