Kenny, Prince of Lightness
The Guardian (London), November
by Judy Rumbold
When Renaissance man Kenneth
Branagh married his leading lady and remade Henry V, he was called
the new Olivier. But is the flawless success story a triumph
of marketing over merit?
IN THE early eighties, Kenneth
Branagh submitted a film script to Channel 4. It outlined the
story of a young boy who dreamed of being Laurence Olivier. It
did not impress David Rose, the commissioning editor for film,
and it was swiftly rejected. But if Channel 4 didn't buy it,
the media did. Kenneth Branagh's real life story as an aspiring
Olivier made irresistible copy.
Look at his achievements. After
leaving RADA in 1981, he breezed straight into the West End as
Tommy Judd in Julian Mitchell's Another Country. At 23, he joined
the Royal Shakespeare Company and from there went on to establish,
with fellow student David Parfitt, his own theatre company, Renaissance.
At 28 he wrote his autobiography.
Branagh undoubtedly saw himself
in the Olivier role. "I love that sense of theatre having
been handed down through the generations to Irving, who was seen
by Olivier, who was seen by Hopkins, who was seen by me."
Like Olivier, he is an actor/manager
who starred and directed in a hit Hollywood movie. Like Olivier,
he made a film version of Henry V. Also like Olivier, he married
an actress - Emma Thompson - in a fabulous, publicity-drenched
pounds 30,000 wedding at Cliveden House.
The flawless success story is
now so familiar, so relentlessly cheery that the press have all
but given up on it as being too dull. Everything Branagh does
goes swimmingly; talented, efficient and unnerringly shrewd,
he has never made a wrong move.
Until now. People are beginning
to suspect that Branagh is not the new Olivier after all. The
theatre-going public may have been seduced, but the professionals
have been harder to convince.
The comparison to Olivier, says
Richard Eyre, artistic director at the National Theatre, "is
wildly off the mark. Branagh lacks that sense of danger, that
recklessness, savagery and lurking melancholia that, with Olivier,
made for something dark. Ken . . . he's nice. He's decent."
Nice? Decent? Nice and decent
may cut ice in a convent, but aren't they liabilities in a world
known for it's tantrums and histrionics, bitching and backstabbery?
Olivier was never described as nice and decent.
Still, Branagh has come a long
way on resolute ordinariness. As he once said himself: "I
don't want to go round as Sir Kevin O'Lovey, Young Lord of the
Testimony to Branagh's good blokiness
is offered by all who have worked with him. "When he directs",
says John Sessions, "he's not one of those macho types who
wants to use football analogies all the time. Nor does he queen
around. He doesn't say things like "imagine a steel ball
bearing's sliding down your spine and all that rubbish. He's
straight down the line. A nuts and bolts man." Richard Briers,
who was rescued from parsnips and pig farming in BBC's The Good
Life to play Shakespeare for Branagh, agrees. "Ken is down-to-earth,
practical. He talks in primary colours."
Branagh has always been nice.
He's profoundly nice. His niceness runs very deep indeed. He
was born in a Belfast council house in 1960, the son of a carpenter,
and even as a 15-year-old schoolboy he was nothing short of saintly.
"He was funny and very very
likeable", says John Beasley, a teacher at Meadway Comprehensive
in Reading, where he was brought up. "Even teachers looked
up to him. There was a determination there."
Stunning performances in school
productions of Oh! What A Lovely War and Toad Of Toad Hall convinced
Beasley that Branagh was born to act. "He had the audience
in the palm of his hand."
But Branagh wasn't blessed with
particularly actorly looks - matinee idol material he was not.
Beasley remembers "a fairly thick set lad - quite a tough-looking
character. Looked like he'd be good on a sports field."
Indeed, an advertisment for a
girlfriend (placed by a friend - Branagh was much too decent
to indulge in anything so vulgar) in the teenage girl's magazine
Oh Boy! in 1977 reinforced the image of Branagh as loveable jock.
