Kenneth Branagh, Theatre's New Young King

Reader's Digest, February 1990
by Deborah Cowley
**thanks to Virginia Leong

Prodigiously talented, boundlessly enthusiastic, this actor-producer-director is galvanizing Britain's stage and screen.

His tiny Renaissance Theatre Company was in turmoil. Two weeks before filming was due to start on Shakespeare's Henry V, they had still not managed to raise all of the 4.5 million need to finance it. Kenneth Branagh was to direct as well as play the title role, and investors were wary. At 27, he had never directed a film in his life; to attempt such a megaproject -- the first film of Henry V since Laurence Olivier's classic 1994 version -- seemed distinctly over-ambitious.

But the sceptics underestimated the dauntless Branagh. "I was convinced I could make a Shakespeare film that would reach the people who watch Batman and Crocodile Dundee," he says. "And I was sure Henry V was the play that would do it. It has a crackling narrative, immense visual possibilities, and so many ideas -- about politics, about war -- that seem right for now."

Ken's powers of persuasion saved the day: at zero hour, a timely bank loan swelled the coffers, while four teams of lawyers worked round the clock to settle legal details. By the time cameras began to roll at Shepperton in October 1988, any remaining fears vanished. "Ken stepped on to that set, greeted everyone by name and spelt out exactly what he envisaged for the film," says actor and Renaissance co-director David Parfitt. "We all knew at once that we were in good hands."

Filming ended seven weeks later -- a day ahead of schedule and miraculously under budget -- and the completed work opened in London's West End in October. Critics praised the neophyte director. "It is the finest film I've seen for some time," wrote The Daily Telegraph's Victoria Mather, calling Branagh's own performance in the title role "comparable in stature to Olivier's."

The success of Henry V is the crowning achievement to date in a career that, in eight short years, has made Kenneth Branagh a leading figure in British theatre. How many others can claim top billing as actor, writer, producer and director -- not to mention running their own theatre company -- all before they reach 30? He is simply, as one critic stated, "one of the most prodigious talents to appear on the British stage in years."

Curtain Up. Ken Branagh's rise to stardom began when, not yet 21 and only days out of drama school, he was picked to play a teenage Marxist in the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country, earning him two "most promising newcomer" awards. Two years later, he won huge acclaim in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry V -- at 23, he was the youngest actor the RSC had ever cast in the title role.

A wide range of parts followed, on stage and screen, but two productions set him apart. In 1987, donning horn-rimmed spectacles, he played Guy Pringle, the gregarious English lecturer in the seven-part BBC serial of Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War. More than ten million viewers in 22 countries sat spellbound through the gripping tale of Guy and Harriet Pringle -- Branagh's first appearance with his future wife, Emma Thompson -- as they travelled through war-torn Europe.

Then last summer, his performance as Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's landmark play Look Back in Anger drew packed houses in London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He received mixed reviews, but Osborne himself confided that Branagh's was the finest interpretation of the role for many years.

Not content with making his mark as an actor, in April 1987 Branagh joined with David Parfitt to create the Renaissance Theatre Company, recruiting 15 fellow actors, and investing 25,000 of his television earnings. "I wanted a company that would fully exploit the actor's imagination and energy, that would place them in a central position," he says. He also claims he was guilt-ridden at his privileged existence: "I'd led such a charmed life, with such great parts handed to me. This was one way I could give something back."

The company started small, with Branagh starring in a play he wrote himself: Public Enemy, about a foot-loose Belfast lad with a fixation on James Cagney. After directing a highly acclaimed Twelfth Night, Branagh in 1988 invited three seasoned actors -- Judi Dench, Geraldine McEwan and Derek Jacobi -- to try their hands at directing. "I wanted," he says, "to tap an area of creativity that has been lying dormant."

It was a novel idea, and something of a gamble, but it paid off. The season's three plays, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and As You Like It, performed to sell-out audiences on a nationwide tour and for three months in the West End. Recalls Branagh: "Everywhere we went, people said they wanted to see Renaissance again. They now associate the company with an exciting evening at the theatre."

In spite of his rapid rise to fame, Ken Branagh still looks much like the shy schoolboy of yester-year, a mass of tousled sandy hair atop a short, stocky frame. He dresses casually in crumpled suits or baggy corduroys, and admits to being superstitious: green is unlucky, the numbers three and seven are good.

He stops at nothing to further his understanding of a part. Before playing Henry V at Stratford, he not only read everything he could find about the king but, through a friend, sought a meeting with Prince Charles to discover what it was like to be royal and set apart. He felt "an instant rapport" with the Prince of Wales, who came to see the play and later became patron of Renaissance.

Ad Lib. Always professional, Ken manages to keep his cool under the most harrowing conditions. During a preview of Henry V at Stratford, he reached into his belt for some gloves, a vital plot-point, only to find them missing. As the other actors looked on amazed, he walked about the stage making up lines to suit the situation: "I bethinkst myself that I did have some gloves...but see, alas, they are not here..." until the gloves were produced from the wings.

His detractors call him cheeky and over-confident, but Branagh's easy charm and what the Observer referred to as his "sunny, uncomplicated personality of a club tennis coach" endear him to most. Says Judi Dench, who plays Mistress Quickly in the film of Henry V: "I never once saw Ken flag, or lose his temper."

