In the Company of Ken
Sunday Times, February 20, 2000
by David James Smith
*thanks to Catherine Kerrigan
All work and old plays have
turned him into a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed bag of nerves.
But now he's lightening up with an all-singing, all-dancing Shakespeare
comedy. What other surprises are lurking behind Kenneth Branagh's
mask? David James Smith finds out.
In the momentary lull of a three-hour
conversation Kenneth Branagh - the Branster, as Stephen Fry calls
him - sups from a glass of wine and says there's something fantastically
decadent about drinking at lunchtime. He can't understand how
people do it all the time, it's partly why he keeps out of London...
all those working lunches where this, he jiggles the wineglass,
is a matter of course... and you should see some of the film
festivals he attends... go to Cannes, he says, you cannot believe
the fucking amount of alcohol that gets drunk and the deals that
get done in the grip of it.
There is a pause. He asks the
waiter for a fresh box of matches, having already used up the
first. He smokes - and swears - like a trooper. Or a trouper.
You can tell, just know, that
he is not one of those people who take pleasures lightly, or
easily, or without torment. He lives to work, has the drive of
a Japanese bullet train, seems perpetually tired, worn out.
It has, he says, been worse than
it is now. He feels more relaxed these days... he's not saying
he's had a revelation or anything, he hopes this isn't coming
out in cliches, he isn't trying to "present" himself,
but he enjoys seeing friends, cooking, playing a bit of music;
he likes watching football, can spend a day reading a book, one
of life's great luxuries, make a nice cup of coffee, get the
book off the shelf...doing that and not beating yourself up about
the fact that you're a healthy privileged individual, you should
be out fucking exploiting your Protestant-work-ethic puritanical
guilt-ridden fucking self...
I say that reading the latter
part of his autobiography, Beginning, which was published when
he was 28 (for the sole purpose of financing his theatrical dreams),
was exhausting, like being in the grip of the author's mania.
He says, yes, it was pretty manic then, it seems like a different
life, almost a different bloke, bound up in some bizarre fucking
psychological fucking nonsense of thinking, well, it is very
exciting and privileged but at least I'm mad, properly suffering,
so that's fine, so I'm allowed to do it then, aren't I?
I ask if he felt "mad",
but the question is sidestepped and gets lost, though he says
that when he is working people often come up and ask, are you
all right, as if he is not all right, and often he is just preoccupied
with the thousand things that are going on and, especially, the
thousand things that may go wrong at any moment.
He says he thinks the guilt and
the work ethic are bound up in his attitude towards money. He
is, in some ways, embarrassed by it, keenly aware, he says, beyond
just knee-jerk kind of lovely middle-class woolly liberal Guardian-reading
fucking guilt, that so many people are in a less fortunate position.
Money is useful, you can do things with money. He has never had
any interest in hoarding it. He has no rainy-day money, no pension
policies, the money comes in, the money goes out. He knows he
has a privileged life but he does not have a luxury lifestyle.
He's had the same car for about five years, hates shopping, shopping
bores him senseless, especially for clothes. He is, as his friends
would attest, far from being a fashion junkie.
He's never had stocks or shares,
has never bought a lottery ticket because he couldn't bear to
win it. It just wouldn't be fair. But, he says, he has come to
the conclusion that he's also worked fucking arse off, so a bit
of him goes, all right, love, you can read that book; you do
try to do the odd good deed in a naughty world.
So did it take a failed marriage
(to Emma Thompson) to make him realise that there was more to
life than working? Well, he thinks in many ways the marriage
was a fantastic illustration that there was more to life. It's
just taken him a long time to slow down a bit, to even get to
the beginning of the smelling-the-rose moment...
was early for lunch, sitting there already when I arrived at
a restaurant in St Jame's. He was the untidiest person in the
house, wearing a V-neck jumper over a T-shirt, an untrimmed beard
and tousled hair. I wondered if he was growing the beard for
a new role. No, he said, I can never be bothered to shave. He
had chosen the restaurant on the strength of a previous visit
in the company of Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox, two American
actresses who were then filming the London episode of their television
Cutlery had dropped, he said,
as they walked through. Not for me, I think you'll find, he said,
but the two women had looked fantastic. He had never seen such
jaw-dropping, elbows off the table, forks falling into plates.
Anyway, he said, the food was good.
We ordered food and a bottle
of wine. Branagh said he was not a great Frenchy boy when it
came to wine, so we chose between two Australian chardonnays,
the Chittering Estate and the Geoff Merrill. Let's have the Geoff
Merrill, said Branagh, he sounds like a footballer from Romford.
He lapsed into an Essex accent: "Allo, Geoff Merrill, nice
to meet ya."
