Trust Kenneth Branagh

Belfast Telegraph, March 22 2000

*thanks to Ellen Edgerton

He took the international film community by storm with his debut movie, Henry V. It was shot on a tiny budget in a series of fields outside studios near London. And it grossed millions. He's never looked back since.

Trust Kenneth Branagh to make an entrance. In he comes, grinning hugely, picks up a bottle of fizzy mineral-water from the table between us, unscrews the cap with a flourish...and sends it all over the cloth and down his trousers. The language - brief - is extremely un-Shakespearean.

"Oh God, I DO apologise", he says, all of a fluster, "Here, where's a cloth...?" Having settled himself down, we're all systems go to talk about his latest project, a musical version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, in which he stars as Berowne, a lovesick courtier (last time he was in the stage version of the Bard's obscure early comedy he was playing the King of Navarre), alongside his old chum and mentor, Richard Briers, the Broadway comic and Vaudevillian, Nathan Blake, Alice Silverstone, Emily Mortimer ad Natascha McElhone.

It was , he says with an engaging grin, "hard to know how to pitch it to the studio chiefs and the people who might give us some finance for it. It IS obscure, and I wanted to do it as a Thirties musical-comedy, using material by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin.

"I might as well have told them that I wanted to do Makkers - The "Scottish Play"-- on ice, with Torvill and Dean...coming to a cinema near you, any day now!" at which point he pauses, "It was,"he continues, choosing his words with care, "er, slightly new territory for them to negotiate!"

Undoubtedly, Branagh's reputation as a cinematic and theatrical underking, and the fact that Baz Luhrman recently produced a highly-successful modern-dress version of Romeo and Juliet that slayed them all at the Box Office, helped...a lot! The music stems from Branagh's love of "a lot of those old black-and -white movies that used to dominate the Sunday afternoon TV schedules when I was a kid...Flying Down to Rio,Top Hat, Swing Time, that sort of thing". He went back and watched a lot of them while researching this one: "I was totally fascinated by the Busby Berkley sequences. I loved the Esther Williams films, too, where she'd emerge from the water looking stunning, with 500 aqua -babes in perfect formation skiing along behind her! She was always totally unruffled, however wet she was. It makes you awestruck at what they got away with!"

Though there has subsequently been a big denial, his friendship with Silverstone secured her services and of the others it was a question of "calling in a few favours". Nathan Lane agreed to come on board , as he explained: "This, despite the fact that it is a quarter-of-a-century now since I was in tights! I had to get them out of the airing cupboard and give them a good rinse...ditto with the leg warmers!"

Recalls Branagh, with a chuckle: "Richard Briers was the funniest of the lot. I rang him up and he said - here, he breaks into an uncanny impersonation of the much-loved star: 'Darling, where are you shooting? Shepperton? Well, it's not all that convenient to the bus from Chiswick but I'll do what I can. I'll use my Over 65 Pass. I know you don't pay too much money, Ken, old love, but I suppose that if you don't give me too much to do, I'll be able to do a few voice-overs and things to keep the pennies coming in'.

"His daughter bought him a pair of lime-green leg-warmers so that he could join in the month-long rehearsals for the musical numbers and he makes a simply delightful Sir Nathaniel. Richard kept wandering around; "I'm a much-loved Vicar, old son! Had us all in tucks!" For Belfast-born, Reading-reared Branagh, Love's Labours Lost is his eighth feature as a director, but he's recently been concentrating on acting, playing a Savannah lawyer in Robert Altman's The Gingerbread Man; a priest opposite William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe in The Proposition; a carer of a victim of motor-neurone disease with his on-off-on again girlfriend, Helena Bonham-Carter, in The Theory of Flight; an American writer in Woody Allen's Celebrity; in Danny Boyle's Alien Love Triangle and Barry Sonnenfeld's much ridiculed flop, Wild Wild West.

"I know it didn't do all that well," he admits, "but there we are. I did my best, that's all I know...and whatever else, the money I got for it went to fund a few other things".

That's the point with Branagh. In 1989, he was persuaded to write an early autobiography called Beginning. It sold well and it raised considerable amounts of money for his-then Renaissance Theatre Company.

The company triumphed in the late 1980s and early 1990s but, best of all for Branagh, it managed to employ all manner of actors, designers and stagehands. He is known as being fiercely loyal to everyone he has ever employed and has gathered a considerable repertory company of players and technicians around him, using them over and over gain. It was in 1988 that, already a celebrated stage actor, he took the international film community by storm with his debut movie, Henry V. It was shot on a tiny budget in a series of fields outside studios near London. And it grossed millions. He's never looked back since. He persuaded Michael Keaton and Denzel Washington to appear in Much Ado About Nothing; Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, with Robert DeNiro, made over $100m worldwide; Julie Christie, Billy Crystal and Charlton Heston appeared with him in Hamlet...he's been Edgar in King Lear, and Quince in The Dream, in hit TV series and in numerous radio productions.