Interval. Brian Blessed recalls performing with him in Hamlet at Stratford. "Every day after Ken finished his own first scene, he would dash out to buy a chocolate milk-shake for me to enjoy after my taxing first act as Claudius."

Audiences, too, sense his warmth. In one Fortunes of War episode, Branagh read aloud John Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud." A woman viewer wrote to him that nothing had comforted her more, since her husband's recent death. Would he, she asked, record the poem on a cassette for her? "Of course I did," Branagh told me. "It's always heart-warming to know you've really touched somebody. After all, that's what we're here for, isn't it?"

On stage, there is little of Branagh's Northern Irish roots. He was born in December 1960 in Belfast, where his father was a joiner and his mother worked in the local mill. He spent his boyhood in a run-down, mainly Protestant district, near the docks, with a warm, supportive family that enjoyed twice-weekly visits to their grandparents, evenings rich with conversation, story-telling, arguments and song.

In 1970, as the troubles worsened, his father moved the family -- his wife, then pregnant with daughter Joyce, Kenneth and his older brother Bill -- to Reading, where Ken attended Meadway Comprehensive School. "Growing up with limited money and opportunities, we developed thick skins and a tremendous work ethic that has helped me accomplish what I have."

Good Notices. An avid reader as he reached his teens, Ken spotted that the review pages of the Reading Evening Post included only one children's book, and that was reviewed by an adult. He wrote to the editor to point out the inadequacy of the paper's coverage -- and was appointed children's book reviewer. By 13, he was writing his own bylined column, "Junior Bookshelf."

He had also discovered the intoxication of acting at school, where he landed four parts -- "lots of showing off" -- in Oh! What a Lovely War. After school and at weekends, Ken travelled regularly to London to see Shakespearean productions, while in the holidays he would hitch-hike to Stratford with tent and backpack. Seeing Derek Jacobi star in Hamlet, it registered for the first time "that people could actually make a living from the theatre. I thought, I could do that."

In summer 1979 he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Actor John Sessions, a classmate whom Ken would later direct in his one-man show Life of Napoleon, remembers sharing a voice test in their first days: "listening to that amazing clarinet voice, I felt my jaw drop. Whatever emotions he wanted to show were there. It was soon obvious that he was light-years ahead of the rest of us."

Second Act. During his last term at RADA, where he graduated with three top prizes, Ken wrote more than 150 job-hunting letters to repertory companies. Then an advertisement in The Stage caught his eye. He rang up and was auditioned for the title role in Graham Reid's BBC trilogy Too Late to Talk to Billy, about a strife-torn Belfast family.

Director Paul Seed had already interviewed more than 50 young actors when Branagh stepped forward. "He simply shone above the rest," recalls Seed. "Even though this was his first professional part, he showed a confidence and intelligence you could not ignore."

In the years since, Kenneth Branagh has proved his versatility in numerous challenging parts: as a disturbed epileptic in the television series Maybury; the pious saint from Assisi in the Julian Mitchell play Francis; the daunting title role in Hamlet; the comic buffoonery of Touchstone in As You Like It.

His career as an entrepreneur began in 1983 when he invested 1000 of his savings in a one-man show called The Madness, based on readings from Tennyson's poem Maud. "The idea of doing a monodrama appealed," he says. But when the show opened at London's Upstream Theatre Club, box-office takings were thin. "One night, there were only 12 customers in the 150-seat auditorium," he recalls. "And six of them were my family. I felt like saying, 'Let's go home and do it in the front room!'"

It was with the founding of the Renaissance Theatre Company that Branagh got into his entrepreneurial stride. "Ken has shown that even with the smallest beginnings, you can do great things," says Renaissance director Stephen Evans. "With his stubborn faith, he has done more than any other person since the war to make Shakespeare accessible."

Boy Gets Girl. Last summer, after a long romance, Branagh married actress and comedienne Emma Thompson. They live in the ground floor flat of a terraced house in London's Camberwell, with the Renaissance offices on the top two floors. He has by no means forgotten his roots, returns regularly to see his 84-year-old grandmother, and last June appeared in a special production of Look Back in Anger in Belfast to benefit the Ulster Youth Theatre and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action.

When we met over a Soho lunch, Branagh confided his hopes of pausing for some badly needed time off, to recharge his batteries, to think and take stock. But in the next breath, his eyes lit up and he began talking at a blistering pace about the company's plans for 1990. Two new productions, King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, are currently on a six-month tour of America, Japan and Europe, returning to London in June. After that, he hopes to direct two films: a Shakespeare comedy, possibly Much Ado, and a modern comedy-drama set in Chicago.

Last autumn Branagh published his autobiography, for which he received a 50,000 advance -- "It will provide new offices for Renaissance." He describes the book as a big leap into the unknown, and confesses he had never known such fear as when he was writing it. "I suppose it was really fear of being exposed. I'll probably live to regret ever taking it on."

He called the book Beginning. When I asked him why, he flashed that boyish grin and with an actor's relish quoted from As You Like It: "I will tell you the beginning, and if it please your ladyships, you may see the end; for the best is yet to do."

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