It was a year since we'd first
met, on the set of his new film, his latest rendering of Shakespeare:
Love's Labour's Lost as a 1940s musical with dancing and songs
by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins and others.
He recalled that day as difficult.
The filming of the big ensemble dance number, There's No Business
Like Show Business, delayed by the failure of a camera crane.
That camera, he said, oh Christ, what a fucker of a day.
I had watched him - he was director
and actor - his face grey and taut with tension. He smoked incessantly
- a Marlboro Light permanently between his fingers, his hand
curled up behind his back between drags. He was never still,
fiddling with his collar, drumming his fingers on the monitor,
ruffling his hair, fidgeting, wandering off to the back of the
sound stage alone, lost in his own space. A bomb waiting to explode.
The explosion never quite came.
He was terse - okay, he had said when they finally resumed filming,
we'll go again, let's fuckng set it up straight away so we don't
have to fucking waste time - but afterwards was pleased with
himself for not having lost his rag. He didn't want to seem too
dramatic or martyrish about it, you know, people said it was
like a war making films, but nobody was asking you to do it,
lives were not at risk, but it was always intense, the clock
was always ticking, there was always a large amount of other
people's money at stake ($14m for Love's Labour's Lost), so you
just had to accept or deal with the fact that you were going
to feel very anxious most of the time.
He didn't like shouting at people
and always tended to implode rather than explode. He was sure
this must cost him, and sometimes he thought he should let rip
a bit. He had tried it once when somebody - he wouldn't say who
- was working for him and wished to leave. He could see they
had valid reasons, and when he was first told he was in Buddha
mode, very understanding, but between then and the meeting a
week later he had let it fester, felt taken advantage of, and
decided he was going to give the guy a piece of his mind and
he was the most splutteringly incoherent that he had ever been.
It was an attempt to be cruel that was pointless, hurt him more
than it hurt the other person and they had not spoken to him
since, which was a sadness. The whole point for him, he said,
was to appear butch and there he was, a great wazz.
Love's Labour's Lost had been
finished and ready for preview last summer. Branagh had been
pleased with the result, optimistic that the film would play
well with audiences. He and the moneymen, Harvey Weinstein of
Miramax among them, had taken the film for a sneak preview in
Wimbledon. They had all thought it would be a great evening.
It was a hot night, said Branagh,
and it was agony. The audience didn't know how to take th film
- some were laughing along with it, but the film was being mocked
too. They weren't laughing at us, they were laughing near us,
Branagh says. He wished he hadn't been there, but the cruel truth
is that if it's a comedy and you want to know if they're laughing,
a preview is a good thing.
It wasn't the first time he had
been there, he says, thinking, here I am at Planet Turkey, a
great woofing dog that will be barking its way into the world
Anyway, after the show, they
had all repaired to a restaurant in Wimbledon. Branagh had just
injured his neck. He didn't know how but was sure it was stress-related,
and that evening it seemed to reach a peak of pain. He was practically
bent double as they sat there, all knowing they were in deep
Fair play to Harvey and the others,
they all supported him and tried to work out what was wrong.
They agreed the audience needed some kind of signal, that this
was a fun film, madcap, silly, that it was all right to laugh
with it rather than at it. They all agreed that was the problem,
they just didn't know what the answer was.
Then, a few days later, at 3
o'clock in the morning, Branagh woke up with the idea of signposting
the film with pastiche newsreel inserts. He did the voice himself
and recut the film to include these sequences. At the next round
of previews the audience laughed in all the right places.
Still, the experience had given
Branagh pause. He had planned to go straight on to film Macbeth,
but was now holding back to await the reaction to Love's Labour's
Lost. In another life, he said, he might have already been filiming
Macbeth, because a part of him would be saying, get the next
one in before you get clobbered with this one, but now he wanted
to take the time, to reflect.
Perhaps, which he was not saying,
if Love's Labour's Lost didn't do well, the finance and will
to film Macbeth might fall away. He had not set out, he said,
to create a canon of Shakespeare plays on film, it was just incredibly
challenging, artistically and commercially, a challenge he rose
to with enthusiasm and, sometimes, joy.
He had spent 18 months on Hamlet,
released in 1996, and however difficult it was he felt keenly
alive. You think you're just doing a job, he said, you're doing
more than that, love. It's in your blood. He thought obsession
was in there somewhere but preferred the word compulsion, felt
that this absolved him somehow, as if it were a birth defect,
somtheing noble rather than just being a sick chaser of his own
passions... (mock actorly voice) I'm compelled, I'm compelled...
Part of him wanted to declare
how much he cared about his art. Part of him wanted to shy away
from that, for fear of crossing the line between coruage and
wankery, his resistance to the whole luvvie thing - and yes,
he knew he was sometimes called king of the luvvies - but there
was passion and seriousness. He'd rather people just happily
took the piss so he could get on with it.
