BILL: Ken was a regular little boy growing up in Belfast, who played
football in the street. When my father went away he'd bring us back a
little matchbox car. I used to keep mine pristine clean, but Ken used to
take the tyres off his.
Coming to England was very difficult for both of us. No one understood what
I said, including the English teacher. I think Ken adapted more quickly
than I did - he's great at accents. He was always a massive reader. At 12
he wrote to the editor of the local paper saying wouldn't it be a good idea
if a child reviewed books, to give a child's perspective. His bedroom
became like an Aladdin's cave. We kept the press cuttings - Branagh's
Junior Book Shelf. A while back, my younger daughter said: "Do you think I
could do that, Dad?" She wrote to the same paper and asked. The paper did
a piece: "Branagh's niece is keeping up the family tradition."
I think Belfast made us driven individuals. We're both extremely
competitive - I don't like to be second best. Nor does Ken. He hates it.
When we came to England, Ken and I were determined to be responsible for our
own destiny. In Belfast, no matter how talented you are, there's this
underlying current of bigotry which is indoctrinated into kids. Ken
single-mindedly set out to achieve what he wanted. There was no way my
parents could afford drama school - he had to get a grant from Berkshire,
the first they'd given for drama for years.
Ken looks like my mother, but in character he's more like my father - he
doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. My mother's incredibly emotional, as
am I. We have big arguments, and as a child I could make her cry, and she
could make me cry. Ken and my father hide their feelings.
As the eldest I was the trailblazer. I started living with the lady who's
now my wife when I was 18. To my parents, I was living in sin. But when my
brother did it at a similar age, it was just: "Oh, Ken's moving in with his
After Ken did Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson, his life became quite
public. He hated stories about him in the press. I was offered money to
talk about him; my folks had journalists camped outside their front door.
It was awful. There were rumours and all sorts of nonsense. I think the
press scared him witless. When he and Emma did get married it was on the
front page of several newspapers. Ken just said to us: "Don't get involved.
Once you do, the press won't leave you alone." Since then we've never
spoken publicly. Sometimes I've denied that I'm anything to do with Ken.
"Any relation?" people will say. If I say, "He's my little brother," they say, "Lovely," and don't know what to say next.
Emma's a smashing girl and as down-to-earth a person as you will ever meet.
She was very close to my family and treated my girls like adults. She and
Ken weren't luvvies, like the Spitting Image crap. When the marriage broke
down I felt extremely protective. I was just Ken's big brother. The press
were camped outside Emma's door and giving Ken grief. Awful.
I get asked about sibling rivalry, what do I feel about Ken's success and am
I jealous? No. We do such different things. I get a huge vicarious
pleasure from his success. I get to go to the first nights, the Oscars, the
premieres; I've been on the set of every film he's done and I've met
fantastically famous people, including royalty.
Ken has very little time when he can just chill and kick back. He built a
house about a year ago, but last year he only spent six weeks in it. I wish
he could spend more time there, rather than hotel rooms. He needs to be
able to relax and smell the flowers. It would help his peace of mind.
Luckily, he's someone who can snatch sleep at any time. He has a photo
frame that has a dozen pictures of him sleeping, in any and every position.
the caption says: "The Director at Work." For Henry V he had a van with a
bed in it so he could sleep on his way to the studio.
Ken leads as ordinary a life as he can. He watches TV, goes to football
matches, phones his mum once a week. Ken and I go down to his local and
nobody hassles us. He and Tom Cruise, who's a mate, went out one night.
When they drew up to the traffic lights, some girls pulled up, did a classic
double take and stalled. That's fame! When my wife and I went to the
Oscars as Ken's guest, we realised how bloody famous he was in the US.
There he's known as Mr Shakespeare, and people like Glenn Close come up to
shake his hand.
I've been asked many, many times to be interviewed with Ken. This is the
first time I've ever talked about him. I'm fiercely proud - I'm going to
make it because of me and not because I have a brother who happens to be
famous. Now I'm in a very senior position and I don't need a step up the
ladder. So I can speak about him just as my kid brother. And I love him to
KENNETH: Bill and I were working-class Belfast boys, living in a street
where everybody knew everybody else. The area was predominantly Protestant,
but there was a smattering of Catholics. Everybody got on. It sounds
cliched, but there was a real sense of community. We had a large extended
family - my mother was one of nine, my father one of five. Life in Belfast
was very grounded and family-orientated, and Bill and I were thrown
together - we shared a bed when I was six, seven, eight. I remember being
in bed next to him, and whichever book he wasn't reading for school I'd pick
up. So I was introduced to Shakespeare through him. We were both very
taken by the story of Animal Farm, although we couldn't quite work it out.
I remember being struck by the phrase "All animals are equal, but some are
more equal than others." You could see that was true for some people in
There, the cardinal sin was to show off or make a fuss. "Don't start
getting worked up about money. And don't have any ideas above your
station." That was my parents' philosophy. To them, money was only
important for putting a roof over your head; it wasn't an end in itself.
