There aren’t many people in the world with instantly recognisable voices. John Hurt, with his unique, husky tones, was one of them. If you didn’t know his face, you knew his voice, whether it was from Jim Henson’s The Storytellers in the US or Merlin in the UK. Needed a narrator for The Tigger Movie? John Hurt was your guy. Casting Aragorn in the animated The Lord of the Rings film? Call John Hurt. Making a BBC fantasy series? Who else but John Hurt could be the voice of a dragon?
“Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.” – The War Doctor
The actor’s craggy, comforting vocals were a huge part of his wonderfully warm appeal – speaking like a grandad by the fire about to tell you a tale, he was the kind of performer who was able to forge a bridge between you and the imaginary, whatever genre, whatever time period, whether sweet, funny, sad or scary.
He was the ideal person to convince you that an alien really did burst out of his chest – it takes no end of skill to be memorable even in the act of dying – one of the few men capable of delivering such a tender, heartfelt portrayal of Joseph Merrick’s The Elephant Man. Who else could welcome the young Harry Potter (and a planet-load of fans) into the otherwise unbelievable world of magic as the unsettling yet avuncular Mr. Ollivander?
“He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things. Terrible, yes, but great.” – Mr. Ollivander
Hurt was a character actor in the best sense of the word, always vulnerable and honest to the point of inspiring sympathy even for the most intimidating figure. As he got older, the man who played Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant and Winston in 1984 only added more lines to his face, wearing the inner memories of his characters’ lives on the outside for all to see.
His frail head of MI6 in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy made a huge impact with barely any screen time, while it’s testament to just how powerful his often unassuming presence was that one of the shortest incarnations of Doctor Who’s Time Lord – The War Doctor in the 50th anniversary special – is also the most memorable and, emotionally speaking, the most definitive in the whole character’s timeline.
“My life is full because I know I am loved.” – Joseph Merrick
He was still going in recent years, with compelling turns in Sky’s The Last Panthers and 2013’s Snowpiercer (still sadly unreleased in the UK). But how fitting it should be that his death should arrive at the time when 2016’s Jackie is currently showing in cinemas. In Pablo Larraín’s biopic, Hurt borrows (he never stole) several scenes as a priest consoling Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) following the death of her husband.
“I have lived a blessed life,” he reflects. “And yet every night when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare into the dark, I wonder… Is this all there is?”
“Every soul on this planet does,” he adds. “And then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee.”
“Why do we bother?” asks Jackie.
“God, in his infinite wisdom,” he replies, “has made sure… it is just enough for us.”
It’s a profound speech that sums up exactly what made John Hurt’s career so special; a simple statement that carries impossible depths, a comforting pat on the shoulder that’s stacked with fear, a friendly whisper in your ear that’s charming and sinister all at once. John Hurt’s voice sounded like many people over the year, but nobody had a voice like John Hurt.
A list of John Hurt movies available on UK subscription streaming services:
John Hurt Movies and TV Shows on Netflix UK:
A Man for All Seasons
Merlin: Season 1 to 5
Human Planet: Season 1
Planet Dinosaur: Season 1
Hiroshima: Season 1
Crime and Punishment (2002)
John Hurt Movies and TV Shows on Amazon Prime Video:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures
Cooked: Season 1
John Hurt Movies on Sky Cinema and NOW TV:
The Oxford Murders
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
The Tigger Movie
John Hurt TV Shows on Sky and NOW TV:
The Last Panthers
Playhouse Presents: The Snipist
John Hurt Movies on BFI Player+:
The Elephant Man
The Wild and the Willing