Branagh and the Ad for a Girlfriend

Evening Standard (London), August 3 1992
by Geraint Smith

He bestrides the world stage like a colossus, his marriage is a showbusiness fairytale, and he counts the Prince of Wales as a friend. Now, though, every love-lorn teenager can look at Kenneth Branagh and think: when he was 16, HE advertised for a girlfriend.

It happened on 3 September 1977, in the new term edition of the teenage puppy-love magazine, 'Oh Boy', behind a cover featuring '500 supercooooool roll-ons' to give away and pouting Bay City Roller Ian Mitchell. ''

On page two, under the heading 'Oh Boyfriends!' appears a passport-sized picture of the youthful but unmistakeable features of the juvenile lead who only a few years later would crash his way into the circle of golden theatrical talents occupied by the likes of Gielgud and Olivier.

'Like a chappie to cheer you up?' says the introduction. 'We've got loads of great guys who'd just love to write to you!'

Professionally, the young Branagh had long since decided exactly where he wanted to go in life, and precisely how to get there, according to his parents. He was already doing things like turning down the National Youth Theatre because they would get in the way of gaining a place at RADA.

According to the magazine, however, his personal ambitions were not quite so focused. In fact, the future Henry V and husband of actress Emma Thompson was really rather modest in his requirements.

'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)!' it says. 'He'd like to write to a young lady of 15 plus, over 5ft, not fussy about looks, but please send photograph anyway.'

The address of Mr Branagh's parents in Reading follows, and alongside is a similar advertisement for 'Ken's mate' Steve Butler, who, it says, is 'a bit more fussy about his girls. He doesn't like 'em to wear too much make-up'.

The skeleton emerged from the wardrobe when Lorraine McBride, 24, from South Harrow, an office manager for the Ministry of Defence, was going through magazines from a car boot sale.

'They were mostly this sort of thing,' she says, 'I turned the page, and this jumped out at me.'

The actor's parents, William and Frances, still live at that Reading address. Mr Branagh, a quiet, unaffected, slow-speaking Belfastman, was at first baffled at the sight of the magazine. Then a slow grin spread across his face.

The advertisement, it turns out, is not entirely accurate, not least because there is no mention in the advertisement of his theatrical ambitions.

'Yes this is Kenneth. Yes, our Kenneth. As in Henry V, yes. This is very funny,' he said. 'I remember the picture, but I didn't know he'd written to the magazine.

'Oh God, he was playing guitar then. I remember that,' he said with a slightly more rueful grin. 'He plays it a good deal better now.

'He used to play a bit of soccer. He is still a sports fanatic. But then whenever we tried to get him outside to kick a ball around, he had his head stuck in a book. 'The world's knowledge is in books, and he knew it.'

At the time, says William, 'Kenneth' - never 'Ken' - was trying to be a disc-jockey with Steve. There was one problem. 'Every time a record was played, Kenneth found something about it he didn't like.'

Why he should have written to the magazine is beyond them. According to his mother, the young Branagh had no need to advertise. 'They came in one after the other,' she says. 'I'd see one a few times, then another I didn't know would walk through the door.

'Mind you, he was never abrupt with them. They always stayed friends after he finished with them.'

The answer, according to Mr Branagh junior, is simple. 'I was set up,' he said. 'A mate sent two photographs to the magazine. I knew nothing about it until 150 letters landed on the mat.

''My granny was staying with us and she couldn't believe that her grandson was the subject of so much attention. The letters continued at 50 a day for a week. It is slightly galling that it was far more than the fan mail that I receive now.'

He is currently producing, directing and starring in the Renaissance Film Company's latest project in Tuscany, Much Ado About Nothing.

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