GQ (British) cover story, October/November
by Bryan Appleyard
Kenneth Branagh, the most exciting actor of his day, is set
to storm the screen in Henry V. Bryan Appleyard meets the future
These are the reasons why Kenneth Branagh is nothing like Laurence
Olivier: 'I'm not tall, dark, and good-looking. I've not been
through the whole matinee idol thing. I haven't been to Hollywood.
I live in a different theatrical world -- I'm not Sir Kenny O'Lovey
with that tremendously glamorous thing they had.'
These are the reasons why Kenneth Branagh is precisely like Laurence
Olivier: he is an actor-manager single-handedly attempting to
transform British theatre, and he has just made a movie of Henry
V, Olivier's celebrated version came out in 1944.
'Yeah, but if anybody made another screen version that connection
would be made. Terry Hands was asked what he thought I would
do next, and he said it depended on what chapter I was up to
in Olivier's biography. I thought: fuck it. I like Terry but
he winds me up something rotten -- he always finds the right
remark to drive me bananas.'
Branagh thinks 'fuck it' a lot. He says it a lot too, but you
don't read that elsewhere. He is vehement, impassioned, massively
impatient, and meeting a fool drives him into paroxysms of despair.
But he is also smart. What he wants to say is that the British
theatre and cinema industries are full of dull, complacent half-wits,
that the Arts Council are imbeciles, and that your average director
should, at the very least, be prevented from breeding. But he
doesn't. Well, not quite.
'I was vaguely surprised and shocked -- then encouraged -- by
the fact that there were a lot of wankers about in the theatre
telling you things weren't possible, a lot of people who didn't
know what they were fucking talking about. So conventional wisdom
would sometimes come from prats. As soon as I was told by people
I didn't respect that I couldn't do this or that, then it made
me want to do it even more.'
The net effect of which is that he is, at 28, widely regarded
as potentially the best actor in British theatre. He has founded
his own theatre company -- Renaissance -- which seems to be able
to assemble more talent that the National or RSC put together;
Henry V, a 4.6 million pound project which everybody told him
definitely could not be done, comes out this month; and his autobiography,
Beginning, has just hit the bookstands. The latter was done solely
for money: his 50,000 pound advance from Chatto Windus was used
to keep Renaissance afloat. He makes this mercenary motive clear
in the first paragraph, somewhat to the annoyance of Chatto's
boss Carmen Callil. But even La Callil decided not to mess with
'She wasn't too chuffed about the introduction, I must say. I
suspect the book will be savaged. People will be asking: who
the fuck does he think he is? I knew they'd bring it out the
week before the film opens. I'd rather not be set up as young
Sir Kenny O'Lovey giving you his memoirs at the same time as
he flogs his movie. It's like saying: can you take the piss now,
please? I've made myself a bit of a cunt.'
Branagh is lunching, apparently unrecognised by the clientele,
at the Cafe Des Fleurs, a small, friendly brasserie near the
flat he shares with Emma Thompson in West Hampstead. He is a
regular, ordering tomato and mozzarella salad, halibut steak,
green salad, fat chips (they offer the alternative of 'thin chips')
and a glass of house white.
He is strange-looking -- you think you have him at first glance,
but then you find yourself repeatedly checking, as if the image
will not quite stick. The hair is light and wavy and stands high
on his scalp. The features are vaguely pugnacious, slightly potatoey.
The manner is that of the good bloke, energetic and anxious to
get on with things, and the conversation is a roller-coaster
of anecdotes and chummy obscenities. Then there is the alter-ego
-- Sir Kenny O'Lovey -- a fruity old theatrical knight of the
hand-kissing, darling-you-were-wonderful school of drama. Sir
Kenny is everything that Branagh is not. He represents all the
precious red velvet fineries, where Branagh represents a muscular,
driving, narrative theatre.