"Sixteen-year-old Ken Branagh is a sports fanatic, but in
between huffin' an' puffin' he also finds time for a bit of guitar
playing and listening to music (his fave is Wings)! He'd like
to write to a young lady of 15 plus, over 5ft, not fussy about
looks but please send photo anyway." Inevitably, Branagh's
innate qualities of niceness and decency leapt from the page
and the mail flooded in.
However, it wasn't niceness and
decency that appealed to Hollywood. Hollywood fell for the first
draft of the life of Branagh - the one that cast him as the new
Olivier. Hollywood liked the idea of Branagh as the dashing young
thesp from London's Theatreland. He gave snob appeal and high-art
credibility to the taut but trite little thriller, Dead Again.
"He's made for Hollywood,"
says Stephen Woolley of Palace Pictures. "He's talented,
he's a boy wonder, he's everything Hollywood's ever wanted".
Is he? In fact, Branagh is the
antithesis of Hollywood. Look at him and his scrum-half's build,
the soft, wholesome features that betray all the menace of a
carpet slipper. You won't catch Branagh being photographed swanning
into Heathrow Arrivals with a bag of Duty Free and a copy of
Hello! Jogging round Hyde Park with a posse of bodyguards and
shopping at Versace isn't his style. It never was.
"He was one of the worst
dressed people at RADA," says John Sessions. "He wore
anoraks, bad jeans and the sort of shoes you'd buy from a chainstore."
He's a snappier dresser now, says Sessions, but perish the thought
that he should ever succumb to vanity. "He's not like one
of these guys you see in a fashion magazine who suck in their
cheeks till the cheekbones touch."
Harsher critics would point out
that in any case, Branagh hasn't got any cheekbones. Worse, he
has no lips to speak of.
Still, poor bone structure and
liplessness don't necessarily make for poor acting. The playwright
David Hare remembers witnessing a precocious talent when he saw
Branagh in Another Country. "He showed an eerie, unnatural
command for someone his age. He set the pace of the play. I've
never seen anyone run a stage as impeccably as he does."
Anthony Sher recorded him "strolling
around that famous stage as if born on it", on the first
night of Adrian Noble's Henry V at Stratford.
If Shakespeare was the photo
on his passport to Hollywood, Hollywood has helped Branagh to
finance his love of Shakespeare. "It is his absolute God,"
says Richard Briers. "It fills him up."
At the age of 15, Branagh took
a tent to Stratford and watched Shakespeare every night. "I
hung around pubs so I could listen to actors talking," he
once said. "I got up the courage to ask the house manager
if I could have a look backstage. I was persistent. Standing
on the stage was like a shot in the arm. Christ, it was fantastic."
Since then, Branagh has, like
Olivier, been driven by a messianic calling to boil Shakespeare
down into good, watchable yarns. "He could be Mr Mega-Rich
lounging by a pool in Hollywood," says the actor and comedian
Tony Slattery, "but he's not. Doing good work is his motor."
Before the release of Henry V,
Branagh said: "I believe it could be a truly popular film.
The audience that wants to see Rambo could also be stimulated
by Henry V." But bringing the Bard to the people (Henry
V finished 64th in 1989's top grossers in the UK, taking a paltry
pounds 664,727) takes time.
To that end, Branagh works like
stink. "What next?", commented a Rada contemporary
with weary speculation. "King Lear on Ice?"
Make no mistake; if Branagh wanted
it, Branagh would get it. "He influences events rather than
puts himself at the mercy of them," says a former RSC actor.
"If he wants to do something, he does it, and if something
doesn't exist, he invents it." He has a lot of front, a
lot of chutzpah, says Stephen Evans, the stockbroker and theatre
fan who drummed up the cash for Henry V and numerous projects
since. "Ken knows how to schmooze people."
While at RADA, Branagh schmoozed
the pants off Olivier, asking him for advice on how he should
play Cherbutykin, the doctor in Chekhov's Three Sisters. He schmoozed
RADA's principal, Hugh Cruttwell, explaining why he needed to
play Hamlet and would he please stage it?
