“Well, my, you’ve got it all on today!” says a New York passerby to John Hurt in character as gay icon Quentin Crisp in the 1975 TV biopic The Naked Civil Servant (“the role that changed my life,” says Hurt). The sartorial sentiment rings just as true today in London, in the bohemian Georgian townhouse on Dean Street occupied by Blacks Club, where the British actor is being photographed.
“As far as Quentin was concerned, he had to be a peacock; that was important to him – and his crusade,” says Hurt. Is he a peacock? “Oh definitely. When I see some of the things I used to wear – say for the premiere of 10 Rillington Place, a crumpled velvet YSL round tunic top and flared trousers – I’ve been fairly outrageous.”
Dressing for premieres will be a recurring theme for Hurt throughout 2016, when he has four films coming out including Damascus Cover, a spy thriller set in Syria and The Journey, the fictional account of a real car journey shared by Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin politician Martin McGuinness.
Shooting started for The Journey in October last year, around the time Hurt received news he was in remission for pancreatic cancer. He had been diagnosed five months earlier, while filming TV series The Last Panthers with Samantha Morton, and continued to work throughout treatment. “Everybody I have known that has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer has died. But I knew I wasn’t going to. And while I had to turn down certain things, I did keep working. My spirits never went down.” Now, he says, he’s never felt better, and the energy he brings to today’s fashion shoot belies his 76 years. “I can’t work as much as I did, but there’s no need to retire. I just do a project if I want to, and think I’ll do it well.”
Today, his enthusiasm and curiosity is almost tangible. “Isn’t this the label Tilda [Swinton] loves?” (he asks of the Haider Ackermann trousers and jacket). “My son might think I look like mutton dressed as lamb, but only because he’d want to steal the outfit.” When Hurt encounters an unfamiliar designer name, he rolls it around his tongue playfully. “What’s nice is to see people tickling the imagination and saying, ‘Let’s go a bit further than what we’ve already got.’ Men are always complaining, me among them, that there’s the same tedious jeans, sweaters and shirts. But here are people saying: there’s something else.” He lifts his hand and with an elegant flick of the wrist, says: “Hey look: fabulous.”
His own style is hard to define, but his constants are fine fabrics and idiosyncratic designs, he says. This began at eight years old; when most boys don’t want to be different, he “adored” that he had a grey corduroy suit while everyone else had flannel. At Rada in 1961, he talks of buying a pair of elastic-sided Cuban-heeled boots in theatrical footwear shop Anello & Davide – “presumably for Spanish dancers” – to wear as everyday shoes. At the time, he and his flatmate, actor Ian McShane, seemed the only men wearing them in London. Two years later, they were worn by The Beatles – then everyone.
Now, Hurt loves vintage-inspired high-rise trousers with braces buttons, made to order at Old Town, in Norfolk: “They use such wonderful, old, rare fabrics, one of which they get from a steam-powered mill.” His distinctive Lindberg glasses are also retro in feel. “You don’t have to make them [frames] insignificant – they can be part of your whole presentation.” And hats are a cornerstone: “It’s always the occasion to wear one, if you’re going out” – from Irish caps like those he wore in 1990 drama The Field to brimmed (“not too wide as I have a small face”) or straw hats from Lock & Co.
For a major awards ceremony, Hurt chooses Ozwald Boateng, or “something more Dickensian – a barathea frock coat with a bow tie”. He wore a three-piece Sienna linen suit made by tailor John Pearse to receive his knighthood in 2015. It was originally made for his character in Heroes, the Gérald Sibleyras play translated by Sir Tom Stoppard, in which Hurt performed in 2005.
“You’ve got to be careful with style, how you describe it,” he concludes. “So much comes from things you observe, that lodge in your mind – what you see in somebody else and want to reproduce in yourself. Style is longing… longing to be something or someone else.”