Kenneth Branagh: the King of Comedy
Kenneth Branagh's returned to his native Belfast for a play that proves he can do slapstick and Shakespeare

The Observer, 9 October 2011               See the photo
By Elizabeth Day
* Thanks Jules

The first thing Kenneth Branagh did when he returned to his home town of Belfast a fortnight ago was to visit his old house. It was a red-brick terrace on Mount Collier Road in a Protestant area of north Belfast, where Branagh had lived with his parents and his older brother, Bill, until he was nine years old and the family left for a new life in England.

Now, 41 years later, Branagh can still remember the streets of his childhood, the way he used to walk to school and the fact that everyone knew his name. "When you were being called in for your tea, if you couldn't see your mother, the yell from the doorstep would come to you jungle-drums fashion," he says. "Someone two streets away would tell you you were wanted back at home."

But when he got to Mount Collier Road, Branagh found that the house was gone. "It was a sort of wasteland, surrounded by a fence. There was the little park opposite that I remember walking to school through, but the school I went to – nothing there." He pauses, takes a sip of coffee. "As my granny would say, I could feel myself filling up."

Branagh's return to Belfast has been poignant for many reasons. There is the sense of homecoming, of reconciling himself to the things that have changed and the boyhood he left behind. When the Branaghs left for England in 1970, the Troubles were just starting; a year previously, the battle of the Bogside between Catholic residents and loyalist marchers in Derry had been quelled by the British army. Now, four decades on, the province is at peace, more or less, and Branagh has come back to a very different homeland.

"There's a much stronger sense that Northern Ireland is more part of the world now," he says. "I used to get the sense that there was a kind of slight siege mentality for whatever reason, a slightly chippy thing going on sometimes. But it feels there's a very, very positive energy about the place."

Having turned 50 last December, he is at a particularly contemplative stage in his life. "You're looking in two directions. I feel as young as I've ever felt but at the same time, I've got a 30-year career now and I'm looking back across that and one sees… one just wants, very much, to make the most of things whether it is that bun" – he gestures at an enormous raspberry and white chocolate scone on the table – "or the show or whatever it is."

"The show" is 'The Painkiller' at Belfast's Lyric theatre, a new comedy directed by Sean Foley, who adapted the play from a French farce about a hitman and a suicidal divorcee originally written by Francis Veber. Branagh and Foley have worked together before – the duo won an Olivier for 'The Play What I Wrote' in 2002, which Branagh directed and Foley co-wrote and starred in – and clearly share the same love of slapstick humour. 'The Painkiller', which co-stars Rob Brydon, is an effervescent 80 minutes' worth of energetic pratfalls and trouser- dropping as the two main characters accidentally cross paths in adjoining hotel rooms.

It is easy to forget Branagh is good at comedy. He is forever suspended in the public consciousness as a Shakespearean actor, a classic luvvie who spends his life in breeches and periwigs. And it is true that Branagh cut his teeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 80s and that he went on to direct and star in a number of highly successful Shakespeare adaptations for the big screen, including the Oscar-nominated 'Henry V' (1989), 'Much Ado About Nothing' (1993) and 'Hamlet' (1996). More recently, he has won plaudits for his performance as the detective Kurt Wallander in the BBC1 adaptation of Henning Mankell's novels. 'The Painkiller' is his first appearance on stage since his critically acclaimed turn as the melancholy title role in Chekhov's 'Ivanov' at London's Wyndham's theatre in 2008.

Are people surprised when they discover he has a lighter side?

"Yeah, they do get surprised," he says when we meet in the foyer of the Lyric the morning after a performance. "I suppose you get moved into certain kinds of category." His eyes are tired and pouchy, but otherwise his physique is trim and slender. He is slighter than he appears on stage and on screen, with a boyish face and small hands that barely make an impact when we shake. It is his voice, I realise – that fluid, resonant combination of oil and grit – that gives Branagh his presence and charisma. Listening to him can be quite hypnotic; every sentence he utters seems to come with its own pre-formed rhythm, as if he has thought long and hard about how to say something even though the question has only just been asked.

"I've always loved pure, silly slapstick comedy," he continues. "It always makes me laugh. I mean, 'You've Been Framed' on a Saturday night – my wife [Branagh has been married to art director Lindsay Brunnock since 2003] laughs because I'm helpless in front of it. It's just people falling over and it's so horrible because it's so cruel, but it's that laugh when somebody rides that skateboard into a wall. I don't really know why it's not funny to some people but to me it is."