And a person's religion made no difference to my parents, though not
everyone in Belfast shared that view. My dad was a Protestant, but he was
never in the Orange Order; he disliked all that marching lark.
My mum and dad always said that when you grew up you should do whatever
makes you happy - though of course they were nervous of me going into the
theatre, entering a world they knew nothing about. The first play I ever
saw was A Christmas Carol, starring Jospeh Tomlety, a famous old Irish
actor, at the Grove theatre in Belfast. I went with Bill and I was struck
by how magical it was.
Bill's a much more emotionally fiery individual than me. He's very like my
mother. They've always had a frisky relationship. They have a spat, get it
out, then it's all hugs. It's like it's therapeutic for the pair of them.
My father and I are more contained and find it quite hard to show our
feelings. I can lose my rag, but in the end I'd rather have a quiet life.
Bill's much more gregarious than me. I think that social side of me goes
into my work. And both he and my mum would definitely take the bullet for
you. If anything remotely endangers the family, they're just blind
My mother had just got pregnant with my sister when things became quite
intense in Belfast, especially around our era - the Troubles. One night
Bill came running up our street saying: "Get in the house, get in the
house!" We heard a terrible buzzing noise. Just as he was dragging me in,
I saw a sort of cloud at the bottom of the street, which turned out to be a
huge bomb. Bill pushed Mum and me under a table in the back room. We
didn't know it then, but the terrible noise we'd heard was the mob outside,
who were picking up the iron gratings from the drains at the side of the
roads and throwing them through the windows of the Catholic houses. I was
hysterical, Bill was peeping out the curtain and Mum was saying: "Get down,
get down!" A couple of hours later, there were barricades at the top and
bottom of the street, while the men divided themselves into vigilante
groups. Our street had turned into a war zone overnight.
In the wake of that, my parents felt uneasy about Belfast. My father, who
was a joiner, had been offered a job in England, which was more at a
management level, and they decided to take the opportunity. But none of us
was very happy. Being from Belfast made you quite unpopular in England, so
it was a pretty difficult time.
I was miserable. I did a lot of weeping and wailing. Bill was a bit more
stiff-upper-lip. He got stuck in and lost his accent almost immediately.
He was 14, and I think it was tougher for him when people took the mickey.
At that age, with your hormones swirling round, you just want to be like
everybody else. I found it quite difficult to be understood for a while,
but I was a bit more sneaky. I began to use an English accent at school and
an Irish one at home. I found myself very conflicted over that, and
Bill and I were lucky in being reasonably good at games, so we began to fit
in. My mother, taken away from her family in belfast, felt quite isolated.
We'd also stepped up in terms of class. Our house was bigger, and we'd
become lower middle class, with all of those material, educational and
In comparison with Bill, I was a relatively solitary adolescent. I spent
time in the house reading while he was being social and breaking all the
The move to England felt at times like some kind of betrayal. The
transformation from that very grounded Belfast life, with its comfortable
and simple expectations, had a profound effect on me. But I didn't fight to
get it out of my system the way Bill did. And subsequently I carried much
more baggage. Maybe the whole acting game was a way of hiding or escaping
from it. When I try and do my psychobabble analysis of it, I feel that only
now do I have a strong sense of who I am in the way that I did in Belfast.
Maybe the world of acting has shaped itself for me partly as a search for a
sort of extended family that I felt absolutely secure and at home in. Over
the years, I've developed a loose but large repertory company of people in
films and theatre who have become like family - people like Richard Briers,
Brian Blessed, etc.
I developed good performance skills, playing at being something I thought
was expected of me. As an actor, you lose a bit of yourself on the way;
you're not really sure what reality is because you've been tricking yourself
for so long. Finally, the sand settles on some hybrid version of who you
are - whatever that is!
Today I'm less conflicted and guilt-ridden. And, believe me, Jews and
Catholics don't have a monopoly on guilt. The Protestant work ethic was
branded on my forehead: if you are fit and talented it is your duty to use
it. At times I've dealt with my good fortune by thinking: "At least I'm
putting myself under pressure and giving myself less time to enjoy my good
In England, my and Bill's lives began to be even more different. He went
into computer networking and got married quite young. His marriage and
family have been a real education for me. The kids are great. My nieces
are healthily disrespectful of me, and they're tickled by curious little
bits of my celebrity, like when I've worked with someone like Leonardo
DiCaprio. It's interesting to see Bill deal with things with his kids that
my parents never did, like sex, drugs, the Internet. Bill's changed a lot,
but he's still very driven. He's a terrific salesman and businessman, and
sometimes I think he'd be a rather good actor.
For Bill - and maybe this is an Irish thing - the family is immensely
important, and he has an unquestioning loyalty to it. I know he's always
there for me and I'd happily talk to him about anything. If it was a
terrible crisis in the middle of the night, there'd be no "How could you
possibly have this, you idiot?" Our relationship has become very simple,
like having a really good mate. We meet up, have a pint and a game of
snooker, but we know we'd walk over glass for each other.