GQ (British) cover story, October/November 1989
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 king.

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 Branagh.

'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 him.

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?'

Director: 'Yes.'

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 return them.

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 accent.
'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 boy-communist Judd.

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 all established.'
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 the play.

'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 afterwards.

'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, a suspicion.

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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