High Street Ken
Evening Standard, May 1992
by Duncan Fallowell
**thanks to Virginia Leong
Kenneth Branagh, back on the
English stage after the Hollywood success of Dead Again,
still barely merits a second glance in the street. Duncan Fallowell
found him truly, madly, deeply unaffected by fame.
One expected him to be of the
terrier breed, small and pugnacious, but in The Langham Hilton
hotel, Mr. Branagh seems relaxed, even a little tired - those
pouches under his eyes are too heavy - about average height,
something between overweight and well-built, with oddly delicate
hands. You wouldn't call him handsome, but he's nice-looking
and sexy in the blond, blue-eyed yeoman farmer way. He was born
into a large Protestant but not very religious family in Belfast
in 1960, the son of a carpenter, but because of the Troubles
they moved to Reading when he was ten.
"I go back to Ireland several
times a year," he says.
Is he optimistic about the future
"I'm optimistic by nature.
But it will take a long time. Meanwhile, you've got to keep the
That could be dangerous.
"Yes, but when I go back
I keep right out of politics and concentrate on charity things."
He was successful at his comprehensive
school, becoming captain of rugby and soccer - early a leader
- then switched on to drama in a big way to the bewilderment
of his parents who thought he might be turning gay. He also lost
his Irish accent at school - but kept it at home: role-play came
early, too. He moved to London in the late 70s to study at RADA.
It was the time of the British punk movement. Was this part of
"Oh no, I could never imagine
going back to see my parents with safety pins through my nose.
I bought the music - Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam. But I was
a very bland teenager, the original young fogey."
What music does he buy now?
He pulls his nose, puts his feet
up on the table and pulls his nose again. "Not much. I'm
so busy that, when I have a spare moment to sit in my front room,
I want to enjoy the peace. Putting on a record is usually the
last thing I think of. But my taste is basically adult-oriented
rock - Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins, all those."
Kenneth Branagh's career has
been remarkable, chiefly, for his early and rapid success across
a wide spectrum. His stage career was launched by Another
Country in 1982. The fact that it was in the West End and
immediately successful is typical. Then, as a member of the Royal
Shakespeare Company, he began to work through the canon - Love's
Labour's Lost, Henry V - before branching out with
his own production of Romeo and Juliet. In 1987 he founded
the Renaissance Theatre Company (RTC) which specialises in using
actors as directors.
Meanwhile, as well as acting
and directing, he was writing - two plays, Tell Me Honestly
and Public Enemy. Modest successes? "Can't say. I
don't know anyone who saw them." In 1989, he published an
autobiography called Beginning, in order to raise money
to buy an office for the RTC, which had been operating out of
his small flat in Camberwell.
He had also been getting into
television (appearing in To the Lighthouse and Fortunes
of War) and into films (A Month in the Country and
High Season). His film directorial debut was Henry
V, in which he starred as well. He followed this with Dead
Again - as director/star, playing opposite his wife, Emma
This is a dizzy list, and far
from complete. To what does he ascribe it?
"Being in the right place
at the right time. A whole group of us got our break then - Colin
Firth, Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis. And then not thinking
too much - knowing what I wanted to do next and getting on and
He made some very clever moves,
too. For example, wishing - for the stage version of Henry
V - to find out what it felt like to be royal, he obtained
an interview with the Prince of Wales.
"Well, that conversation
was immensely valuable to me - because I hoped to convey the
inner life, the inner questioning and self-discovery of a young
monarch, not just his outward success and brilliance. And there
was only one person I could ask about that."
Prince Charles became patron
of the RTC and Branagh was established at a very early age as
one of the keystones of the British theatrical establishment.
This suggests another clue to
his success. He is a wonderfully protean actor, convincing in
many different styles - this is the Olivier approach, although
Branagh is less studied than his exemplar. The applause has been
genuine, not hyped - even John Osborne, the most neurotic and
prickly member of the theatrical tribe, said that Branagh's Look
Back in Anger was the best production he'd ever seen.
