Kenny, Prince of Lightness

The Guardian (London), November 9 1992
by Judy Rumbold

When Renaissance man Kenneth Branagh married his leading lady and remade Henry V, he was called the new Olivier. But is the flawless success story a triumph of marketing over merit?

IN THE early eighties, Kenneth Branagh submitted a film script to Channel 4. It outlined the story of a young boy who dreamed of being Laurence Olivier. It did not impress David Rose, the commissioning editor for film, and it was swiftly rejected. But if Channel 4 didn't buy it, the media did. Kenneth Branagh's real life story as an aspiring Olivier made irresistible copy.

Look at his achievements. After leaving RADA in 1981, he breezed straight into the West End as Tommy Judd in Julian Mitchell's Another Country. At 23, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and from there went on to establish, with fellow student David Parfitt, his own theatre company, Renaissance. At 28 he wrote his autobiography.

Branagh undoubtedly saw himself in the Olivier role. "I love that sense of theatre having been handed down through the generations to Irving, who was seen by Olivier, who was seen by Hopkins, who was seen by me."

Like Olivier, he is an actor/manager who starred and directed in a hit Hollywood movie. Like Olivier, he made a film version of Henry V. Also like Olivier, he married an actress - Emma Thompson - in a fabulous, publicity-drenched pounds 30,000 wedding at Cliveden House.

The flawless success story is now so familiar, so relentlessly cheery that the press have all but given up on it as being too dull. Everything Branagh does goes swimmingly; talented, efficient and unnerringly shrewd, he has never made a wrong move.

Until now. People are beginning to suspect that Branagh is not the new Olivier after all. The theatre-going public may have been seduced, but the professionals have been harder to convince.

The comparison to Olivier, says Richard Eyre, artistic director at the National Theatre, "is wildly off the mark. Branagh lacks that sense of danger, that recklessness, savagery and lurking melancholia that, with Olivier, made for something dark. Ken . . . he's nice. He's decent."

Nice? Decent? Nice and decent may cut ice in a convent, but aren't they liabilities in a world known for it's tantrums and histrionics, bitching and backstabbery? Olivier was never described as nice and decent.

Still, Branagh has come a long way on resolute ordinariness. As he once said himself: "I don't want to go round as Sir Kevin O'Lovey, Young Lord of the Theatre."

Testimony to Branagh's good blokiness is offered by all who have worked with him. "When he directs", says John Sessions, "he's not one of those macho types who wants to use football analogies all the time. Nor does he queen around. He doesn't say things like "imagine a steel ball bearing's sliding down your spine and all that rubbish. He's straight down the line. A nuts and bolts man." Richard Briers, who was rescued from parsnips and pig farming in BBC's The Good Life to play Shakespeare for Branagh, agrees. "Ken is down-to-earth, practical. He talks in primary colours."

Branagh has always been nice. He's profoundly nice. His niceness runs very deep indeed. He was born in a Belfast council house in 1960, the son of a carpenter, and even as a 15-year-old schoolboy he was nothing short of saintly.

"He was funny and very very likeable", says John Beasley, a teacher at Meadway Comprehensive in Reading, where he was brought up. "Even teachers looked up to him. There was a determination there."

Stunning performances in school productions of Oh! What A Lovely War and Toad Of Toad Hall convinced Beasley that Branagh was born to act. "He had the audience in the palm of his hand."

But Branagh wasn't blessed with particularly actorly looks - matinee idol material he was not. Beasley remembers "a fairly thick set lad - quite a tough-looking character. Looked like he'd be good on a sports field."

Indeed, an advertisment for a girlfriend (placed by a friend - Branagh was much too decent to indulge in anything so vulgar) in the teenage girl's magazine Oh Boy! in 1977 reinforced the image of Branagh as loveable jock. "Sixteen-year-old Ken Branagh is a sports fanatic, but in between huffin' an' puffin' he also finds time for a bit of guitar playing and listening to music (his fave is Wings)! He'd like to write to a young lady of 15 plus, over 5ft, not fussy about looks but please send photo anyway." Inevitably, Branagh's innate qualities of niceness and decency leapt from the page and the mail flooded in.

However, it wasn't niceness and decency that appealed to Hollywood. Hollywood fell for the first draft of the life of Branagh - the one that cast him as the new Olivier. Hollywood liked the idea of Branagh as the dashing young thesp from London's Theatreland. He gave snob appeal and high-art credibility to the taut but trite little thriller, Dead Again.

"He's made for Hollywood," says Stephen Woolley of Palace Pictures. "He's talented, he's a boy wonder, he's everything Hollywood's ever wanted".

Is he? In fact, Branagh is the antithesis of Hollywood. Look at him and his scrum-half's build, the soft, wholesome features that betray all the menace of a carpet slipper. You won't catch Branagh being photographed swanning into Heathrow Arrivals with a bag of Duty Free and a copy of Hello! Jogging round Hyde Park with a posse of bodyguards and shopping at Versace isn't his style. It never was.

"He was one of the worst dressed people at RADA," says John Sessions. "He wore anoraks, bad jeans and the sort of shoes you'd buy from a chainstore." He's a snappier dresser now, says Sessions, but perish the thought that he should ever succumb to vanity. "He's not like one of these guys you see in a fashion magazine who suck in their cheeks till the cheekbones touch."

Harsher critics would point out that in any case, Branagh hasn't got any cheekbones. Worse, he has no lips to speak of.

Still, poor bone structure and liplessness don't necessarily make for poor acting. The playwright David Hare remembers witnessing a precocious talent when he saw Branagh in Another Country. "He showed an eerie, unnatural command for someone his age. He set the pace of the play. I've never seen anyone run a stage as impeccably as he does."