He sees the same "underbeat of violence" in 'The Painkiller'. "It keeps the evening sort of hysterical – which the play seems to need – because you're always a heartbeat away from some horrible injury. We're covered in bruises from doing it."

It is clear that Branagh is enjoying himself hugely. At one point in the play, his character is accidentally injected with tranquillisers and Branagh's semi-comatose staggering across the stage is one of the highlights of the evening. The run has already sold out and Belfast, it seems, is only too glad to have him back. On the night I see 'The Painkiller', Branagh is cheered when he makes his entrance like a gameshow host on prime time. Is it good to be back? His face remains static, but his eyes flick over to look at me. "I find it quite emotional being back here." But then a lot has happened in the intervening years.

Branagh is the son of working-class Protestant parents. His father, William, was a joiner who worked in England for extended periods. "That's where the work was," Branagh explains. "He was coming back every third weekend and that wasn't the best thing for the stability of the family."

In 1970, the family relocated to Reading after an offer of a rented house came up as part of a job. His mother was then pregnant with Joyce, Branagh's younger sister. "My mother never wanted to move. None of us wanted to," he says. "But the offer of a house came at about the time when we had this experience of rioting in the street while he was away. It was scary because, overnight, a peaceful, mixed Protestant-Catholic street turned into this very dramatic-looking landscape where all the paving stones had been pulled up by the residents to put a barricade in at either end.

"A gang from the Shankill Road had come up and marked all the houses of the Catholic people and were throwing bricks at them, just to say, 'We know where you are.' It was a sort of manic, scary warning shot and it meant a lot of Catholic families moved out. Suddenly, we were in a street where the fellow who was the postman was now also a vigilante at night. There were men with makeshift truncheons from the shipyard parading after dark and armoured cars. I remember that being a really dramatic transformation of what previously had been a place where one felt very, very, very secure."

In Reading, Branagh dropped his Irish accent to avoid being bullied at school. Coincidentally, I had almost exactly the same experience as a child but the other way round: I was born in England and moved to Derry aged four. My accent marked me out and I never liked to speak in public, preferring, instead, to watch people and listen. I wonder whether Branagh felt the same, whether his observation of others was what, indirectly, led to him becoming an actor?

"I find that a fascinating idea," he says. "I think if you're a kid and you're between two lives, it's hard to understand quite how it affects your character but I'm sure it does… you get ripped out of Ireland, away from your roots, and you end up having a complicated relationship with it, but I think the sense of character-forming seemed to be in Ireland, in among large family gatherings where people entertained, sang, told stories… so there was a sense of that being part of what you grew up with, that people singing or telling stories was normal."

After appearing in a couple of school productions, Branagh went on to Rada. One of his first jobs on graduating was to record 'The Billy Plays' for the BBC, written and set in Belfast. From there, he went to the RSC, then co-founded the successful theatre company Renaissance in 1987. Appearing on stage as Hamlet a year later, Branagh was touted as "the next Laurence Olivier", a label that has trailed him ever since ("Everybody was the new Olivier for a while," he says drily).

There was no doubting his precocity. At the age of 28, he directed his film version of 'Henry V' and won a Bafta. In the same year, he married Emma Thompson and for a while the two of them became media shorthand for a certain kind of over- earnest thespishness. "We were up there and prominent and I'm sure guilty of saying daft things but, in reality, I don't know what was imagined by this sort of intense luvviedom. If it was in and out of the Ivy having parties where no one had a name, everybody was called 'daaahling', that wasn't and is not the truth. Certainly, I enjoy a bit of theatrical banter with the best of them but I've always had a sort of feeling that this sometimes does actually feel like a proper job."

By the time Branagh was 29, he had published his autobiography. At 33, he was directing Robert de Niro and Helena Bonham Carter in his version of 'Mary Shelley's Frankenstein'. The marriage to Thompson ended in 1995 and he moved in with Bonham Carter. But then, for a while, things went rather quiet. It was not that Branagh wasn't working – he continued to direct and act, putting in good performances even in bad films such as the Will Smith vehicle 'Wild Wild West' – it was just that he seemed not to have fulfilled his enormous original promise. In recent years, his most high-profile film role has been as Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in 'Harry Potter'.

Joe Queenan, the American cultural critic, argued in an article written for the Guardian earlier this year that Branagh "was seduced by fame… and let his talents atrophy as he moved farther away from the stage and further into film". And there is certainly a sense in which Branagh's insistence on doing everything – acting, directing, writing and producing across theatre, cinema and television – prevents us from knowing quite what to make of him. "Yes, but I enjoy those kind of contradictions," he counters.

