Relative Values: Bill and Kenneth Branagh

Sunday Times (London), August 1 1999
by Ann McFerran
*thanks to Catherine and Nicky

PHOTOS: Bill and Ken - as kids and today

Bill and Kenneth Branagh were born in Belfast and moved to Reading in 1970 when Bill was 14 and Ken 9. Bill left school at 16, and after college had a successful career in the IT and telecom industry. Now 43, he is managing director of Case Technology, an independent manufacturer of voice and data conversion technology. He and his wife, Sally, have two daughters, Kim, 18, and Nicky, 13, and live near Reading. Kenneth, 38, won the Most Promising Newcomer award for his role in Another Country in 1982. He has directed and starred in the films Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing, directed the films Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and In the Bleak Midwinter, and starred in several Shakespeare plays. He is starring in Paul Greengrass's Theory of Flight and Barry Sonnenfeld's Wild Wild West, and has directed and stars in his own film of Love's Labour's Lost, due out later this year. His six-year marriage to the actress Emma Thompson ended in divorce in 1995. He lives in London. Their sister, Joyce, 29, will direct Hamlet at the Tivoli Theatre, Dublin, in November.

BILL: Ken was a regular little boy growing up in Belfast, who played football in the street. When my father went away he'd bring us back a little matchbox car. I used to keep mine pristine clean, but Ken used to take the tyres off his.

Coming to England was very difficult for both of us. No one understood what I said, including the English teacher. I think Ken adapted more quickly than I did - he's great at accents. He was always a massive reader. At 12 he wrote to the editor of the local paper saying wouldn't it be a good idea if a child reviewed books, to give a child's perspective. His bedroom became like an Aladdin's cave. We kept the press cuttings - Branagh's Junior Book Shelf. A while back, my younger daughter said: "Do you think I could do that, Dad?" She wrote to the same paper and asked. The paper did a piece: "Branagh's niece is keeping up the family tradition."

I think Belfast made us driven individuals. We're both extremely competitive - I don't like to be second best. Nor does Ken. He hates it. When we came to England, Ken and I were determined to be responsible for our own destiny. In Belfast, no matter how talented you are, there's this underlying current of bigotry which is indoctrinated into kids. Ken single-mindedly set out to achieve what he wanted. There was no way my parents could afford drama school - he had to get a grant from Berkshire, the first they'd given for drama for years.

Ken looks like my mother, but in character he's more like my father - he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve. My mother's incredibly emotional, as am I. We have big arguments, and as a child I could make her cry, and she could make me cry. Ken and my father hide their feelings.

As the eldest I was the trailblazer. I started living with the lady who's now my wife when I was 18. To my parents, I was living in sin. But when my brother did it at a similar age, it was just: "Oh, Ken's moving in with his girlfriend."

After Ken did Fortunes of War with Emma Thompson, his life became quite public. He hated stories about him in the press. I was offered money to talk about him; my folks had journalists camped outside their front door. It was awful. There were rumours and all sorts of nonsense. I think the press scared him witless. When he and Emma did get married it was on the front page of several newspapers. Ken just said to us: "Don't get involved. Once you do, the press won't leave you alone." Since then we've never spoken publicly. Sometimes I've denied that I'm anything to do with Ken. "Any relation?" people will say. If I say, "He's my little brother," they say, "Lovely," and don't know what to say next.

Emma's a smashing girl and as down-to-earth a person as you will ever meet. She was very close to my family and treated my girls like adults. She and Ken weren't luvvies, like the Spitting Image crap. When the marriage broke down I felt extremely protective. I was just Ken's big brother. The press were camped outside Emma's door and giving Ken grief. Awful.

I get asked about sibling rivalry, what do I feel about Ken's success and am I jealous? No. We do such different things. I get a huge vicarious pleasure from his success. I get to go to the first nights, the Oscars, the premieres; I've been on the set of every film he's done and I've met fantastically famous people, including royalty.

Ken has very little time when he can just chill and kick back. He built a house about a year ago, but last year he only spent six weeks in it. I wish he could spend more time there, rather than hotel rooms. He needs to be able to relax and smell the flowers. It would help his peace of mind. Luckily, he's someone who can snatch sleep at any time. He has a photo frame that has a dozen pictures of him sleeping, in any and every position. the caption says: "The Director at Work." For Henry V he had a van with a bed in it so he could sleep on his way to the studio.

Ken leads as ordinary a life as he can. He watches TV, goes to football matches, phones his mum once a week. Ken and I go down to his local and nobody hassles us. He and Tom Cruise, who's a mate, went out one night. When they drew up to the traffic lights, some girls pulled up, did a classic double take and stalled. That's fame! When my wife and I went to the Oscars as Ken's guest, we realised how bloody famous he was in the US. There he's known as Mr Shakespeare, and people like Glenn Close come up to shake his hand.

I've been asked many, many times to be interviewed with Ken. This is the first time I've ever talked about him. I'm fiercely proud - I'm going to make it because of me and not because I have a brother who happens to be famous. Now I'm in a very senior position and I don't need a step up the ladder. So I can speak about him just as my kid brother. And I love him to death.