He schmoozed Judi Dench and Derek
Jacobi into directing a Shakespeare season for Renaissance, and
a feat of spectacular schmoozery was performed when, playing
Henry V for the RSC in 1984, Branagh sought and gained an audience
with Prince Charles in order to check out the loneliness of life
at the top. Indeed, so relieved was the Prince to find that Branagh,
instead of being a grimy thesp was in fact a nice, decent chap
with just-washed hair and a firm handshake, that he happily lent
his name to Renaissance as the company's patron.
Over the years, Branagh has been
able to sidestep much of the flak that he would have attracted
for his more lightweight and less successful pieces of hackwork
by saying that they were done for the good of Shakespeare. "It
would be nice," he once said, "to think that there's
some way the movies could finance the theatre."
The pounds 15,000 he earned from
making a risible Hollywood film, High Season, with Jacqueline
Bisset was ploughed straight into his own production of Romeo
And Juliet. His autobiography - a breezy, jobbing piece and by
no means a classic of the genre, was done, by his own admission,
for the pounds 50,000 it brought in to rent premises for Renaissance.
His new film - the sentimental comedy Peter's Friends (made in
three months with a budget of pounds 2 million and released on
Friday) - was made to sponsor the upcoming film of Much Ado About
Nothing, starring Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Robin
Williams and costing around $ 10 million.
But now the older, mellower Branagh
is beginning to suggest that his lightweight work is valid in
itself; that he no longer needs Shakespeare to give him credibility.
That's why his third Hamlet,
currently in rehearshal with Adrian Noble at the RSC - will make
or break him as far as the "Branagh as Olivier" thesis
goes. Indeed, the very critics who praised his 1988 Hamlet, directed
by Derek Jacobi, as the best since Jacobi's own performance in
the seventies now suspect that Branagh's Hamlet of 1992 won't
regain those heights of approval.
As one critic said: "Branagh
is a limited actor. His talent is for light comedy and people
who are rather like him. He needs to work with some first-class
directors again because his acting hasn't been top class recently.
His Corialanus at Chichester was so-so. Hamlet will be the great
Some detractors suspect that
Branagh's abiding preoccupation with niceness and decency is
getting the better of his Shakesperian ambitions.
Peter's Friends is awash with
actors who are Ken's Friends. "'But," protests Stephen
Fry, who plays Peter, "the idea of it being this kind of
lovefest of chums enjoying themsleves is utter rubbish."
He may say that, but it's not
how it looks. 'It's unfortunate," says Stephen Woolley,
referring to a group photograph of Hugh, Emma, Stephen and the
gang on the cover of Time Out, "that they all look so smug".
But then, don't they deserve to be smug? Multi-talented, rich,
hard-working and nice with it, surely Ken's Friends give smug
a good name.
The question is, can Branagh
get tough? Can he discriminate, do new and brave work with his
mates forever in tow?
A luminary of the British Film
Industry who admires Branagh's success but not the films that
have contributed to it found Peter's Friends "too easy.
It was dreadful, sentimental, and there's a couple of people
who shouldn't have been in it. Emma Thompson for one. She's far
"He's kind of separated
himself," says Richard Eyre. "From my point of view
I'd think it would be odd to just offer Ken a job. Because would
I be offering Renaissance Theatre Company a job too? Putting
on Hamlet at the RSC In Association with Renaissance is an amazing
precedent. He has an extraordinary determination to make his
During the last couple of years,
people have stopped making Olivier comparisons. Branagh appears
to be emerging as a talented director of light comedies and romantic
thrillers and has ditched his own Laurence Olivier story line.
Unless his Hamlet restores his reputation on the London stage,
it will be easier to see his future panning out more along the
lines of Noel Coward than Laurence Olivier. And if things go
really wrong he may yet turn into Cary Grant.
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