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 there?

"I'm optimistic by nature. But it will take a long time. Meanwhile, you've got to keep the flag flying."

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 his life?

"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 Thompson.

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 doing it."

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 to me."

You seem to have very straightforward tastes.

"I suppose I do. I don't like things to be too obscure or too remote. I like the centre field."

Who is your favourite contemporary film director?


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 walking."



Where else would you like to go?


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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