The Force of Branagh
Daily Mail, July 31 1992
But then there was a star danced,
and under that I was born,' says Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
She could have been talking about Kenneth Branagh.
He is the outstanding English
actor of his generation, some would say, if not quite all. What
can't be denied is his sheer unstoppable energy.
He's everywhere. He opened in
Coriolanus at the Chichester Festival early in the summer, playing
the title part in a production by his own Renaissance company,
with its patron the Prince of Wales there for the first night.
The company is his great love. As director Patrick Garland says,
any self-interest on Ken's part 'is clearly for the welfare of
In October, his latest film,
Peter's Friends, will be released. Described as 'an English Thirtysomething',
it stars (need one say?) Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie
and Mrs Kenneth Branagh, aka Emma Thompson.
And next week the Branaghs are
in Tuscany to begin filming Much Ado About Nothing with Renaissance
regulars like Imelda Staunton and Brian Blessed - not to say
Hollywood star Michael Keaton, until now better known for parts
like Batman than Shakespeare's pompous, incompetent Dogberry
whom he plays in Much Ado.
Branagh's fans already have a
hard time keeping up with him. Three months ago they needed to
prime their video recorders when he starred in a television adaptation
of J.L. Carr's A Month In The Country at the same time as he
was in a complete version of Hamlet, co-directing as well, on
Thanks to the wonders of broadcasting
technology, he wasn't actually giving simultaneous performances
on radio and TV, but with Kenneth Branagh you would think it
was almost possible.
At the age of 32, most actors
would have been content with fame on the stage itself. Not so
Branagh. He founded his own company in 1987, and then directed
his first movie in 1990. All that, and he knows everyone. Television's
The Late Show wittily reminded us how to pronounce his name:
'Kenneth Branagh, Kenneth Branagh, Friend of Charles and of Diana.'
His royal patronage came about
through sheer persistence as well as chance. But that is Branagh's
way. Showbiz being showbiz - particularly in this country, it's
tempting to say - there are always bad-mouths to whisper that
the golden boy isn't really all that brilliant.
In Kenneth Branagh's case, funnily
enough, even his friends and admirers argue.
'He's no magician,' Patrick Garland
says, adding that this may be why he has gone far and may go
'PEOPLE who are tremendously
determined by starting with a modest talent carve themselves
into the very creatures they've set their sights on. They become
more forceful than the ones who started with genius. God knows
the wayside is littered with those.'
Still, genius or not there must
have been an unusual star dancing over Belfast when he was born
there in 1960.
His father, Billy, was a joiner,
and the family were Protestant. The early Sixties were a time
of peace in Northern Ireland, but all that changed horribly in
The family decided to move to
Reading where Ken grew up, speaking 'Ulster' at home but quickly
learning to speak the local way at Meadway Comprehensive, no
bad training for an actor.
He auditioned for RADA and was
called back for a second interview. It wasn't doubt about his
ability, says Hugh Cruttwell, principal of the acting school
then and a friend and mentor since: 'He was so amazingly accomplished
that I wanted to see what lay beneath the surface skill.'
The skill was remarkable, even
if it wasn't the electric brilliance of some great actors. Cruttwell
says that a great actor has to have 'imagination, sensitivity,
passion, intelligence and humour. Kenneth has an abundance of
all of those.'
Yes, but he also has something
else: energy, sheer determination and perseverance. It was those
that helped him win his glittering prizes, from the Bancroft
Gold Medal at RADA on, quite as much as any innate flair.
Before he was 22, Branagh was
on the West End stage in Julian Mitchell's Another Country, taking
London by storm and winning a Most Promising Newcomer award.
Sometimes promise is unfulfilled;
not with Branagh. He soon joined the Royal Shakespeare Company,
but found it stiflingly bureaucratic. There may have been more
to it. Whether they love him or not, one thing many thoughtful
theatre-goers will deeply sympathise with Kenneth Branagh about
is the tyranny of the director. As one friend says: 'Ken doesn't
suffer foolish directors gladly.'
And Branagh himself tells about
directors' pretentiousness. When the king and queen in one of
Shakespeare's plays joins their court, the director told the
actor and actress: 'In a strange kind of way, I'd like you to
absent yourself from yourself and give yourself to nationhood.'
'You mean you want us to bow?' said Branagh. 'Yes, that's it.'
He took this to heart. After
a succession of well-presented theatre performances, he formed
the Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, to give Shakespeare
if not quite 'straight' then at least closer to what the Bard
had in mind than many modern directors realise. He himself is
a no-nonsense, no-frills director.
'He's terribly down-to-earth,'
the actor John Sessions says. 'There's no intellectual messing
about or emotional theorising, you know, 'What am I feeling here,
'He prefers to get on and do
it and see if it works, not sit in a pub and talk about it.'
The year he founded Renaissance
saw another change in Branagh's life. He starred in the television
adaptation of Olivia Manning's Fortunes Of War, opposite Emma
Thompson. They married two years later and have become the golden
couple of English theatre. She played opposite him in the film
of Henry V, which established his - and their - international
IT WAS a critical triumph, picking
up the prizes like a vacuum cleaner. Apart from the Evening Standard
Best Film award, there was an Oscar for costume design, two gongs
from the British Film Institute, one in New York and one as Young
European Film Of The Year. The point of that list was that Kenneth
Branagh was now bankable, as they say in Hollywood.
More than that, he was reliable.
Henry V was completed on schedule and under budget. Never mind
the quality - that sort of efficiency is the way to make friends
and influence people in the movie business.
Everyone who has worked with
him says the same thing, that he is ferociously hard-working,
a 15-hour-a-day man and completely genuine.
At all events, Kenneth Branagh
could now dictate his own terms. He did, with Dead Again, his
first, very own film (Henry V had, after all, enjoyed some help
from Shakespeare). The spoof-thriller demonstrated Branagh's
new-found strength in more ways than one. While shooting, he
and Donald Sutherland found that they weren't hitting it off.
Both cited 'artistic differences' as the cause of their disagreements.
Branagh decided what needed to
be done, and replaced Sutherland with Derek Jacobi. Considering
that Sutherland is a top film actor, this showed determination
and sheer power of command.
He has showed the same will-power
in another way. Nothing would have been easier than for him to
move to Hollywood: with one bound, our hero is financially free.
But not free in other ways. He was made a mega-offer, more than
£1million for one film.
'I slept on it for weeks,' he
says. It couldn't possibly be rejected out of hand. After all,
'I can do lots of things with that sort of money. And it wasn't
a question of 'I'm not going to sell my soul''.
But in the end, after much agonising
he decided against. No, he's not an Ulster Protestant for nothing.
HIS OWN explanation for his decision
is a simple - and a good - one. 'I live in Kilburn - a not particularly
fashionable part of north-west London - and that's where I'm
'I have a very comfortable life
and I'm dull - and I get into town by tube and I like to walk.
So I've chosen to build for myself what I would call a more normal
Some would say that there is
nothing normal about starring on the West End stage at 21 or
directing your own film at 30, about starting your own stage
company and taking it from Chichester to Tuscany, but what he
means is clear enough. Kenneth Branagh is determined to be his
own man, to do it his way, to run his career on his own terms.
He knows that he could become
one of the best-paid movie stars of the age, but 'I would be
sacrificing my peace of mind'.
As it is, he not only wants to
do it his way, but the funny thing is, he looks as if he can,
Back to Articles Listing
Back to the Compendium