He had spent the morning before
our lunch with Hugh Cruttwell, his former principal at Rada,
now 80, and an adviser for much of Branagh's Shakespearian work.
They had been discussing whether or not Macbeth was a tragedy.
They had been discussing, he said, the mystery involved in getting
to great art... there I am, you see, he said, using an expression
I feel faintly embarrassed to use. I know I mean it but I also
know it can be so risible. We live in an age where it's all got
to be glib, where you should be saying (mock London voice) it
was really great, so cooool.
Fucking cool, what the fuck does
cool mean, fuck off to that word, fuck off (his voice gets louder
and louder), let's take 5000 fucking words in the language and
put 'em into this four-letter fucking blandishment, just fuck
right off, find a fucking word, would you, find a fucking word
that says what you mean... fucking cool... it means fuck all
to me, ah Christ, but, as you know (he splutters with laughter)
because you want to be cool, you think, oh, I'd better use that
Now that's passion. Misplaced,
perhaps; displaced, even... but passionate.
In his time, Branagh has been a much reviled and
resented figure among people for whom his achievements seemed
the embodiment of precocity and overweening ambition. He sped
from RADA to the West End stage in the play Another Country,
was Henry V for the RSC at 23. He founded the Renaissance Theatre
Company in his mid-20s, went to actors such as Derek Jacobi and
Judi Dench and persuaded them to make their debut as directors.
He directed and, of course, starred in the film version of Henry
V when he was 27, had the cheek to publish his autobiography
a year later. He married Emma Thompson, who was herself ascendant.
Everything was darling, wonderful, lovely and somehow, for some
people, very annoying.
What is intriguing is the source
of such prodigious talent and drive. There are no obvious clues
in his Belfast childhood, the working-class origins, the lower
middle-class aspriations apparent in his parents' move to Reading,
partly an escape from the Troubles of the early 1970s, partly
a desire for a better quality of life. No theatrical history
there, no obvious unfulfilled ambitions among his parents. The
only identifiable moment came when Branagh moved to secondary
school in Reading at the age of 11 and was briefly bullied, not
for being Irish but for being funny, a bit of a joker in the
As Branagh has observed before,
the bullying was fairly mild and soon passed, but its impact
was profound. He retreated, became introverted and somewhat isolated
from his peers. He spent long hours in his attic bedroom, reading,
collecting books and, in thrall to film and television, letting
his imagination begin to roam over the possibilities.
He started writing letters to
people he saw on television. The Walter Mitty side of him, he
says, saw opportunities, was excited by the apparent impossibility
of it all. Even writing the letters was highly unusual for someone
from his background.
There he sat, at the desk between
the built-in wardrobes his father had made, writing beneath an
Anglepoise lamp. A key moment in his childhood, he says, was
the ability to recite the then postal address of the BBC, which
he has evidently not forgotten: TV Centre, Wood Lane, London
He imagined Television Centre
as a kind of Shangri-La, Morecambe and Wise sharing a joke in
the car park with Tommy Cooper, the Blue Peter presenters toiling
away in the Blue Peter garden, all of them sitting down for a
jolly lunch in the canteen. It was, he says, a bit of a fucking
disappointment when he finally saw it, looking like a big drum.
He thinks the mental impact of
the bullying may have been significant as the product of an overactive
imagination, blowing things out of proportion, the imagination
of events to come and their consequences. He sees a clear link,
even now, between that time and his sense of pessimism, a wariness,
not paranoia exactly, but suspicion that something horrible is
always round the corner. It has, he says, led to real difficulties
in either feeling worthy of or enjoying success. The change in
personality back then was enormous and, while he retained the
outgoing, the imaginative, the things that make him what he is,
there was some carapace around them, the idea that he would go
on doing that but would expect to be beaten up for it. Anyway,
he says, flippantly, that's his tenpenn'orth of armchair psychology.
There's no doubt, he says, that
his self-confidence is a bit of an act, but it's fuelled by genuine
enthusiasm, the desire to address the apparently impossible,
to take on the adventure, the risk, which is hardly life-threatening.
It's about all the usual cliches,
he says, it's not the things you do but the things you don't
do that you regret. He has always felt that whatever was due
his way in terms of failure or disappointment, it was much better
to have a go.
He thinks this approach, what
he is, smacks to people who are self-analytical and thin-skinned
(other actors, perhaps?) as a comment on them, as in, oh, he
must be incredibly confident and I could never do that. Though
Branagh would not put this into such words, his saying that his
success makes others feel inadequate.
