Didn’t have enough time to properly, fully eulogise concerning the brilliant British film, stage and TV actor John Hurt, who passed away a few days ago after a struggle with pancreatic cancer.
There would be a lot to say about Hurt, whose rich, varied career included any number of memorable or stellar performances. But my own permanent sense of connection to Hurt’s on-screen legacy is a particular performance from his younger years.
While many would regard his portrayal of the Elephant Man as one of the great performances in cinema, John Hurt’s portrayal of the unhinged Emperor Caligula in the classic series I Claudius stands as one of the most compelling television performances there has ever been.
I wasn’t born yet when this series aired – I came to it much later, but I still think I Claudius might be the finest television drama ever produced. Several of the central performances in this series were astoundingly good: particularly Derek Jacobi’s main role as the ‘idiot’ Claudius, but also George Baker’s grim Tiberius, Sian Philips’ manipulative Livia, and perhaps most of all John Hurt’s often mesmeric portrayal of the lunatic boy-emperor Caligula.
Hurt’s handling of this role is so compelling that, even in a show that features extraordinary performances all around, he always lights up the screen and becomes the gravitational centre of any scene or sequence. Hurt was essentially playing a character who was insane, utterly divorced from any grip on the real world and was both violent and utterly unpredictable. There have been lots of ‘madman’ performances over the years in various films, TV or stage productions; but I don’t think there’s ever been one as nuanced and as mesmerising as this one is.
Finding any performance from the annals of television that even comes close to matching the kind of demons Hurt was channeling here as Caligula is probably futile.
The Claudius/Caligula scenes in general are invariably compelling, partly because the characters are so inherently fascinating but also because Derek Jacobi and John Hurt are such masterful, nuanced performers; but there is one scene in particular that makes the hairs on your skin stand on end. It is so unsettling, so disquieting, but yet also so psychologically fascinating.
It can also be said to define the Claudius/Caligula relationship perfectly: a relationship, essentially, between a mad god and his ‘idiot’ Uncle, who knows that if he puts a foot wrong or utter a single wrong word it will probably cost him his life. And so he essentially establishes an ongoing act of being the harmless, well-meaning idiot, who has to permanently reinforce his insane relative’s ego and affirm his misplaced sense of god-hood. He knows Caligula is a monster who is leading Rome to ruin in reign of terror, but he also knows that he’ll lose his head if he doesn’t tread with extreme caution.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find a clip of the particular scene I’m talking about on-line, so I can only describe it. The picture above shows Caligula (Hurt) with Claudius (Derek Jacobi) and Tiberius (George Baker) in an earlier episode.
Visiting the unhinged emperor abroad – and having just been thrown to his intended death and humiliated on Caligula’s orders – Claudius comes into his nephew’s tent, cold, dishevelled and covered in mud and muck. The sight of him amuses Caligula so much that he softens again towards his Uncle and invites him into his private space to talk and drink. Claudius – who is terrified of his unpredictable nephew – seeks safety in the act he has learnt to keep up around Caligula in order to survive: that of the harmless, well-meaning ‘idiot’ Uncle.
The conversation that follows here is one of the most fascinating in the entire series, and the tension peaks when Caligula eyes his Uncle curiously and quietly asks, “Do you think I’m mad?”
The moment is so painfully quiet and the tension so electric that your spine tingles. Claudius pauses for a moment – and you can sense him not only trying to work out what response will best aid his survival, but also wondering whether this could be his one moment to actually tell his nephew the truth: that his nephew is a complete, 24-carat lunatic.
But he doesn’t; instead he goes full-on into assurance and flattery, assuring Caligula that – as divine emperor – he couldn’t possibly be “mad”. The struggle, and eventually the safe resolution, is vividly portrayed all over Jacobi’s face as he eyes his mad nephew and assures him, “You set the standard of sanity for the whole world…”
What is so fascinating about this scene is not just the decision of Claudius to fully double-down into play-acting to appease his mad nephew, but the sense that he nearly might’ve gone the other way. There’s a sense also that this is the only truly honest moment Caligula has ever had – the only true hint of self-awareness that Caligula has ever shown in the course of this series: this one, brief moment of wondering whether he is, in fact, a mentally unhinged person and not the living god he thinks he is.
It is endlessly fascinating; and both Jacobi and Hurt are absolute magic in this scene. Two lesser actors wouldn’t have managed an end-product anything like as spellbinding as this was.
It’s a shame there isn’t an available clip of the scene I’m talking about that I could embed here – the BBC appears to have requested a YouTube take-down of any clips of the series.
It is, in any case, this performance as Caligula that I will always remember John Hurt the most for – even more so than The Elephant Man or his casting as Winston Smith in the film version of George Orwell’s 1984. Though, in fairness, Hurt lent his great talents to any number of superb works and leaves behind a rich and diverse creative legacy.
He was also, by all accounts, a thoroughly nice person, as well as being committed to varied charity work. He was, for example, a patron of Project Harar, a UK-based charity working in Ethiopia for children with facial disfigurements.
Prior to his passing, Hurt had already completed filming for two yet-to-be-released movies – That Good Night, in which he appears as a terminally ill writer, and Darkest Hour, in which he is said to have portrayed the ‘appeasement’ Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
RIP, John Hurt – you will be greatly missed.