Lady Anwen Hurt: 'Saying 'yes' helped me navigate my grief'
- Credit: Danielle Booden
We meet in The Venue, near the town centre, where a number of Holt Festival events are staged.
As we head through the main hall and along a corridor to 'the green room', Anwen, Lady Hurt, pauses and draws my attention to a polished plaque beside the doors of the newly-named Anwen and John Hurt Exhibition Space.
Having staged an exhibition of her husband’s film memorabilia during the town’s Film Festival weekend in February, the aim is to showcase the work of others within the space over the coming months.
It is more than five years since his death but Sir John remains omnipresent through his creative legacy and a support of the arts, which today is sustained by his widow.
During that time, Lady Hurt has made a number of firm decisions, not least to make Norfolk her permanent home and commit herself to the local arts community.
As preparations step up for the 2022 performances, Anwen recalls how her connection to Holt Festival began soon after she and John moved to Norfolk in 2008 and settled into their home at East Runton.
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Having lived in London, they were used to being recognised in the street but sought a quieter, more rural, life in the country.
“We were keeping ourselves to ourselves, working out what involvement John was going to have locally, but Norfolk was to be very much a place for us to be alone and have a normal life,” she said.
Their initial involvement with the festival was limited as they were away travelling, though Anwen later joined the board, John did the one-man play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, and also some poetry with Julie Christie.
Following his death, Anwen became more active and eventually took on the role of artistic director in 2019.
With the 2020 event cancelled because of the pandemic, she programmed a smaller event for 2021 and a fuller programme for this summer, and has further underlined her commitment by becoming festival director until 2025.
“I have realised how much I care about the festival and how passionate I am about it,” she explained.
Originally from Birmingham, she studied singing, piano and harpsichord at the Birmingham School of Music and, “bitten by the performing bug”, went to work at the Palace Theatre in Watford, initially in the wardrobe department but with the aim of becoming a stage manager.
“I had been involved in various opera productions when I was at college and as well as being in them, I helped backstage and was intrigued by theatre,” she said.
“There is a family history; my grandfather used to do monologues in music halls, my grandmother played piano in a cinema, and my younger sister was a dancer.”
It was as an ASM (assistant stage manager) and understudy in the review Betjemania, that her moment came.
“Some of the poetry was read and some set to music,” explained Anwen. “I was happily doing my stage manager stuff, when the singer suddenly stopped. She had lost her voice, and so I was on the next night.
“We were at The Shaw Theatre in Euston Road in London, somebody from Equity came down and saw the performance and gave me an Equity Card, and that was it.”
From there, Anwen did a tour of Godspell, went into Jesus Christ Superstar in the West End and secured further theatre and musical roles.
“I am a bit of butterfly; I like lots of different challenges which is why the festival suits me so well,” she added.
Her career was with a production company that made television and cinema commercials before she met John – whose films include Alien, The Elephant Man and Love and Death in Long Island - at the Groucho Club in London on February 11, 2003.
“I had taken some clients there after finishing a project and he happened to be there. We just got talking, it was complete chance,” she added.
They were married on February 11, 2005, after John went down on one knee to propose.
Anwen gave up her role with the production company to travel with John before they moved from their London flat to Norfolk.
“We decided to move up here, largely because John was a very good painter,” she said.
Moving to Norfolk
John’s friend, the artist Peter Unsworth, suggested Norfolk “because of the skies”, which saw them eventually buy the home at East Runton.
“I also love gardening and was quite keen that I could have some space, so we found a house down a farm track and we loved it.”
Pilchard, a Mixed Terrier dog, moved in too and when they were away, he would stay with a friend in Thurning, which alerted them to their next home, a Georgian farmhouse.
They bought it in 2016 and moved in between Christmas and New Year, though by that stage John was ill with pancreatic cancer.
“John was so sure he was going to beat it,” said Anwen. “He was having chemotherapy in London. When we saw the house, I wasn’t quite sure about it and then walked down the garden and looked back at it and had one of those moments and thought ‘that is my house.’
“As is it turned out, it has actually been ‘my’ house; it has not really been ‘our’ house.”
John was only in it for a matter of days and died on January 25, 2017. He was buried on February 11.
In the years since, Anwen has become active in a number of projects in North Norfolk, and within them has “very much taken John with me.”
“People were quite surprised I stayed in Norfolk, they thought I might just head back (to London), but we had this house that he really wanted, he knew it would be the last house he had, though he hoped he would have rather more time in it than he did.
“There were people around I had become good friends with, so there was never really any question that I was going to leave.
