Winter Tale: John Curry

“I feel so inspired I could explode with what I feel to be inside me.”

Many have an inner flame, few combust.

John Curry burned iridescent on ice, scalded himself, torched relationships and lit up lives with sharpness of word, deed and blade.

Thus he wrote in 1976 in a letter to Alison Smith, a few months before striking Olympic gold in front of 20 million British television viewers.

Curry describes Smith, a specialist in musical interpretation on ice and one of his nine coaches, as ‘the only teacher I ever had who nourished me artistically.’

He treasured his relationship with Smith, for his artistic instincts had been scorned from birth.

Curry was born in an affluent suburb of Birmingham, son of a precision engineer. He was the youngest of three brothers, a good athlete who despised team sports at school.

Overwhelmed by his first visit to a musical and entranced by Margot Fonteyn, he wanted to take dancing lessons at the age of six only to be flatly denied by his father Joseph.

John would pirouette around the corridors of the family’s six-bedroom mansion while Joseph embarked on never-ending drinking sessions.

Home life was a beautifully upholstered prison for John’s ambitions.

Skating offered a chink of light and his parents eventually gave way to requests for lessons - unlike ballet, John later reasoned, “it was protected by the umbrella of sport.”

He would give a good deal of credit to his formative steps at the Summerhill Road rink in Birmingham and particularly his first coach Ken Vickers.

“I was very lucky with Ken, because he cared a great deal about the way one skated,” Curry recalled.

“From the very first time I went on the ice, he told me to keep my back straight, to hold my head up and that I should bend my knees without sticking my bottom out.”

They were the fundamentals impressed in rushed 30-minute sessions - 15 minutes of teaching and 15 minutes of practice - before mother Rita had to whisk him home.

She spent most of her time caring for Joseph, who died when John was 16.

With designs on full-time training, John left at that stage for Richmond-upon-Thames to work under Arnold Gerschwiler and later Smith.

Money was more of a preoccupation at this stage of his career than any other. He worked long hours at a supermarket and as a receptionist to fund training and a train fare home.

Later in his career, wealthy American businessman Ed Mosler, who funded the entire US programme, would carry Curry through his amateur career.

From an early age Curry’s motivation was to change the game. He wanted to lift competitive skating from its prosaic past to a higher, artistic plane.

“I wanted to skate better than I’d ever seen anyone skate before, in a different way,” he said.

“To convince people that skating had more to offer than was genuinely seen, and to work with people who were masters of movement and music.”

The Olympics were his way of starting that process. Governments need legitimacy, Curry needed gold to gild plans to mould his medium.

“It was a means to an end,” he said. “I always wanted to be able to present skating in a way that I hadn’t seen it presented.

“I realised the only way I’d have the opportunity to do that was presenting myself in the most visible and accepted way, which is winning the Olympics.”

At the time and until 1992, Olympic skating was divided into three rounds - the short program and free skate with which we are now familiar, and compulsory figures.

Curry struggled with the monotony of the latter, the practice of tracing circular patterns on the ice with either foot, demonstrating skill in placing clean turns.

He was neither a runaway success nor a slow starter in the early years. He won his first British title in 1971, losing it the following year and regaining it from 1972 to 1975.

However lofty Curry’s ambitions to reshape the sport, a shock seventh place finish at the 1974 World Championships nearly brought his career crashing down.

At a crossroads, Curry went to America for six weeks of free skate training with Swiss coach Gus Lussi, who stripped back his technical approach.

Then he worked with Carlo Fassi in Colorado to drill those compulsory figures into submission, turning them from a weakness into a strength.

That brought minor medals at world and European level in 1975, and then what still stands as a truly great 1976 campaign, yielding a clean sweep of major honours.

Curry was chosen to carry the British flag at the Opening Ceremony in Innsbruck, a great honour for such a fiercely individual athlete and person.

Second in both figures and short programme, Curry led the overall standings ahead of the free skate.

Robin Cousins, who nearly beat Curry to the British title that year, had one of the best seats in the house for one of the greatest skating routines of all time, set to Leon Minkus's ballet Don Quixote.

“John’s ethos was purely aesthetic dance perfection,” Cousins told the Radio Times.

“He loved the perfect line, the perfect jump, and it made him mesmerising to watch.

“Everything was so precise, and yet there was such freedom in that performance. It was balletic and beautiful, but I still find it a very masculine performance – his aura and command.”

The routine, studded with three triple jumps, was scored at 192.74 which would stand as the all-time high in the era of 6.0 scoring in figure skating.

A shower of accolades followed - he was voted Sports Personality of the Year in 1976 and awarded an OBE that summer. But for Curry, his life’s work had only just begun.

From the maelstrom that was his inner life was born ‘John Curry Theatre of Skating,’ the nexus of his ambitions to create ballet on ice, in his own image.

“The thrust of it was a more artistic approach than had been previously attempted,” he said. “I chose the word ‘theatre’ to indicate that it was drawing on that world.”

The Cambridge Theatre, Palladium and Albert Hall were filled with the strains of Schumann, Liszt, Debussy and for the first time, the sight of skating with true musicality.

Curry would tread the boards himself, playing Mr Gradgrind, Lysander and Duke Orsino. He would appear in an American production of Brigadoon, but never on Broadway.

A National Portrait Gallery image of Curry captured in 1982, that shows him naked from the chest up, locks him a tortured, furrowed expression. Anger permeates the image.

That was the expression recalled by many of those who worked in the Theatre company, which closed suddenly in 1977. He would variously be described as ‘cold’ and ‘difficult.’

Curry’s personal life was subject to a whirlpool of rumour. The fact that he was gay was revealed to the world sooner than he wanted, shortly before the Games in 1976.

As the AIDS epidemic swept through the gay community in the late 1980s, Curry was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1987. He returned to the West Midlands and spent his final years with Rita, passing away in 1994 at the age of 44.

Curry’s work is immortalised in the 2018 documentary The Ice King and an ex-tempore BBC documentary, based on an interview with broadcasting legend Barry Davies, called Maestro.

Davies seems to be one of the few journalists who Curry felt comfortable around and in a later section, questions the man himself.

“Do you find John Curry difficult to live with?”

“Yes, I do,” Curry answered.

“What do you do about it?” Davies returned.

“Well, I’m stuck with him, aren’t I?”