A Leap Into Danger
TV Times , 4-10 February 1984
Actors are a superstitious bunch. They don't like to tempt fate - and one of the surest ways of doing so is to act with children or animals.
That thought briefly crossed Kenneth Branagh's mind while he was on location in Australia for his biggest TV role to date. But Branagh, at 23 one of Britain's most praised young actors, didn't think it wise to ponder the dangers of working with unpredictable 'extras'. Especially when the storyline called for him to wrestle with a fully-grown kangaroo which could have ripped him apart with the large claws on his powerful hind legs.
"I just had to get on with it," recalls Branagh, who plays the lead in The Boy in the Bush, a four-part historical series, based on the D H Lawrence novel, starting this week on Channel Four.
It was a strange but rather enjoyable 14 weeks on location in Australia for the Belfast-born Branagh. "I developed muscles I never knew I had. I learned to ride horses and to shear sheep. I worked with lumberjacks and chopped down trees. Sheer muscle power was very much the order of the day."
Branagh plays 18-year-old Jack Grant, who is exiled in Western Australia in 1882 after being expelled from his agricultural college in England for playing a childish prank on a master. His father, a military man with unbending ideas about discipline, feels that a spell in the harsh Australian outback is just what young Jack needs to make a man of him. The story follows Jack's adventures as he grows to manhood in his new environment, and charts the hostility he meets from the locals.
The present four-episode adaptation of Lawrence's novel is by Hugh Whitemore, who has given us such award-winning dramas as Cider with Rosie and Country Matters.
Branagh comes from an unlikely background for an exciting new acting talent. His father was a joiner in Belfast and now runs a small building firm in Reading, where the family moved when Kenneth was nine. He acquired a taste for acting at school and in local drama groups. He did flirt briefly with the idea of being a journalist, but the call of the stage was too strong, and he admits his parents were 'rather surprised' when he said he wanted to study drama.
"They thought actors were traditionally out of work most of the time, and naturally worried about me. In a strange way, their concern and caution have been a great support, and they are thrilled about my career so far." And with good reason...
By any standards Branagh has had a phenomenal start in professional acting. He left the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art late in 1981 and went straight on to the West End stage where he starred as Judd in Julian Mitchell's play Another Country, a thirties public school drama which drew rave reviews.
He has three top RADA awards under his belt, including the academy's coveted Bancroft Gold Medal; he recently starred in Francis, a story of the life of St Francis of Assisi, at London't Greenwich Theatre; and he gave a memorable performance as Billy in the television play Too Late to Talk to Billy, which focused on a stife-torn family in contemporary Belfast.
Branagh attributes his success to luck - a considerable understatement. He becomes excited as he talks about the sheer joy of acting.
"I honestly can't think of anything else to do. I couldn't have asked for a better start than the past two years. If I don't get another role for the next year, I wouldn't have anything to complain about."
Branagh needn't have worried. It's just been announced that he will play the title role in this spring's Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V at Stratford. He's obviously a young man going places...