Anthony Sher recorded him "strolling around that famous stage as if born on it", on the first night of Adrian Noble's Henry V at Stratford.

If Shakespeare was the photo on his passport to Hollywood, Hollywood has helped Branagh to finance his love of Shakespeare. "It is his absolute God," says Richard Briers. "It fills him up."

At the age of 15, Branagh took a tent to Stratford and watched Shakespeare every night. "I hung around pubs so I could listen to actors talking," he once said. "I got up the courage to ask the house manager if I could have a look backstage. I was persistent. Standing on the stage was like a shot in the arm. Christ, it was fantastic."

Since then, Branagh has, like Olivier, been driven by a messianic calling to boil Shakespeare down into good, watchable yarns. "He could be Mr Mega-Rich lounging by a pool in Hollywood," says the actor and comedian Tony Slattery, "but he's not. Doing good work is his motor."

Before the release of Henry V, Branagh said: "I believe it could be a truly popular film. The audience that wants to see Rambo could also be stimulated by Henry V." But bringing the Bard to the people (Henry V finished 64th in 1989's top grossers in the UK, taking a paltry pounds 664,727) takes time.

To that end, Branagh works like stink. "What next?", commented a Rada contemporary with weary speculation. "King Lear on Ice?"

Make no mistake; if Branagh wanted it, Branagh would get it. "He influences events rather than puts himself at the mercy of them," says a former RSC actor. "If he wants to do something, he does it, and if something doesn't exist, he invents it." He has a lot of front, a lot of chutzpah, says Stephen Evans, the stockbroker and theatre fan who drummed up the cash for Henry V and numerous projects since. "Ken knows how to schmooze people."

While at RADA, Branagh schmoozed the pants off Olivier, asking him for advice on how he should play Cherbutykin, the doctor in Chekhov's Three Sisters. He schmoozed RADA's principal, Hugh Cruttwell, explaining why he needed to play Hamlet and would he please stage it?

He schmoozed Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi into directing a Shakespeare season for Renaissance, and a feat of spectacular schmoozery was performed when, playing Henry V for the RSC in 1984, Branagh sought and gained an audience with Prince Charles in order to check out the loneliness of life at the top. Indeed, so relieved was the Prince to find that Branagh, instead of being a grimy thesp was in fact a nice, decent chap with just-washed hair and a firm handshake, that he happily lent his name to Renaissance as the company's patron.

Over the years, Branagh has been able to sidestep much of the flak that he would have attracted for his more lightweight and less successful pieces of hackwork by saying that they were done for the good of Shakespeare. "It would be nice," he once said, "to think that there's some way the movies could finance the theatre."

The pounds 15,000 he earned from making a risible Hollywood film, High Season, with Jacqueline Bisset was ploughed straight into his own production of Romeo And Juliet. His autobiography - a breezy, jobbing piece and by no means a classic of the genre, was done, by his own admission, for the pounds 50,000 it brought in to rent premises for Renaissance. His new film - the sentimental comedy Peter's Friends (made in three months with a budget of pounds 2 million and released on Friday) - was made to sponsor the upcoming film of Much Ado About Nothing, starring Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton and Robin Williams and costing around $ 10 million.

But now the older, mellower Branagh is beginning to suggest that his lightweight work is valid in itself; that he no longer needs Shakespeare to give him credibility.

That's why his third Hamlet, currently in rehearshal with Adrian Noble at the RSC - will make or break him as far as the "Branagh as Olivier" thesis goes. Indeed, the very critics who praised his 1988 Hamlet, directed by Derek Jacobi, as the best since Jacobi's own performance in the seventies now suspect that Branagh's Hamlet of 1992 won't regain those heights of approval.

As one critic said: "Branagh is a limited actor. His talent is for light comedy and people who are rather like him. He needs to work with some first-class directors again because his acting hasn't been top class recently. His Corialanus at Chichester was so-so. Hamlet will be the great test."

Some detractors suspect that Branagh's abiding preoccupation with niceness and decency is getting the better of his Shakesperian ambitions.

Peter's Friends is awash with actors who are Ken's Friends. "'But," protests Stephen Fry, who plays Peter, "the idea of it being this kind of lovefest of chums enjoying themsleves is utter rubbish."

He may say that, but it's not how it looks. 'It's unfortunate," says Stephen Woolley, referring to a group photograph of Hugh, Emma, Stephen and the gang on the cover of Time Out, "that they all look so smug". But then, don't they deserve to be smug? Multi-talented, rich, hard-working and nice with it, surely Ken's Friends give smug a good name.

The question is, can Branagh get tough? Can he discriminate, do new and brave work with his mates forever in tow?

A luminary of the British Film Industry who admires Branagh's success but not the films that have contributed to it found Peter's Friends "too easy. It was dreadful, sentimental, and there's a couple of people who shouldn't have been in it. Emma Thompson for one. She's far too mannered."

"He's kind of separated himself," says Richard Eyre. "From my point of view I'd think it would be odd to just offer Ken a job. Because would I be offering Renaissance Theatre Company a job too? Putting on Hamlet at the RSC In Association with Renaissance is an amazing precedent. He has an extraordinary determination to make his company succeed."

During the last couple of years, people have stopped making Olivier comparisons. Branagh appears to be emerging as a talented director of light comedies and romantic thrillers and has ditched his own Laurence Olivier story line. Unless his Hamlet restores his reputation on the London stage, it will be easier to see his future panning out more along the lines of Noel Coward than Laurence Olivier. And if things go really wrong he may yet turn into Cary Grant.

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