Premiere (UK), December 1995
by John Naughton
Kenneth Branagh returns defiant
after the multi-million dollar debacle of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
to make his lightest film since Peter's Friends. Ironically it
also coincides with one of the lowest points in his private life.
Ten days after he spoke to John Naughton, the break-up of his
six-year message to Emma Thompson was announced. Fuck this, indeed.
"An empty theatre is a lonely
place. Behind the tinsel glitter of the curtain and the greasepaint,
the theatre can be a hard, lonely world, especially for the actor."
The place: Reading Civic Centre. The year: 1976. A 16-year-old
Kenneth Branagh, having decided on a career in the theatre, is,
with characteristic zeal, seeking out advice from the appropriate
authorities, who have unearthed a dusty sheet of A4 bearing the
above advice, a stern admonition for any youth foolish enough
to want to tread the boards for a living.
Reading, where Branagh moved
from his native Belfast at the age of nine, has never enjoyed
the happiest relationship with the Arts. Oscar Wilde (who else?)
declared, "The best way to see Reading is going through
it on a train." T.E. Lawrence would probably have agreed.
He left the completed manuscript of his epic, The Seven Pillars
of Wisdom, in the buffet at Reading Station, where it was cleared
away with the half-eaten sticky buns and unread, unfunny issues
Twenty years on from receiving
his "abandon all hope ye who enter the theatre" career
advice, Kenneth Branagh is releasing a film which attempts to
prove Reading wrong, or at least that bit of it which tried to
write off the theatre as "a lonely place."
In the Bleak Midwinter, a black-and-white
tale of a bunch of resting actors putting on a production of
Hamlet in a village called Hope to save the local church, gives
an unashamedly optimistic portrait of the thespian community
as a sustaining, surrogate family, binding together in adversity
to support one another. It has a message (and title) which will
chime with its seasonal Christmas release. It is light, funny,
unpretentious and all over soon enough to allow several seasonal
tinctures to be taken afterwards in the bar.
Ironically, however, the release
of Kenneth Branagh's lightest film since Peter's Friends coincides
with one of the lowest points in his private life, in the aftermath
of the break-up of his six-year marriage to Emma Thompson. Ten
days after this interview took place, Emma Thompson pre-empted
a Sunday newspaper exclusive and appeared on her doorstep, describing
herself as feeling "very ropey," to confirm that British
theatre's most famous couple were separating.
I only mentioned Emma Thompson--then
in post-production on her adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and
Sensibility--once in the course of the interview, and that was
to ask, How many nights in an average month do you spend under
the same roof?
"There's no averages,"
Branagh replied. "We just had a couple of months off, so
we spent all our time together, and then Em goes to New York,
doing a bit of editing on Sense and Sensibility. It comes and
goes, you know? It gets more or less extreme depending on how
you're working, whether you're in the same country.
"I know it's a cliche, but
I always think it's a question of the quality of time
you spend together. But you know, you have to work at that. A
lot of people live in the same house and see each other every
day and don't necessarily want to do that...I think there are
areas of one's life where if you talk about them too much or
get too obsessed with them then you start thinking, Is there
a pattern for this? There aren't two people like just, just like
there's nobody like you and whoever you're in love with. We're
all in pressurised situations just by virtue of living in '95.
We do all right."
In light of all this, one cannot
help thinking that the words which will best sum up Kenneth Branagh's
Yuletide season will not be those of the famous carol "In
the Bleak Midwinter" but, rather more to the point, those
of Les Gray (of Mud fame), to wit: "It'll Be Lonely This
Like Liverpool in their all-conquering pomp, Kenneth Branagh
has been too successful to also be popular. From his days at
RADA, where he won the gold medal for his year, Branagh's career
has appeared, like the graph of an over-performing blue-chip
company, to flow remorselessly upwards.
Beginning with a series of acclaimed
performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company (at 23, he was
Stratford's youngest ever Henry V), via his company Renaissance,
which successfully straddled the worlds of film and theatre,
with a brief detour to write the first volume of his autobiography
at the unfeasibly precocious age of 28, our Ken has only ever
been at home to Mr and Mrs Success. (He maintains, of course,
that there has been disaster as well as triumph along the way,
but only he remembers this.)
