I recorded a podcast this week and I talked a little bit about Stephen Ward and how James Norton and John Hurt both played him with such charm and charisma and what a credit it was to them. I also talked about meeting John Hurt with Christine.
It really started in around 1980 and I was about nine, my reading and writing was well behind where it should have been and I was being failed by my school along with a lot of other inner city children. Christine and I were living in a council estate and were desperately poor,the past couple of years had been very difficult for Christine. “I wasn’t living, I was surviving,” she later said.
I think Christine was getting more and more worried about me. I would go out with friends and hang around on the estate and she was worried about my future. So one day she asked me if I wanted to meet my father.
It was a short walk from the eleventh floor flat at the World’s End Estate to his four storey house in a wealthy part of Chelsea, less than a mile, but it was a world away. My mother had left him when I was six months old, they went through an extremely long and acrimonious divorce, so much so that I was made a ward of court because they had both managed to make each other look so bad through the legal process that the High Court were deemed a better guardian.
On meeting me for the first time in many years, my father was also concerned about my level of education,so he paid for me to go to a boarding school in Kent. Staying at the school would get me away from any distractions on the council estate and maybe even to get me away from my mother after that bitter divorce.
At half terms and holidays I would travel back to the council estate in Chelsea with Chris. I think it broke her heart sending me to school, but it was an opportunity for me that she never had.
A few days before I was sent to the new school in the countryside I was with Chris in The World’s End pub near where we lived. We didn't often go to pubs but at that age my job was to sit quietly in the corner with a fizzy drink. One of the locals who called himself a real gangster told us he had been to prison for robbing banks. He also told me, “When you get to this new school, the boys will probably tie you up and rape you, it’s just what happens at these places. When you have money you send your kids away to be raped, they think it makes them men”
I was terrified.
“It’s ok” he continued “When you get there, you need to figure out who’s the top dog, who’s in charge, and you need to take them out, just walk up to them and bang! butif they are a big fucker, wait till they are asleep, then take them out.” There was a long pause: “Do that, they won’t come near you”
I asked Chris what she thought and she said she was going to call the school and ask them to make sure I wasn’t raped by the other boys.
I was very nervous when I arrived at St Michael’s prep school and immediately homesick. The housemaster looked down at me and said,“I’ve spoken to your mother, and we will take care of you.” I remember he was smiling - I can’t imagine the conversation they had had.
So on my first night, when everyone was asleep, I stabbed a boy in the arm with a compass. It worked, in fact I don't think anyone spoke to me for the first week, but I wasn't tied up and raped. In fact I never did see any boys tied up and raped.
I do remember in our dorm, behind an old wardrobe was a name carved into the wood from on an old boy It said “John Hurt” and a date that I can’t remember. We all knew that was the actor John Hurt as he was a famous ex pupil and we all knew he had the Alien burst out of his chest in the Ridley Scott movie, some of us had even seen it. We would talk about it when the lights went out at night to try and scare the boys who hadn’t seen it.
Many years later John Hurt would star in Scandal, the 1989 film about the Profumo affair. He played Stephen Ward and was very good in it, he was charismatic and likeable, the hero of the story. To promote the movie Scandal we went to America and Christine was on chat show after chat show, but she wasn't alone. John Hurt was doing a lot of the shows with her. One morning we all jumped into limousine and were on our way to either another chat show or the airport to fly off and do a chat show in another city. It was a long way from the council flat in Chelsea. There were four of us in the back the seats, which faced each other: Christine, John Hurt, his partner and myself. Christine was in a great mood, she wasn't tired that morning. She had begun to get into a new routine and had got over the initial nerves of doing interview after interview and I think her adrenaline had kicked in.
As we sat in the back of the car Christine was telling John about how wonderful her son was and I was sitting there hoping the world would swallow me up. Christine was always telling people how wonderful her son was, it was so embarrassing at seventeen. She was telling him about what a good actor her son was, I was in a youth theatre at the time and Christine was so proud.
“He is a really good actor,” praised my mum. “He can make himself cry, just like that,” and she turned to me and said, “Go on Seymour, cry, show him - just start to cry”.
It wasn’t lost on me that this was John Hurt who had been nominated for an Oscar for The Elephant Man. I was really embarrassed - John Hurt had had the Alien from Alien burst out of his chest, and at seventeen this felt worse.
“There’s nothing worse than a doting mother,” I said under my breath.
John Hurt leant forward, looked me right in the eyes.“Oh yes there is,” he said, “a mother who doesn’t care”.