Over the Wall With Ken and Paul
My Weekly, 9 June 2001, by Michael Duncan
He's been a hero on stage on in film - and now Kenneth Branagh is putting his talents to a new use, by helping children get away to holiday camp. And he gets to work with Paul Newman, too...
Kenneth Branagh didn't know what to expect when screen idol Paul Newman told him that he wanted to meet for a chinwag. And as Kenneth entered the foyer of the plush hotel for the meeting that had been arranged for the occasion, he felt rather overawed.
The Shakespearean maestro had already made a big name for himself in the film world. But compared to Newman's impressive roll of honours, his own achievements paled into insignificance.
Kenneth didn't dare hope that his hero wanted to perform in one of his Shakespearean epics!
But then they shook hands and got engaged in conversation. And Newman began to explain what was on his mind.
"When the moment of truth arrived he just asked me if I wanted to go on a camping weekend," Kenneth laughs, his eyes twinkling.
"It was absolutely nothing like what I had foreseen. He suggested that I get involved in a scheme that sends kids with cancer on camping vacations. As part of the project we would go along, meet the kids and join in the activities."
Paul is the founder of The Hole in The Wall Gang, a charity which makes these trips possible for children aged 6-17 whose families can't afford to send them. All the youngsters have cancer or have receovered from the illness. And Paul has devoted much of his valuable time to the project which raises money to pay for the camps.
"He decided that he wanted to pass his legacy on to me," says Kenneth. "He had founded camps in America, Ireland and Europe. And now he wanted me to become the new president of the group's UK branch.
"I just felt so honoured to be in his presence that I would have jumped off a mountain if Paul Newman had asked me to."
But you can tell that the actor has lent his support to the cause because he has real compassion for the children it helps.
The Over The Wall Gang is the British arm of the Newman's brainchild. The idea of the UK camp is to give kids a break away from home in a setting where they can take part in sporting, dramatic and artisitic projects supervised by group leaders. By meeting kids their own age they can come to terms with their illness.
For experience Kenneth went along to the Irish campsite and met the kids.
"There was a really exciting atmosphere in the place," says Kenneth. "And these youngsters were really enjoying themselves." The top actor's considerable dramatic talents came in handy for a spirited performance of Shakespeare classic Henry V during his stay at the camp.
"The kids were all part of the English Army," recalls Kenneth. "So they were running around like wild things."
But Kenneth was touched by the efforts of a little haemophiliac boy who was prancing around so much that they had to stop him.
"This kid couldn't contain himself because he was enjoying himself so much," explains Kenneth. "But we had to curtail his over-exuberance because he could have cut himself."
The camps conform to stringent medical criteria so it provides a safe, protective environment.
"It's just great for them all to get away from the reality of their conditions at these trips," says Kenneth. "Cancer is a terrifying experience for them. It also gives them the opportunity to exchange stories about how they cope.
"Many of these kids have never had the chance to do anything like this before. So they bond with kids they would otherwise never have met."
Kenneth didn't have an easy upbringing himself and says that he too could have benefited from such an outing in his youth.
"Although I haven't suffered from cancer it would have been nice to get away from the environment I was raised in," he explains.
He was brought up in Northern Ireland, the son of a carpenter. A Protestant family, the Branaghs lived in a terraced council house in the midst of Belfast's troubles.
"It was really tough," recalls Kenneth. "Apart from the fact that we had little money and had to try and keep life and soul together we were under constant threat of violence. But we learned some strong values that stood us in good stead later."
Kenneth embraced a more genteel lifestyle when he and his family moved across the water, to Reading in Berkshire when he was nine. But it wasn't easy for a boy with a broad Irish lilt to adapt to the habits of an English rural town.
"After a year I had managed to become English at school and Irish at home," reflects Kenneth. "But you can never shake off your heritage. So I often felt that I was leading a sort of double life."
One day, 15-year-old Kenneth took a train trip to Oxford to watch his hero Derek Jacobi perform a Shakespearean tragedy.
"It was so inspiring it changed my life," says Kenneth. "From that moment I knew that I wanted to act. And I also decided to pledge allegiance to the Bard."
His ambitions grew when he clinched a place at RADA. On graduating, he began a theatrical career.By the age of 23 he was the Royal Shakespeare Company's youngest Henry V and he founded his own Renaissance Theatre Company shortly afterwards. The concpet was to enlist other classical actors who had the same passionate desire to recreate the work of Stratford-upon-Avon's most acclaimed citizen.
He soon expanded his horizons to the silver screen and became famous as the man who got Shakespeare into the movies.
"Film is the most widely-used medium", explains the fair-haired star, "and many people would never ever experience Shakespeare if it wasn't for the cinema. It's given Will a new image. Most people would never think of delving into the work of Shakespeare otherwise because they associate him with the dusty, stern-looking volumes that are taught in educational establishments."
Ken has directed and starred in half a dozen Shakespeare screen epics including Othello, Hamlet and Love's Labour's Lost, we well as fitting in time to star in other movies like Celebrity and Proposition. He's currently in Australia shooting a film called Rabbit-Proof Fence and has a film called Conspiracy, set in 1942 Berlin, in the pipeline. Kenneth also has a three picture deal with Miramax to do Shakespeare classics. They've already done Love's Labour's Lost. And the next two are going to be cinematic version of Macbeth and As You Like It.
"I guess William and I were in Stratford-upon-Avon at different times," Kenneth chuckles. "But I think he would be chuffed that his work is still so revered - even in the twenty-first century." Kenneth's success both perofrming and directing the playwright's greatest hits on celluloid bought him a lifestyle he had never imagined.
He also moved a bit closer to some of the characters he played in the social structure, with expensive cars and houses in Britain and America.
He was so determined to get his performances right that he even asked the Prince of Wales what it was like to be royal when he was directing the film version of Henry V.
"Like all actors, I study the traits and physical characteristics of the people I am imitating," explains Kenneth. "Obviously I couldn't ask the real Henry V so Prince Charles was the nearest person to him that I could think of!
"I got tips on how to walk, how to talk and even how to shrug the royal shoulders. Apart from walking and talking regally, you also need to have that special presence which makes you stand out from ordinary mortals." Both in his professional and charity work, Kenneth would seem to have plenty of that.
To get in touch with The Over The Wall Gang, send an SAE to OTWGC, Alderney House, 58 Normandy Street, Alton, Hampshire GU34 1DE