But if success made him fashionably
unpopular, then, by rights, the release last year of Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein should have made him the toast of the town. As is
generally the case, the failure of his adaptation of the Mary
Shelley classic was greater in perception than reality (it was
delivered on time and on budget and has grossed more than $106
million worldwide, keeping it at a safe distance from the likes
of Heaven's Gate.) Nonetheless, no one--least of all Branagh--pretends
that its commercial performance was anything other than a profound
Happy to report, this dispiriting
reaction to his work has not embittered Branagh and he appears
utterly sanguine, if a little bemused by its reception.
"People say to me in a slightly
pitying way, 'Were you interfered with on that movie?'"
he explains. "'Is that why it's shite?' To which I say,
"No, no, no. It's my movie, it's shite because that's
the way I made it.' Of course I don't think it's shite,
but if that's what you think, it's entirely my responsibility."
In The Devil's Candy, the story
of the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities and the definitive
account of disaster in moviedom, there is a chilling moment when
a pair of Warner Bros suits survey a first-night queue for the
movie at one New York cinema and decree there and then that it
will be a colossal turkey. Had there been some similar dread
moment of epiphany during Frankenstein.
"Well, about two weeks before
the film opened," Branagh recalls, "I was pursued very
aggressively to act in a film, for an absolutely astronomical
sum of money, much more money than I was paid for Frankenstein
for the whole of the two years. This was for about six weeks'
work on a fucking mega movie! I had to think twice about it,
it was a very respectable enterprise all round. But when they
were really, really chasing me for this, the final thing they
said was, 'Listen, we just want Ken for this. We know--we've
followed the tracking, "we're aware of all the research--Frankenstein
is going to be a disaster, but we still want him.'"
"It was a very strange,
ironic thing. Someone's offering me more money than I've ever
thought of in my life, to just act for six weeks, and at the
same time they're telling me. 'We're happy to do that even though
you're about to launch one of the biggest financial dogs ever.'
That certainly sent a message to the system! Actually, it should
have sent me clamouring for the cheque, but I turned them down.
Has the experience of Frankenstein
turned him off the idea of directing further big budget studio
"Well, I've been asked lots
of times since," he counters, a shade defensively. "People
may be surprised to hear that, but I have. There was a very good
script I was sent a little while ago, a big kind of period thriller,
a very good yarn set in New York which would've been interesting,
but I just couldn't face another 18 months of that, going to
Bumfuck, Iowa to do the preview and all that stuff."
This aversion to the good citizens
of Bumfuck has taken Branagh in the direction of In the Bleak
Midwinter, a small-scale, self-financed job, working with his
growing repertory company of British actors, either members of
the Renaissance Theatre Company like Richard Briers and Gerard
Horan or actors with whom Branagh has worked at the Royal Shakespeare
Company in Stratford such as Nick Farrell. It's an experience
he clearly relished.
"I didn't have to explain
anything to anyone," he enthuses. "I didn't have to
talk about casting, didn't have to send them rushes to America,
didn't have to preview the movie. We made it, finished it and
then we sold it. I was on the phone a fucking sight less, and
you're not in front of that vast army of people representing
the particular bureaucracy you're working for, stroking them.
As a result there was more space just to work."
But even these near-idyllic work
conditions held the spectre of compromise and marketing meetings.
Castle Rock, the US production entity which ultimately bought
the movie, had major reservations about its title.
"They offered a hundred
different titles, and pleaded with me not to have 'bleak' in
the title. They said, 'Nobody in America knows the hymn,' and
that they'd had responses saying, 'Is this his Bergman film?'
I said, 'Well tell them it's my Carry On film, that's what it
is!' I still had to explain what that meant, so I said, 'It's
British and funny.'
As mentioned earlier, when Kenneth Branagh was nine, his family
moved from the tight-knit community and familiar streets of Belfast
to Reading. The early '70s were not a spectacularly good time
to be Irish and living in England. His speech was virtually unintelligible,
his nationality held him ultimately responsible for every soldier's
death in Ulster and he was bullied. Like Lady Di, he took to
throwing himself down staircases and then retreated into his
bedroom and lived an Adrian Mole-style existence, corresponding
furiously with the outside world (he once unsuccessfully asked
Morecambe & Wise for tickets) but too scared to out and shake
Having suffered this dislocation
in early life, Branagh's professional career, perhaps not surprisingly,
reveals a marked degree of continuity. Today's interview takes
place as usual at the Durley House Hotel on Sloane Street, the
regular location for his London interviews. The people he surrounds
himself with, not just his company of actors, tend to have belonged
to his entourage for some time. And then, of course, there is
his abiding fixation with that man Shakespeare, or, as Alan Partridge
would say, The Bard. Himself.
