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John Hurt, the man who played the War Doctor in 2013’s The Day of the Doctor, passed away in January. DWM pays tribute to his life and work.

Former Doctor Who companion Lalla Ward tells a deliciously funny story about the time when, in the autumn of 1979, she accompanied Tom Baker and Graham Crowden, with whom they were then busy rehearsing The Horns of Nimon, to the Odeon in Leicester Square for a screening of that season’s must-see science-fiction hit, Ridley Scott’s Alien. Alas, the Nimon party was not entirely won over. Unimpressed by the film’s slow pace, Tom Baker apparently lost his patience and, during a particularly quiet moment, the instantly recognisable voice of TV’s Doctor Who boomed around the cinema: “Why don’t they all just go down into the cargo hold and bore the alien to death?”

The young Hurt in an early TV role.

Other critiques of the film in question may differ, but what was never in dispute was the quality of its cast. Back in 1979 it was quite unthinkable that an actor of the stature of John Hurt, star of Alien’s most totemic scene, might one day play the part of the Doctor. And yet, nearly 35 years later, he did just that. It’s a tribute to the status that Doctor Who would eventually achieve – a tribute, indeed, to the talent and commitment of Tom Baker and all his fellow Doctors over the show’s first half-century – that in its 50th year, the role would attract one of the greatest actors on the planet. John Hurt’s gift to Doctor Who came towards the end of a remarkable career, and a remarkable life.

Born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire on 22 January 1940, John Vincent Hurt was the youngest of three children, his father a mathematician and Church of England vicar, his mother an engineer with a taste for amateur dramatics. John’s schooldays, first at St Michael’s Preparatory near Sevenoaks in Kent, and later at Lincoln Grammar School, were not conspicuously happy – many years later he spoke of how he was sexually abused by a master at St Michael’s – but he found solace in a growing enthusiasm for acting, his early roles in school plays including a girl in The Blue Bird and Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. He also showed promise as an artist, in which direction he was encouraged by his parents who, he later said, were wary of his acting ambitions and “wanted me to have other qualifications”. At 17 he enrolled at art school in Grimsby, and then in 1959 he won a scholarship to the prestigious St Martin’s School of Art in London. However, it wasn’t long before the lure of the stage prevailed, and in 1960 he began two years’ training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. On leaving St Martin’s, he burned all his canvases. “It was one of those Faustian deals you make with yourself at that age,” he recalled many years later. “Shouldn’t have done, really. Didn’t even take photographs of it. But it doesn’t matter. A man is his memory. I’m with Buñuel on that.”

Stage work came quickly: while still at RADA Hurt made his début with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Fred Watson play Infanticide in the House of Fred Ginger, and he went on to appear in a string of great plays by great playwrights: Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything, Harold Pinter’s The Dwarfs, and the standout theatre role of his early career, Malcolm Scrawdyke in the 1966 première of David Halliwell’s political satire Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against the Eunuchs. For those who saw the play’s original brief run at the Garrick Theatre, Hurt’s performance became one of the benchmarks of the age, hailed by everyone from Laurence Olivier to The Beatles: George Harrison would later co-produce the 1974 film version, in which Hurt reprised his role alongside his friend and RADA contemporary David Warner, whose RSC Hamlet had been another milestone performance of the mid-60s.

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About Doctor Who Magazine

Contents include: A tribute to Sir John Hurt, the man who played the War Doctor, featuring contributions from those whose knew and worked with him, including David Tennant; Richard Curtis is interviewed about his Doctor work, including The Curse of Fatal Death and Vincent and the Doctor; showrunner Steven Moffat answers readers' questions; a look at the history of the home video recording of Doctor Who; the SFX of The Invisible Enemy, the story that took on Star Wars; Sydney Newman's attempts to reinvent Doctor Who in the 1980s is revealed; the Time Team watch Day of the Moon; new comic strip adventure as the Doctor faces the original Master in Doorway to Hell part three; DWM interviews the people behind the fanzine Vworp! Vworp! ; plus official news, reviews, previews, the Wotcha! page, prize-winning competitions and more!