Recently, he narrated the BBC's hit series Walking with Dinosaurs, and his shelves must be groaning with the weight of awards that he's pulled in over the years. And yet he remains totally self-effacing, not at all flash, his eyes twinkling with fun.

Who, I wondered, gave him the idea of the tap-dance sequence in Love's Labour's in which he stands at the top of a flight of stairs and starts beating out the rhythm of an iambic pentameter with his feet? Lesser men would claim this witty device as their own but not Branagh: "Oh that, you spotted that. Well, I mentioned that I wanted to go into a song at that point, and I told Helena that I was facing a problem and she said: "Why don't you...? I did...and it works. She also gave me the idea of that dance bit when Timothy Spall (as the Spaniard) kicks the moon out of the way".

He says of his cast and crew: "We were at our boldest a combination of the most joyous and dedicated people. It was totally uncynical, everyone was devoted to the project, and it's loyalty to both the play and to the music. It does take risks, yes, of course. My challenge is to...well, to get it right". So what did he admire about LLL?

He says immediately: "It's a play that not many people are familiar with an yet it's a beautifully expressed love story. They may know the more popular plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night or Hamlet or The Dream, but not this one. So, I was attracted to the idea of introducing what I think is an equally beautiful play with the added advantage of knowing that an audience would NOT be sitting and waiting for the balcony scene or for Hamlet to start talking to the skull of Yorrick.

And he's got an equally valid answer when you ask him about the pre-WW2 setting: "I liked the idea of setting it in that sort of idyll between the two great wars when everyone was trying to make some sort of sense of the chaotic world in which everything seemed to be about to change forever. At the end of the play the men and women can't stay together because of the death of the French King and also because a war is about to begin. So the question of whether or not they will ever meet again becomes all the more poignant".

And, he adds: "The play responds very well to music. There are loads of reference to music and dancing within the structure, and the style and wit of the play seemed to me to sit very well in a context not unlike the fictional world of the great Hollywood musicals. "Shakespeare was trying to convey how silly and agonising and wonderful and stupid it is to be head-over-heals in love and the songs we have chosen convey all the same ideas of the vicissitudes of love.

"It's always hard to cast an ensemble piece, because so many elements have to work with each other. We have four girls and four guys and even though some of them don't have a great deal to say, they are on screen for nearly all the time, so it was important for them to look charismatic on the screen...and they really do!

"I was particularly looking for actors who would bring a tremendous commitment and energy to their work because I knew that it would be VERY demanding for them all. They not only have to act, but also sing and dance...and do it well. We only had a very few weeks of rehearsal to create a real company of performers. I was happy to accent a certain rawness in the singing and dancing provided it came from a very clear understanding of who the people they were playing actually were.

"I listened to a tape of me singing from one take, and it just sounded - this is not false modesty - like Kenneth Branagh being too good. It did not sound like Berowne addressing his lady-love. So I went back to an earlier take, which sounded worse...but better, do you understand me?

"Berowne is a great part with some wonderful lines, but he's also very flawed and silly, but he also has a capacity to enjoy life and a huge generosity of spirit, and that's every well drawn and I wanted to be part of that for a while. It was all - all! - far more exhausting than I had ever imagined. But I'm glad that I hadn't known how terrifically hard it was all going to be, otherwise I'd have done something a lot more gentle!

"The idea, actually, came to me when I was in New York doing Woody Allen's Celebrity, and that was the winter of 1997. I had a lot of time on my own, and that' when the ideas come to me, so I just started scribbling away on pieces of paper".

And, confesses Branagh: "It was a genuine thrill to be able to include that old warhorse There's No Business Like Showbusiness in the movie...we had 25 actors singing and dancing in unison, and they all did it perfectly. It still brings a tear to my eye when I see it". And what's up next for this very busy actor?

"Well , something a darn sight less convoluted and stressful, I'll tell you that much. It's an awful lot of effort getting a film together, especially when you're part of the production team, and you direct it and you appear in it. I think that I would like to go back to the stage again, and sooner rather than later. I really do want to recharge my batteries in front of a live audience".

Is there any other Shakespeare he would like to film? He shakes his head and says that nothing much comes to mind. Then he grins: "I'll tell you what, I"ll give you the two that are totally unfilmable in my opinion. Timon of Athens and King John. Come to that, they're both well nigh unstageable".

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