"People often ask me, 'Why
the fuck do you keep doing Shakespeare?'" sighs Branagh.
"Well, because it's meaningful to me, and this film
partly explains why that is. That to do it well--or even just
to work on it--I find very life-enhancing. I don't have any kind
of conventional religious belief and I find Shakespeare's a tremendous
source of inspiration, because there's no situation that I've
come up against that somehow hasn't been described in those plays.
"Not that I sit and go to
sleep reading the stuff, for Christ's sake," he continues.
"It's just that when I do work on it, it's like going back
to some great piece of music. It is dramatic poetry, so each
time you hear it, it reacts on you in a different, usually a
richer, way. It's like a wonderful dog that gives you much more
than you'll ever give it. There's unconditional love in there;
he never lets you down and he's never sentimental; he's always
bracing because he's so very very realistic about families and
love and all the normal human stuff."
Such is Branagh's overwhelming
enthusiasm that his Shakespeare manifesto reads like a one-man
version of Call My Bluff. It's not hard to imagine Robert Robinson
looking down at his cards and patronisingly summing up, "So,
Shakespeare--it's a great piece of music according to Frank,
or perhaps it's dramatic poetry or, who knows, it's a wonderful
No matter. Branagh's joie
de Will is self-evident and infectious and is matched in
In the Bleak Midwinter with his belief in the camaraderie
of the surrogate family which the theatre provides. At one point
in the film, a member of the cast declares, "Families. They
don't work, do they." The suggestion clearly is that the
theatrical family works better than the real thing. Does he really
"Well, maybe the nature
of all families is that they don't work," he counters, "and
that the process of being in a family is simply accepting that.
But some people drive you mad whether you're related to them
or not. Blood is not necessarily thicker than water."
In Branagh's autobiography, Beginning,
he relates how his decision to become an actor confirms his father's
worst fears that his son must be homosexual. In the Bleak Midwinter
portrays the enduring link between theatre and its queens in
the the character of Terry Du Bois, who plays Hamlet's mother
Gertrude in the play within the film; it's a role performed by
John Sessions with more camp than David. Branagh goes to the
trouble of explaining the notion of camp in the film, a decision
which didn't meet with universal approval.
"Somebody in the the theatre
said it me after reading the script, 'Well, if you have to explain
the camp thing then you've lost them anyway.' But I just don't
think you can assume that people know what you're talking about,
and it is also worth just explaining the silliness of it.
"Way back in Stratford,"
he continues, "there was an actor in the company who was
so camp that from day one he gave all the boys girls' names,
so I was Brenda Madge Branagh. There was a beautiful French actress
called Cecile Paoli, and she was Jock Paoli for whole
of the season. It was bizarre. Later on, I was walking up the
steps at Oxford Circus tube station one morning and this hand
suddenly went up my arse and he squeezed it and said, 'Ooh, Brenda
Madge, how are we today?'"
Clearly, camping for Branagh
is all part of life's rich Peugot, but should anyone use the
dreaded word "luvvie" to describe members of the thespian
world, his demeanour loses its unruffled equilibrium.
"It's worth saying, the
word 'luvvie' does not appear in this film, because it drives
me mad personally. I find it indiscriminately used and now rather
meaningless. Yes, actors can be vain, greedy and insecure, and
yes, they can also be rather marvellous and rather inspiring
human beings. They're all these things, but they're not just
this generic term for thick, glib, cheese-on-a-stick-eating gossips."
Kenneth Branagh has taken quite
some pounding professionally and (more recently) personally,
yet his outlook remains defiantly optimistic. He confesses to
not knowing the difference between Blur and Oasis [egads!! ;)],
but his soundtrack might owe more to Gloria Gaynor's "I
Will Survive" than anything else. When I point out that
he is happy to express himself in terms that could see him featuring
strongly in Private Eye's Luvvie column, his reply has a wider
resonance as well as revealing a previously undisplayed familiarity
with Messrs Eff and Jeff.
"Oh yes. Fuck this, I'm
not going to have my soul shrivelled and my language altered
because we're all afraid of looking like tits. I think enough
of us know that our contribution to the sum total of man's position
in the evolutionary scale is not greater than brain surgeons
and heart specialists and any number of people, but you do what
you do and you've got a right to an opinion and people have the
right to take a piss as well. We'll never be excluded from criticism,
there's no reason why we should be. After all, it's quite fun
really, isn't it?"
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