But the truth is that Sir Kenny, though a stock satirical target
in his conversation, is not his real enemy. For Sir Kenny is
no more than a harmless Edwardian charmer, the model of the theatrical
dandy that dominated British theatre until the fifties. He was
actually overthrown in about 1956 by angry, dissident theatre,
by the fight to establish the big, subsidized palaces at the
South Bank and the Barbican ('What a place to have a theatre,'
says Branagh, 'it's as dead as a fucking dodo'), and, above all,
by the increasing power of the director. Under Peter Hall and
Trevor Nunn, the National and the RSC became director-led operations
in which the actors were little more than servants.
Finally the palaces were built and occupied, the directors entrenched
and then, inevitably, the whole lot of them began to look fat
and complacent. Sir Kenny had changed into Trevor and Peter and
Terry, but the song remained much the same. Nunn, in particular,
became so grand and unavailable that, as Branagh records in his
book, RSC actors took to writing Jim'll Fix It asking to meet
Director power in the theatre has been so accepted over the past
20 years that it is easy to forget what an odd phenomenon it
actually is. Stars like Peter Brook, Hall and Nunn came to represent
the wolrd of smart theatre just as effectively as, in the previous
generation, Gielgud, Richardson and Olivier had. Inevitably this
led to a growing sense of remoteness from the actors who, though
they never said it, began to suffer a sense of injustice. Finally,
as many of the big directors sold out to commercial theatre,
a new generation came along who were even more remote from the
art of acting.
Branagh has quoted his own favourite exchange with one of these
absurdly pretentious types who suddenly infested the business.
Director: 'What would be wonderful when the King and Queen come
in, is if you could embody the concept of honour and embody the
concept of kingship and in a strange way absent yourself from
yourself and give yourself to nationhood.'
Branagh: 'You'd like us to bow?'
So the British theatre was ready for something which, in the
event, turned out to be Branagh.
He was born in 1960 in Protestant Belfast, the son of a joiner.
The family and the society from which he sprang were tightly-knit
and parochial, sentimental about themselves and mistrustful of
others. Nevertheless, when the Ulster troubles began in the late
Sixties, his parents were clear-sighted enough to leave. Branagh
himself got involved to the extent of looting a bombed supermarket
of one pack of Omo and a tin of Vim, but his mother made him
They moved to England, a trauma for the nine year old which is
massively underwritten in the book, but clearly did much to create
the Branagh of today.
'I think the move to Reading is another book. I'm only just beginning
to come to terms with the consequences of it. In Ireland you
were part of a large extended family, you were aware of having
a place where you belonged. Then, suddenly, you are on your own.
Your parents are uncomfortable and The Troubles are on the news
every night and you're going to school with this thick Belfast
'I remember the most terrible thing I ever did. We were going
on a school trip and my parents were driving me to school and
we had to pick up some friends. I remember saying to my mother:
"Would you mind speaking a little more clearly tomorrow,
Mum?" She was devastated and in tears. I felt dreadful.
But there was always this pressure inside...'
His background also gave him a kind of paranoid caution, a conviction
that they were out to get him.
'Fear, suspicion, whatever, a kind of innate protectiveness.
I have been instinctively building layers of protection against
the world, which I believe somewhere in my subconscious is going
to fuck me over. When you move to a strange place where you talk
funny, you immediately have to start being deceptive. I began
speaking English at school, then coming home and speaking in
an Irish accent. Not only was I doing that, but I was also wracked
with guilt about it.'
It is something he admits he has not really faced in the book
-- 'maybe I haven't really opened up, maybe I'm just terrified
of being shat upon.' But then again, the book's real theme is
about his discovering confidence in the face of the problems
of his profession, rather than about his own background.
'One casualty of it all is that I've seldom enjoyed anything
that I've done. It's gone by and suddenly you're onto the next
thing, always desperately worried about feeling pleased with
yourself -- the moment you do that the Gods will be there, smacking
you hard on the back of your head.'
Suspicious, wary, cautious, and yet madly energetic to the point
where a moment's inactivity inspired almost instant guilt, Branagh
became a kind of teenage time-bomb looking for somewhere to explode.