For me, Branagh's great quality
as a Shakespearean is that he takes his time with words, allowing
us to absorb them. This may sound obvious, but a whole school
of post-war Shakespearean acting thinks the words should be gabbled
to make them sound like ordinary conversation. But Branagh is
also extremely conventional is his general tastes. Young success
usually happens with an element of notoriety, by bringing something
new and challenging to the art. Which means that young success
is usually partial. But Branagh's has been total. This is because
he brings youthful energy and enterprise to the status quo. The
old guard are not challenged - they are flattered. Playing a
communist schoolboy in Another Country is about as exotic
as he's ever been. Nor does Branagh's personality present any
obstacles. I'm sure much of his success is due to his genial,
unaffected manner in a notoriously affected, highly-strung profession.
"Arise, Sir Kenneth"? It would be surprising if this
didn't happen soon after his 40th birthday. His only element
of challenge would be in trying to outdo the old boys at their
own game - Olivier in Henry V and Hitchcock in Dead
Again. When the question is put to him, he replies: "I'm
not really challenging these men. They are part of an inspiration
You seem to have very straightforward
"I suppose I do. I don't
like things to be too obscure or too remote. I like the centre
Who is your favourite contemporary
He takes his feet off the table,
pours a glass of water and lifts them back up again. With anyone
else this would seem arrogantly loutish, but with Kenny, the
golden prince of the middlebrow, it is just nonchalant. It's
the same with the questions - throw him any one you like and
out it flows in a natural, un-actorly voice. Such innocent ease
is a pleasure to be with. You will, however, wait in vain for
any electrifying original observation. But that is usual with
actors. They are, after all, the mouthpieces of other people's
electrifying observations. Only one thing is weird - he has the
nervous mannerism of pulling his nose about. In fact, I've never
come across a more diligent nose-puller. Half-way through our
interview, it has become quite red. It's rather endearing - how
awful if he'd been cool as well as everything else.
What are the disadvantages of
such early success?
"Well, a backlash, for one.
People start being unkind, and I suppose that has tended to happen
a bit in Britain."
But the backlash is not simply
mean-mindedness. There is a sense in which unopposed success
is debilitating for an artist or performer. Such a person needs
to confront obstacles, to suffer quite badly, in order to develop
charisma. Oscar Wilde was not wholly correct when he said nothing
succeeds like success. In the creative professions, mere success
is boring. Come on, Ken, have a couple of wretched years.
What are your weaknesses as an
actor? What in particular do you have to watch out for?
"I can be very fast in my
thoughts. So sometimes I'm too fast into a part. I can think
I've grasped a character when it might be better to slow down
and think around it first. For example, my Hamlet was very lively
and impulsive, but not very deep. I'm doing it again with the
RSC at the end of this year and it will be different - I've been
looking at it and I think everyone's underestimating how important
religion - or better to say religiosity - is to Hamlet."
This is one of two stage parts
fixed for Branagh this year - Hamlet under the direction
of Adrian Noble in December and Coriolanus (with Renaissance)
at Chichester this summer.
"I'm doing Hamlet
with the RSC, not the RTC, because I'm now going through a learning
period again. I don't want to direct any more for the moment.
I want to be directed. It is a very interesting period for me
coming up. Putting myself in other hands. Discovering new things."
No new films?
"Oh, yes. My next film is
called Peter's Friends, a low-budget film [shot in London
this spring with Branagh as director/producer/actor]. It's about
friendship. It has, I hope, the intimacy of, say, a Woody Allen
film. I love the way he hardly has to leave Manhattan to do everything
he wants, and I like the idea of using London in a similar way."
Do you go away very often? I
mean for holidays?
"Last year I took a three-month
break to slow myself down, and did some reading and a lot of
Where else would you like to
You're not one for the outlandish
are you? Trekking across the Gobi or paddling up the Amazon.
"Well, I don't like being
a rich white man in a poor man's country."
Really, I didn't want to end
on a priggish note, but he said it...I've never seen him do comedy.
I wonder if he's any good at it?
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