Kenneth Branagh and Why It's Never Too Late to Talk About Billy
Sir Kenneth Branagh's Freedom of Belfast is richly deserved, but the city council missed a trick by ignoring his breakthrough role in Graham Reid's acclaimed trilogy based in his hometown
Belfast Telegraph, 29 January 2018
Tomorrow, Ken Branagh will deservedly receive the Freedom of Belfast. Unfortunately, however, Belfast City Council has put together a programme of screenings as part of the celebrations which reflect absolutely nothing of his actual professional career - or life - in the city of his birth. It is not so much 'Branagh in Belfast' as 'Branagh since he left Belfast'.
As the council is so uninterested in highlighting Branagh's breakthrough work, allow me to oblige. His first major television role was the eponymous character of Graham Reid's trilogy of plays: 'Too Late To Talk to Billy' (1982), 'A Matter of Choice for Billy' (1983) and 'A Coming To Terms for Billy' (1984). A fourth play about the Martin family, 'Lorna', produced by one Danny Boyle, followed in 1987.
Branagh himself has said that, when people stop him, they don't say, "Oh, I saw you in that Harry Potter film", or "I've seen your Shakespeare films" - they say: "You were Billy, weren't you?"
The Billy plays recall an older Belfast and that neglected history which has since been crowded out by a legion of balaclavas. Broadcast nationally as part of the BBC's Play for Today series, this drama focused on Belfast working-class life - not the Troubles.
Indeed, one suspects that the shunning of Branagh's time in Belfast by those who have compiled the council's programme is down to the working-class nature of the Billy plays themselves. Branagh opens his 1989 memoir, Beginning, with recollections of the dockside area his family frequented: "Rough it was, but the people who lived in and around York Street had a fierce pride in their area and its nearness to the docks, Belfast's great heart."
He quotes the docker poet John Campbell: "The smell of pigs' feet boiling,/with nabs and ribs and noints,/Greeted all men folk as they/rolled home from joints." The Branaghs and Harpers (his mother's family) were large, Protestant families, with patriarch grandfathers, legendary York Street characters, "hard-drinking and hard-up", as Branagh recalled. It was the world Branagh grew up in before his parents left Belfast for England when he was nine years old.
The Billy plays hark back to the era of 'hard men' like Alexander 'Buck Alec' Robinson - who legendarily kept lions in his back yard - along with Stormy Weatherall and Silver McKee. Billy's father Norman (unforgettably played by Jimmy Ellis) is a traditional Belfast 'hard man', whose answer to everything is his fists. In the clash of codes between hard men and paramilitaries, an early scene has Norman deliberately walking into a troop of UDA men drilling in the street, scattering them.
It was fitting that Ellis played this archetypal Belfast hard man alongside Branagh. The Billy plays were significant in elevating actors from Northern Ireland to a wider cultural awareness, overcoming the Troubles associations they had faced since 1969.
Ellis had previously brought the Northern Irish accent to large television audiences through his role as the affable constable Bert Lynch in 'Z Cars'.
The other main clash of Reid's plays is between fathers and sons. The fights between Norman and Billy were choreographed, but Branagh later talked of 'a wildness that took over' in these scenes, while Brid Brennan (who played Lorna) remembered that she could 'feel that violence, and you did get the feeling that you could easily get hurt'. To watch Ellis and Branagh go head-to-head in a fearful and familial boxing match was an exchange of Belfast acting greatness across the generations.
In the early-1980s, BBC Northern Ireland's head of programmes was Cecil Taylor, who decided that he wanted to leave his stamp. He did this through television drama, allowing writers and directors a level of creative freedom which they had not previously enjoyed.
Graham Reid was one such beneficiary, with Branagh himself recognising that the Billy plays were part of BBC Northern Ireland's "new drive to establish a first-class drama output".
Their characters and themes were recognisable to other UK cities while also being quintessentially Belfast. Though one television critic called them "the most powerful account of life in working-class Protestant Belfast that British television has so far offered", they were popular across the sectarian divide, accounting for the record audience-share 'Too Late To Talk to Billy' received when it was re-screened by BBC Northern Ireland on its 30th anniversary in January 2012.
The Billy plays universalised Belfast life at a time when the city was regarded as an international trouble-spot. We are always aware of the Troubles, but they rest in the background so that - in Branagh's own words - the "humour and warmth and passion in working-class family life was made accessible to everyone, and not just to people living in Ulster".
Branagh's origins, finally, are important because in recent times unionist politicians have taken to insisting that Protestant working-class communities in Northern Ireland have no connection to theatres and drama (as the DUP's William Humphrey publicly claimed in October 2013). This is rubbished by the fact that Branagh - like Jimmy Ellis and many others - emerged from this exact background.
It tells you so much about Belfast City Council and its cultural custodians that they appreciate you most when you leave and what you do when you leave. So, to truly recognise Branagh's contribution: find an old bar - preferably in one of the tougher parts of town - and raise a glass to the great man around the working-class life, that vital part of Belfast's history and character, which spawned him.
Dr. Connal Parr is Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University. His new book, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, is published by Oxford University Press