Three Lions on His Shirt

The Guardian (UK), July 23 1999
by Matt Tench
*thanks to Berni Williams

Shakespeare's OK, but for sheer drama, Kenneth Branagh tells Matt Tench, you can't beat football

Sometimes actors have to make terrible sacrifices. When England played West Germany in Italia 90, Kenneth Branagh was doing King Lear in Norwich. In a tent. The telly was on in the green room - where the actors congregate when not on stage - but, in the best theatrical traditions, the show had to go on, no matter what happened in Turin. Even during the penalties.

``We were in the middle of the storm scene,' Branagh recalls. ``Richard Briers was out there giving it `Blow winds and crack your cheeks' as they started them. We were doing it in relays, as each penalty was being taken. You'd be looking over into the wings and somebody would be doing that [he indicates a thumbs up or thumbs down]. That's how we found out. It was a desperate, desperate night. God knows who was watching the play. We had a tiny audience in this tent, who were, I guess, all the people who weren't interested in football in the country. If it had been any smaller, we'd have cancelled it and watched the game.'

The production was like a microcosm of society. Suddenly everybody was into football: `All the women in the company who weren't interested in football were right there that night. And Richard Briers, who was playing Lear and wasn't interested in football at all, was completely wiped out. He was in tears when Gazza got booked.' Branagh smiles a knowing, self-mocking smile. `All us bloody actors get very emotional.'

Suffering for his art has become something of a constant in the career of Kenneth Branagh, actor, director and football fan. Earlier this year he missed David Ginola's goal against Barnsley in the FA Cup because he was directing a complicated scene on the first day of his new film, a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost. `We were shooting in a swimming pool and we had 25 synchronised swimmers, Alicia Silverstone and various other people. But there was a telly in a van a little way away. It was very hard to get the scene done because there wasn't a spark to be found, all the electricians were interested in the game. But you get the word back as to what has happened.'

Branagh has been a Spurs fan since his childhood in Belfast, where every young boy had three teams: a Northern Irish one, a Scottish one and an English one. His were Tottenham, Linfield and Rangers, the Spurs connection made largely because Danny Blanchflower was ``from my neck of the woods'. He has stuck with them ever since, though he is not a frequent visitor to Tottenham High Road. Certainly he does not share the prejudices of a White Hart Lane diehard - he is even prepared to give the current Arsenal side some credit - but he does boast an impressive knowledge of Spurs past and present, from glorying in Ralph Coates's haircut to knowing how long Darren Anderton has left on his contract. Of the current lot, he is especially fond of Les Ferdinand, though he knows there have to be changes. `I'm amazed by his relative lack of form, because I used to go and watch him a lot at QPR,' he says. ``He played his best football there. He had a better stint at Newcastle than Spurs, but I hope we don't get rid of him as, under the right circs, he could come again, he's got such a strong physical presence.'

Branagh learned of George Graham's appointment while in America, a country in which it is becoming increasingly easy to catch up on the world game, albeit at a price. `I watched a lot of the World Cup in America and oh man! It was just the differences. I can't be having this fucking red zone business.' He puts on his best American commentator's accent: `It's into the fucking red zone [the final third of the field]. That's when you long for the people who otherwise drive you bananas. Like Big Ron. Give me Big Ron rather than Mr Red Zone. And the assist thing drives me mad and this [back to the heavy American accent]: What a great play, let's look at the play again.' He pauses wearily. `Which means that somebody's tackled somebody. You long for that under- the-skin feel for it - you know, that all of our lot have - even if it's as completely potty as Big Ron's chat.' He slows down, enunciating the rest of the sentence deliberately and with an infuriated sotto voce contempt: `Which. Sometimes. Drives. Me. Bananas. I think, `Shut the fuck up'. I mean, you do love him as well, and I was glad that he was there in Barcelona, but sometimes you think, what human vocabulary have you pulled these phrases from? I mean, no footballer has ever uttered them. `Early doors' or `He's turboed up there. . .' '

It is frequently said that footballers are the movie stars of today. As a movie star and football fan, Branagh would seem among the best placed to make the judgment. Certainly he seems to have dealt with his fame with an engaging combination of modesty and irony. Our interview is taking place at a suite in the Dorchester which boasts a bath bigger than some swimming pools I've paid to use and, although in the middle of a dozen interviews, he is unfailingly courteous. He even asks whether I mind if he lights up.

One of his most recent films, Woody Allen's Celebrity, examines the vulgar capriciousness of modern fame but, for all his familiarity with the monster, it's clear that when it comes to great footballers Branagh is much like the rest of us: in awe of them. He still regards meeting George Best at the age of 22 as `one of the greatest events of my life' (Best's first question was `What happened to your accent then?') and, 20 years after Pat Jennings retired, Branagh would consider meeting the great goalie an honour.

As a teenager in Reading, Branagh played on Saturday and Sunday mornings. He was a bruising competitor who relished a bit of argy-bargy and would play anywhere: David Batty, without the skill, by his own description. `I used to go to sleep praying I would wake up talented as a footballer,' he says. `If you could turn the clock back now, and there was a choice between being a relatively successful actor or a successful footballer. . .' He looks at me with a half-smile, perhaps anticipating a degree of scepticism on my part: ``I'd do it in a heartbeat.'

A slightly surreal debate ensues as to whether he'd really make the change given that at his age - 38 - his career would be over, unless he was Lothar Matthaus. While acknowledging the downside of the swap, his passion for the game remains as vivid as a Martin Chivers pile-driver. `It still gets me more excited than anything else,' he says. `I just like it. I always have done. It's a beautiful thing and I've always watched it. If you think of the drama you encounter - professionally, as it were - what is there to equal the kind of national moment produced by those semi-finals in Italia 90 and Euro 96, or even the last two minutes with Bayern Munich?

`I was watching the European Cup final with Brian Blessed, and we had five dogs with us, who, by this stage, were going potty because dogs pick up whatever mood you're in. And we were absolutely fucking screaming at the thing. With five minutes to go we're both like that. . . [he makes a forlorn face] and Big Ron - God bless him - Big Ron in those last five minutes, said [in full Big Ron accent] `You know, if they get one, I'll tell you what I think, they're going to go on and win it.' The first fucking accurate thing he's said the entire game.

`And then they score - they score - and fuck me, it's Sheringham, you couldn't have written it. So that, in itself, whatever you think of Sheringham, you think, Christ this is like fucking Boys' Own stuff, isn't it? And Blessed is so excited he's practically pissed himself, so he's had to go to the loo, and he's in the loo when suddenly we're going, `Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!' The dogs are fucking flinging themselves out the fucking window 'cos they're thinking, God, somebody's being killed. Blessed comes back with fucking stains all over his fucking trousers, couldn't fucking believe it. Missed the second goal, couldn't believe it. He was practically fucking suicidal. It was fantastic.' Then the greatest English actor of his generation pauses for a second, his eyes sparkling at the memory. `And this,' he says, `this is drama.'

A longer version of this article appears in the September issue of FourFourTwo, which goes on sale on Wednesday

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