The Force of Branagh

Daily Mail, July 31 1992
author unknown

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 Renaissance.'

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 Radio 3.

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 further.

'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 1968.

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, darling?'

'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 reputations.

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 happy.

'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 life.'

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, and will.

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