Journalism narrowly escaped -- he ran a young people's books
column in a Reading paper -- and then he discovered acting. First
it had been Burt Lancaster in Bird Man of Alcatraz, and then
it was his own four parts in a school production of Oh! What
a Lovely War. He played, respectively, Lancaster, Tom Courtenay,
Robert Newton and Michael Caine. He went to RADA and then straight
into the West End production of Another Country, playing the
Some critics spotted him at once. 'He was a great discovery,
appearing suddenly out of nowhere, fully matured,' recalls Irving
Wardle of The Times. David Parfitt, later to be Branagh's partner
in Renaissance and another member of the cast, says, 'He was
a bit of an outsider when he first arrived. We all used to kid
Rupert Everett that this new boy would put him in the shade.
He was one of the lads after a week though.'
After that he scuffled about for a while, narrowly missed playing
Mozart in the film of Amadeus, put his own one man show consisting
of a reading of Tennyson's Maude, was spotted by the RSC and,
finally, cast to play the lead in Henry V at Stratford. His research
of the role included visiting Prince Charles to ask him what
it was like to be royal, a typical why-the-hell-not gesture.
HRH confided that he often felt the need to be very silly or
very violent. Branagh, hugely impressed with Charles, later drew
him in as patron of Renaissance.
'He bore,' writes Branagh, 'the inevitable bruises of his position
with great courage, and although, sitting opposite him, I could
detect the haunted look of responsibility, the very fact that
he was speaking to me was an indication of his desire to give
people the benefit of the doubt.'
Henry V made Branagh's name as the brightest young star, and
also as a dissident. Anthony Sher recalled him on the first night
at Stratford, 'strolling around that famous stage as if born
on it' -- more evidence of Branagh's curious gift for always
seeming to spring fully-formed from nowhere. His performance
grew better and better and, by the time the show reached London,
the reviews were uniform raves. But, meanwhile, he had fallen
out badly with the RSC.
'The system,' he writes in Beginning, 'had become highly pressurised
and enormous, and it struck me as wrong to encourage actors to
expect an old-fashioned paternalism from joint artistic directors
who did not have time to implement this.' What he meant was,
the RSC was collapsing, with Hands unable to cope and Nunn, the
self-confessed absentee landlord, hardly ever there. Indeed,
Branagh records the excitement among the cast at the 138th performance
of Henry V. He assumed royalty had come, but it turned out to
be just Nunn. After the play, he came backstage to see Branagh
and, in a manner described as a cross between Uriah Heep and
Martin Luther King, told him the whole thing had been 'huuuuuugely
enjoyable.' Nunn does not come well out of Beginning.
Branagh wrote a one-act satire about the RSC called Tell Me Honestly,
which was put on by a fringe group, and he finally left with
Hands warning him not, under any circumstances, to try and set
up his own company.
So of course he did, using the money he earned from the television
series Fortunes of War, on which he met Emma Thompson. That it
worked, just, and that, in doing so, he became an unofficial
leader of the bet of the British acting profession, is now history.
Judi Dench, Richard Briers, Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed and almost
anybody else you can think of, are now all part of the Renaissance
repertory for, mysteriously, Branagh appears to generate little
envy among fellow performers despite his precocious talents.
'I think there is a generation thing there. I'm no threat. I'm
not going to take Richard Briers's parts or Derek Jacobi's, and
certainly not Jude Dench's, so there's a certain trust. They're
But there are also two other factors. First, Branagh employs
them as directors as well as actors, thus loudly proclaiming
the profession's long-held suspicion that they could do the job
better themselves. Secondly, the Renaissance house style has
a trustworthy solidarity to it. Shakespeare is played for thrills,
narrative drive and with a broadly conventional setting. Sign
up with Branagh and you won't be asked to play Macbeth for laughs
or Othello as Brixton Rasta.
'There's a certain trust established. They know I'm not going
to set the play in a circus or something. If I had been making
the movie and I had been Derek Jarman or somebody else directing,
they would have been worried and harder to persuade.