KENNETH: Bill and I were working-class Belfast boys, living in a street where everybody knew everybody else. The area was predominantly Protestant, but there was a smattering of Catholics. Everybody got on. It sounds cliched, but there was a real sense of community. We had a large extended family - my mother was one of nine, my father one of five. Life in Belfast was very grounded and family-orientated, and Bill and I were thrown together - we shared a bed when I was six, seven, eight. I remember being in bed next to him, and whichever book he wasn't reading for school I'd pick up. So I was introduced to Shakespeare through him. We were both very taken by the story of Animal Farm, although we couldn't quite work it out. I remember being struck by the phrase "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." You could see that was true for some people in Belfast.

There, the cardinal sin was to show off or make a fuss. "Don't start getting worked up about money. And don't have any ideas above your station." That was my parents' philosophy. To them, money was only important for putting a roof over your head; it wasn't an end in itself. And a person's religion made no difference to my parents, though not everyone in Belfast shared that view. My dad was a Protestant, but he was never in the Orange Order; he disliked all that marching lark.

My mum and dad always said that when you grew up you should do whatever makes you happy - though of course they were nervous of me going into the theatre, entering a world they knew nothing about. The first play I ever saw was A Christmas Carol, starring Jospeh Tomlety, a famous old Irish actor, at the Grove theatre in Belfast. I went with Bill and I was struck by how magical it was.

Bill's a much more emotionally fiery individual than me. He's very like my mother. They've always had a frisky relationship. They have a spat, get it out, then it's all hugs. It's like it's therapeutic for the pair of them. My father and I are more contained and find it quite hard to show our feelings. I can lose my rag, but in the end I'd rather have a quiet life.

Bill's much more gregarious than me. I think that social side of me goes into my work. And both he and my mum would definitely take the bullet for you. If anything remotely endangers the family, they're just blind allegiance.

My mother had just got pregnant with my sister when things became quite intense in Belfast, especially around our era - the Troubles. One night Bill came running up our street saying: "Get in the house, get in the house!" We heard a terrible buzzing noise. Just as he was dragging me in, I saw a sort of cloud at the bottom of the street, which turned out to be a huge bomb. Bill pushed Mum and me under a table in the back room. We didn't know it then, but the terrible noise we'd heard was the mob outside, who were picking up the iron gratings from the drains at the side of the roads and throwing them through the windows of the Catholic houses. I was hysterical, Bill was peeping out the curtain and Mum was saying: "Get down, get down!" A couple of hours later, there were barricades at the top and bottom of the street, while the men divided themselves into vigilante groups. Our street had turned into a war zone overnight.

In the wake of that, my parents felt uneasy about Belfast. My father, who was a joiner, had been offered a job in England, which was more at a management level, and they decided to take the opportunity. But none of us was very happy. Being from Belfast made you quite unpopular in England, so it was a pretty difficult time.

I was miserable. I did a lot of weeping and wailing. Bill was a bit more stiff-upper-lip. He got stuck in and lost his accent almost immediately. He was 14, and I think it was tougher for him when people took the mickey. At that age, with your hormones swirling round, you just want to be like everybody else. I found it quite difficult to be understood for a while, but I was a bit more sneaky. I began to use an English accent at school and an Irish one at home. I found myself very conflicted over that, and slightly ashamed.

Bill and I were lucky in being reasonably good at games, so we began to fit in. My mother, taken away from her family in belfast, felt quite isolated. We'd also stepped up in terms of class. Our house was bigger, and we'd become lower middle class, with all of those material, educational and cultural expectations.

In comparison with Bill, I was a relatively solitary adolescent. I spent time in the house reading while he was being social and breaking all the rules.

The move to England felt at times like some kind of betrayal. The transformation from that very grounded Belfast life, with its comfortable and simple expectations, had a profound effect on me. But I didn't fight to get it out of my system the way Bill did. And subsequently I carried much more baggage. Maybe the whole acting game was a way of hiding or escaping from it. When I try and do my psychobabble analysis of it, I feel that only now do I have a strong sense of who I am in the way that I did in Belfast.

Maybe the world of acting has shaped itself for me partly as a search for a sort of extended family that I felt absolutely secure and at home in. Over the years, I've developed a loose but large repertory company of people in films and theatre who have become like family - people like Richard Briers, Brian Blessed, etc.

I developed good performance skills, playing at being something I thought was expected of me. As an actor, you lose a bit of yourself on the way; you're not really sure what reality is because you've been tricking yourself for so long. Finally, the sand settles on some hybrid version of who you are - whatever that is!

Today I'm less conflicted and guilt-ridden. And, believe me, Jews and Catholics don't have a monopoly on guilt. The Protestant work ethic was branded on my forehead: if you are fit and talented it is your duty to use it. At times I've dealt with my good fortune by thinking: "At least I'm putting myself under pressure and giving myself less time to enjoy my good fortune!"

In England, my and Bill's lives began to be even more different. He went into computer networking and got married quite young. His marriage and family have been a real education for me. The kids are great. My nieces are healthily disrespectful of me, and they're tickled by curious little bits of my celebrity, like when I've worked with someone like Leonardo DiCaprio. It's interesting to see Bill deal with things with his kids that my parents never did, like sex, drugs, the Internet. Bill's changed a lot, but he's still very driven. He's a terrific salesman and businessman, and sometimes I think he'd be a rather good actor.

For Bill - and maybe this is an Irish thing - the family is immensely important, and he has an unquestioning loyalty to it. I know he's always there for me and I'd happily talk to him about anything. If it was a terrible crisis in the middle of the night, there'd be no "How could you possibly have this, you idiot?" Our relationship has become very simple, like having a really good mate. We meet up, have a pint and a game of snooker, but we know we'd walk over glass for each other.

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