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...

Branagh 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 series, Friends.

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 shortly.

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 trouble.

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 word then.

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 playground.

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 W12 8QT.

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 and directors.

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 in Cannes).

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 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'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'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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