'The radicalism of my approach is all to do with tone and styles
of acting. I've not seen a lot of the plays so I come to them
fresh. I want a form of popular communication that reaches a
lot of people. I've got nothing against, say, The Tempest set
in 2020, but my insides rebel against it. It's theatrical, but
I can't do it. It's a way of avoiding one of the problems of
'I suppose what I do is at a cruder level, but I'm very interested
in getting my own folks to come and see it. I haven't turned
them into theatre goers, they still watch TV, but I want things
that are available to them. My awareness of the elitism of what
we do is acute--but I feel better trying to do Shakespeare head-on
rather then coming round the side.'
Nevertheless, Renaissance would not have survived, and certainly
Henry V would never have been made, had not a rather odd stockbroker
named Stephen Evans turned up one day to meet Branagh. Assuming
this was some kind of nutter, Branagh, then in the middle of
directing a rehearsal for John Sessions's one man show Napoleion,
passed him on to his partner David Parfitt. Evans told them he
could raise 60,000 pounds for some plays, and even finance a
film. Even so, establishing Renaissance Films proved a bitter
experience for Branagh. He recalls visiting the Government-backed
British Screen Advisory Council to ask for money. They turned
him down. On the spot Branagh was polite but, typically, he raged
'I was in a rage for days. I mean fuck! British Screen -- Henry
V! Use your fucking imagination. You couldn't have a better flagship.
Take a fucking risk! I will finish the fucking thing on time,
I won't go over budget.'
Somehow Evans raised the 4.6 million pounds and financed the
plays. He was the barrier that stopped Renaissance sliding into
bankruptcy as other brave experiments, initially successful,
have done. In addition, the combination of the book and his proven
expertise have allowed Branagh himself to stand back.
'They're financially independent of me now. A bad show will still
put them in big trouble and, if Henry is a disaster, there would
be problems. It would be nice if we got the Arts Council behind
us at some stage. But we're philosophically so far apart. I'd
like to say, "you give me the money and I'll do the job.
I'll do touring and all those other things but please leave it
to me." I suppose it's a case of massive ego meets bureaucracy.'
None of this, however, quite answers the big question about Branagh
-- is he really as good as they say, or is he massively over-hyped
and about to come crashing earthwards? The first answer is that
he is a stunningly good technical actor -- so good, in fact,
that his technique frequently takes over the part. His Hamlet
was good but ordinary at the edges, and in his own play, Public
Enemy, both the writing and the acting were held back by over-smartness
and melodrama. In Look Back in Anger he was censured for 'pressing
too hard on the histrionic pedal.' So the safe thing to say is
that here is limitless technique that has, so far, failed to
turn into great acting.
But the problem with that glib conclusion is that Henry V is
a whole different ball game. It limps at first but then, at the
battle of Agincourt, takes off. Every Branagh speech has you
shivering -- on any serious assessment, it is a better film that
Olivier's. Branagh achieves the one thing that Olivier so often
failed to do -- he moves you to tears.
Of course, it is a comparison that we should not be making. It
irritates Branagh, though, at the same time, you can see it excites
him. But the truth is that he is the antithesis of Olivier --
a fast-talking, uppity working-class lad who can't understand
why everybody else doesn't find it as easy as he does. His halibut-and-house-white
blokeishnesss is really a hard protective carapace that has never
quite, whenever I have met him, concealed a certain coldness,
Now he thinks the knows what he was hiding all along -- the memory
of that shock arriving in England with a mind mistrustful of
happiness or friendship and a hard Belfast brogue that meant
to the English only random violence and a culture far more alien
than they could ever have foreseen.
'That whole Protestant, Puritan conscience,' he summarizes angrily,
'work hard, enjoy yourself, but don't enjoy yourself that much.
I'd like to think I'm freeing myself of those particular shackles,
if only because I'm aware of them at long last. The Puritan in
me always resisted complaining -- for fuck's sake, I would think,
get on with it, don't be a cunt.
'It takes a long time to get over that.'
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