A couple of days before the lunch,
I had attended a ceremony at Middle Temple Hall where Branagh
had been presented with the Gielgud Award,
an enormous, outsized golden quill, for services to Shakespeare.
The evening had been something
of a luvvie fest, with many of Branagh's friends and fellow actors
paying personal tribute and others reading more tributes from
a seemingly endless pile of letters from other friends, actors
Sir Ian McKellen had sent a written
tribute, commenting on his wariness of Branagh's precocious talent
and noting, with some relief, that Branagh was now about to be
40 (in December). There was plenty of wit, some ironic usage
of the word "darling", a reminder from Ben Elton of
the debt that Shakespeare owes Ken and a tribute to Branagh's
own humour from Stephen Fry, who said that the Branster was the
only person who had ever made him vomit with laughter (with a
24-minute impression of a French rap artist while on holiday
Helena Bonham Carter was there,
even though she and Branagh are supposed to have separated some
months ago. She said that Ken was someone she knew rather well,
at which the audience laughed knowingly. The tributes were very
genuine, though - these really were Branagh's friends. As he
said later, during our lunch, it was like one of those weddings
or funerals where emotion is close to the surface and you (drunken
maudlin voice) I fucking love you.
All of them were people who would
have sat and taken the piss out of such occasions, been as rude-as-rude
things, he said, but what you saw was the camaraderie. They might
be silly old wazzes in lots of ways, but among them was deep
and genuine affection. They have all helped each other at different
times. There was something, could it be postmodern, a kind of
delight that they had all joined in this silly exercise.
When I asked Branagh if he had
close friends, intimates, he said he'd had that conversation
before, people you could call at 3 in the morning who would be
there for you. He named people who had been there that evening,
or been there by letter. Brian Blessed, Johnny Sessions, Mark
Hadfield, Richard Briers, Jimmy Yuill. Friendship, he said, had
been something he began to worry he was passing by, in the midst
of work, during Hamlet especially, realising, Christ, he hadn't
seen anyone he knew for ages.
After, as he puts it, he'd separated
from his missus, he was looking for a new home. He looked in
Italy, considered Ireland but realised in the end that his life
- work, family, friends - was in and around London. He had taken
his film designer Tim Harvey with him on his searches and Harvey,
who had trained as an architect, finally said, look, you've got
such clear ideas about what you want, why don't you build your
own house? So he did, 50 minutes west of London, not far from
Pinewood, Shepperton and his parents in Reading.
The work was overseen by Harvey
and the house is everything Branagh wanted, a real home, he says,
and it's made a big difference to his personal happiness. He
has got to that age, he says, where he enjoys cooking, likes
reading cookbooks. Have you got Nigella Lawson's How To Eat,
he says. Very good recipes, he says.
And it is important to him too
that he preserves the sanctity of the intimacies he shares. Just
because he sometimes reads Hello! or OK! does not mean that he
wants to be a part of that world.
It happens in acting, he says,
in rehearsals, the search for emotion may involve the revelation
of personal experience. Such as grief, he says. There have been
times when there were admissions from people which were extraordinary
in terms of the detail they disclosed. He always insists on "kitchen
rules", absolute trust that such disclosures should stay
within the four walls... and if you abuse that you're a cunt.
It is the same with his own life.
Sharing intimacies with the readers of Hello!, OK! or any other
newspaper isn't his scene. I can't... he fumbles for the words...
I don't find it easy to talk about all that...it just seems that
the minute you do that you're a hostage to fortune. It's not
about, oh, is that gonna look bad, it's actually what you do
to the relationship you're in, it's much more selfishly about
protecting that...it's less about, 'cause in the end, you know,
who gives a fuck, so you're a couple of days' news, "oh,
our love pain" or whatever...it's not nice but you can deal
with it, it's actually, as Brian (Blessed) would say, you give
away a little gold... it's hard enough between two people and
also my folks, family, are happier not having really engaged
with all that, it's kept a relative normality that's been good.
It doesn't exclude you from any of the usual aggro of being a
human being but it just means you're not getting that, or at
least, you still get it, but you're not aiding and abetting it...
anyway, it's just not something I've ever wanted to get into...
anyway, enough said.
Branagh's neck injury last year
turned out to be a protuding disc. He went to a health clinic
in Arizona to rest and have some specialised treatment. He read
a bit, the book by footballer Tony Adams, some Dickens, an Ian
McEwan novel. Enjoyed the enforced relaxation. One of the tabloids
found out where he was and reported that he had gone to a fat
farm. I was so pleased to hear that, he says.
His neck is better now, lunch
is over, we are the last customers, a waiter is ironing white
tablecloths on the tables with an iron on an extension lead.
Now that's class, says Branagh, as he leaves for a meeting with
someone who wants to film the complete works of Dickens.
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