Why Branagh Believes in Friends

Daily Telegraph, November 4 1992
by David Gritten

Kenneth Branagh is used to being savaged by the press. But now that he has made a film about friendship, says David Gritten, it could be time to call a truce

A LOOK of unmistakable concern flickers in Kenneth Branagh's eyes. No prizes for guessing why: a journalist heading his way cannot be a totally welcome sight. Of those in public life in Britain, few have suffered a tougher time from the media recently. The press routinely castigates him as overbearing, over-publicised, and - let us be candid - over-successful while still over-young. He has been derided as a Thatcherite figure and mocked for writing an autobiography at 28. The success of his last film Dead Again in America, where Branagh is admired without reservation, incited some British critics to new levels of vitriolic rage. He tries to sound equable about it: "I know on the whole the press are not three-headed monsters. I know a lot of the people who have written ghastly things about me. But I think in Britain you go through a cycle - you get discovered, then maybe you get a little too popular or too lauded. Then another cycle sets in: they're happy with you because other people have come along that they can do it to. "In a strange way the press are very familiar with me. I'm referred to as 'our Ken'. There's a kind of paternal thing that's strangely affectionate. Maybe it's the nature of this country: it's so small and insular that you go through a kind of family relationship, and get told off a lot."

All the same, he bridles at some of the charges levelled against him. "A less Thatcherite creature than me you could not imagine," he says. "I think of that word as describing someone who's wedded to the idea of profit at all costs." In fact, his Renaissance Theatre Company is "far more wedded to the idea of people's welfare". When he took its players, including his wife Emma Thompson, on a world tour a couple of years back, everyone drew the same salary. But attacks can still wound. Perhaps as a consequence, everything about him on this particular day seems calculated to ward off negative comment. Five floors above Soho, in his film distributors' offices, here he is, dressed anonymously in a blue jacket and trousers and a white shirt. His hands remain clasped in his lap, reducing the chance of some extravagant actorly flourish.

A couple of easy questions designed to elicit pomp and bombast are answered in muted, self-deprecating fashion. His demeanour is that of a middle-order batsman who has arrived at the crease with his team in trouble: head down, straight bat, no flashy strokes, but plodding instead to survival.

In the context of his turbulent relationship with Britain's press, it is possible to see his new movie Peter's Friends as some kind of peace offering. It is emphatically not like his Henry V, which drew criticism for its triumphalism; nor is it a tricky, flamboyant attempt to add new spin to old movie genres, like his melodramatic thriller Dead Again. Instead, Peter's Friends is a low-key, serio-comic ensemble piece about a group of pals who devised revues together at university and who reunite over a New Year's holiday a decade later. Branagh directs, true, but has also assigned himself a role that allows him to be solidly supportive rather than visibly dazzling. He plays Andrew, a director who sold out to Hollywood and who has returned with his wife, a pampered TV actress. Andrew is by no means the central or best-drawn character; Stephen Fry is more prominent as the Peter of the title, a wealthy bachelor hosting the reunion in his late father's mansion.

The friends include Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Imelda Staunton. "It's quite a personal little film," says Branagh, "because it's about somethig I feel is important - friendship and the power of it. It's one of the most tangible things in a world which offers fewer and fewer supports. This support is not provided by consumer goods or money, but by good company." It is a credo which holds good in both his private and professional life. Clearly, when the media and the outside world turns hostile, Branagh has friends to prop him up. The film is littered with friends of his and Thompson; she had known Fry, Laurie, Slattery and co-writer Martin Bergman since her Cambridge days, while David Parfitt and Roger Lanser, its producer and director of photography, are certified Branagh buddies.

But for all this chumminess, Branagh was determined to avoid what he calls "a smug club gathering of people". The film juxtaposes moments of low comedy with high seriousness, and he chose a cast of players experienced in comedy to bring it off: "They all came in with an appetite for showing what they could do, especially in the darker moments. There can be a kind of tyranny in the efficiency of very good actors. They're set in their ways; sometimes they can be brilliant, but sometimes perfunctory. Instead, I wanted an edginess to it." It is not, he stresses, a cynical film. "I was determined to send out a positive impulse. Nothing sanctimonious, but there's an area where films can throw some light, and, without being bland, offer a different kind of entertainment."

He has just completed Much Ado About Nothing in Italy, using a mainly British cast and crew sprinkled with Hollywood stars. Now he's preparing for Hamlet at the RSC, directed by Adrian Noble. "Then," he says, "I may just stop for a bit." Many of those who criticise Branagh bemoan the lack of a British film industry. In fact, the industry needs a dozen more like him; he provides many who work in it with a fair living. If he makes money from a Hollywood studio (as he did this year, acting in Disney's Swing Kids) he ploughs it back into his next film from London. A different man might have reacted to media hostility by decamping to LA, where he could be warm, rich and revered. Branagh, however, is committed to making films here. "The more we can fly the flag a bit, the better," he says. The thought occurs that Peter's Friends - British to the core as it is - might be guaranteed a friendly reception. "I don't need guarantees that people will like my work," he says. "Just that they might start more regularly and consistently to review what I do rather than who I appear to be."

He has a point; it may be time for the press to call at least a temporary truce.

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