“When he died, I decided I would say ‘yes’ to everything for a year, because if I said ‘no’ – whether going to a party, or dinner or the theatre - people would not ask again.”
Her grieving, however, was very public and she was involved in various tributes to her husband, such as speaking at the Berlin Film Festival a few days after he died.
“There are stages of grief but they are different for everybody. For me, I did it the wrong way round because it caught up with me later,” she reflected. “I just felt bereft.
“John was a very kind, gentle, loving and quite shy man but a big personality nevertheless and charismatic, so when someone like that is no longer in your life, there is a huge gap.”
In recent years Anwen has made several films and created her own circle of friends in Norfolk with her home and Pilchard, as the connection with Holt Festival grew stronger.
“The year after John died, I had an exhibition of his paintings at the 2018 festival at The Auden which was tremendously successful and I was really pleased to do that.”
She admits to being “a bit scared” when taking on the artistic director role, but was still “saying yes” and acknowledges, that carried her through.
Today, alongside her role with the festival, she is involved in casting and producing films, including a documentary about the artist John Craxton with Tony Britten.
Her other film credits in Norfolk include In Love with Alma Cogan with Roger Lloyd-Pack and ChickLit, with John featured in both.
She also worked on the film Benjamin Britten - Peace and Conflict for the composer’s centenary.
An interest in painting, with pastels, was revived in a recent painting trip to the south coast.
“It was just lovely to get back to it and I remember how much I enjoy it,” she said. “I love it, and it is something I put my focus into.
“I have become much more involved in fine art and have lots of friends who are artists, I am really enjoying possibilities coming from that.”
A soprano when she was younger, she has also taken up her passion for singing again.
She also supports Norwich City and is regular at Carrow Road, and enjoys Formula 1 as a fan of Lewis Hamilton.
Her further interests see her as a trustee of the Sir John Hurt FiIm Trust at Cinema City in Norwich; on the board of Sheringham Little Theatre; and Pro-Chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts.
Striking a balance
Yet the Holt Festival remains paramount but has challenges, such as striking the balance between “providing high quality events that will interest the audience” and “growing the festival” in an area of North Norfolk, where there are several other successful festivals.
“We have to be different,” she explained. “We have to be very clear about what we are and who we are for and I am very keen on involving the local community and giving them opportunities to encounter things that they might not have done before.”
With the 2022 event, running from July 23 to 30, there is still a post-pandemic caution, but ensuring people are comfortable within the venues remains important.
“Last year we went for a number of quite local acts on basis that it was just a little bit safer but we have kind of spread our wings this year,” said Anwen.
“For 2022, I think it is still very much about having fun and trying to get back to normal and remembering that life is for living and remembering that we are part of a community.”
That has seen her draw together a programme of “suitable and affordable acts that I think will appeal to our audience” and “push people a little out of their comfort zone.”
“We have also brought the festival, very much more into Holt to keep it in the community,” she added.
The programme features singers, classical pianists, poetry, comedy, world musicians and authors at various venues across Holt, including the concert series in St Andrew’s Church, The Venue (Holt Community Centre), and Stage on the Field at Gresham’s Pre-Prep School.
Author Hilary Boyd will be interviewed by Raffaella Barker; Marian Keyes will discuss her latest book “Again, Rachel,”; there is children’s storytelling; and Paul Martin from Antiques Road Trip and Flog It, will talk about his passion for beautiful furniture.
There are also singers Morganway, an end-of-the-pier show for families, festival favourite Maynard Flip Flap, and Bluegrass band Flats and Sharps.
An art exhibition celebrates the centenary of artist John Craxton and includes works of Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud and Alberto Giacometti, among others and there will also be the annual Sir John Hurt and Sworders art prizes, and the new Charlotte Fraser ceramics prize.
Writer and poet and Lemn Sissay reads from his memoir, My Name Is Why, while world music lovers can experience Guinean master musician N’famady Kouyaté and his band on the last night.
“I am absolutely thrilled that Lemn is coming,” said Anwen, who is co-patron with him of the UK-registered medical charity Project Harar that helps people affected by facial disfigurement in Ethiopia.
“John was patron from about 2008-09 before we moved up here,” she said. “The man who started it approached John because of The Elephant Man because the charity deals with damaged faces.
“That includes cleft palate, which here is an easy operation but in Africa it is endemic and a huge stigma, so we take surgeons out there.”
Yet away from the arts community and Holt Festival, Anwen Hurt loves to retreat to her house and enjoy her garden and pond.
“My life is very much in Norfolk now, it is my home,” she said. “I have a little boat in London, so have a bolt hole there but my home is in Thurning…with me, Pilchard, and some chickens.”