Rob Brydon, his co-star in 'The Painkiller', puts it differently: "Ken's brain is working 10 times faster than the rest of us. As well as having the mind of an actor – the sensitivity, vulnerability and openness that an actor needs – he also has the organisational mind of a man who can direct Hamlet. He's a very impressive man. It's embarrassing because I know this will be gushing in print but I've been bowled over by him. He's got a very strong work ethic. He'll be the first person back on set after lunch."

Largely as a result of his upbringing, Branagh has always appreciated the value of being in work. He refers to his "Irish puritan [and] Calvinist guilt" and says that a big part of why he enjoyed running his own theatre company was the straightforwardness of being able to pay people a fair wage, on an equal footing.

"I thought that made life so much simpler…there was basically a return to that notes in a brown envelope thing, my dad being given his wages in the pub on a Friday afternoon."

His parents, who died a few years ago (his mother, Frances, of a heart condition in 2004; his father of cancer in 2006), never fully understood the vagaries of his profession. "It took a long, long time for them to understand the strangeness of the world," he admits. "Across my dad's work, there would have been a natural place for me and my brother Bill and Joyce to go – the shipyard with my uncle Jim, into joinery with my dad, on the bricks with my uncle Billy – and we didn't want to do any of those." Bill became an IT expert and Joyce is a theatre director and writer.

"Once I'd decided to become an actor, my parents just had that feeling of they couldn't do anything [to help]," says Branagh. "They couldn't understand how it was a job that could change every couple of weeks, that you were waiting on phone calls, that you couldn't be very proactive. And they were very suspicious over what they thought would be the superficiality and the brutality of it and the ratio of people out of work.

"At the same time, as a kind of mantra from four to 40, it was, 'As long as you've got your health, son.'" He lapses into a pitch-perfect Belfast accent. "'As long as you've got your friends and family.' My mother was constantly saying, 'If God spares us. If God spares us, we'll see you at Christmas. You remember you write to that fellow and you say thank you. And look at the short print in that contract.' The small print, Mum. 'I know what I meant. I didn't come up the Lagan in a bubble...'"

For all their misgivings, Branagh's parents did meet President Clinton at a dinner held shortly after the premiere of Branagh's film version of Hamlet in New York. When Clinton shook Branagh's hand and mentioned that he loved his movies, Branagh turned to look at his mother and father, "and I thought both of them were going to collapse. Both their knees went. And then when we went through the next door, my mother threw herself at Goldie Hawn and said, 'Do you know what the president just said to my son?'"

He remains grateful for the manner of his parents' deaths – "safely and in the bosom of their family" – but because they had both been ill for some time beforehand, it was only relatively recently that Branagh felt able to commit to working abroad. Last January, he astonished almost everyone by decamping to Los Angeles to direct 'Thor', a multimillion dollar adaptation of a Marvel comic starring Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman. It seemed a baffling career move for a man who made his name with period drama and classical oratory, even if he insisted in publicity interviews that he'd loved Marvel superheroes as a child and aimed to bring out Thor's Shakespearean parallels. Really, Ken?

He smiles. "I'm much more comfortable being here –" he glances at the theatre windows, overlooking the Lagan river – "but I enjoyed my adventure in America, I liked my time with Marvel. Also, I was very aware I was very lucky to get the job. I'd made three films that not many people wanted to see – 'Sleuth', 'As You Like It' and 'The Magic Flute'; all films I was proud of and happy with and they didn't do very well, it's as simple as that. So getting any film made after that, let alone going to do a Marvel movie with a massive budget, was no slam dunk. I definitely had to pull myself by the bootstraps and say, 'Come on, let's do something that really interests me that I think people will go to see, as well.' But the world was not waiting to hand that to me."

He concedes that working on such a vast scale was a considerable challenge. "Just walking on set the first day, there were 10 camera crews, all the actors in their costumes for the first time, half of them had been up since two o'clock in the morning in 18 tonnes of latex, a vast set and then visual-effects people coming in telling me what I could and couldn't shoot because of what was going to happen in the post-production. So I felt I was in a physics lecture as well and we were planning for it to come out in 3D so…" He hesitates. "The Chinese say it's good to live in interesting times."'

Natalie Portman, whom Branagh directed in 'Thor', says that she never saw evidence of his nerves on set. "He seemed calm, confident, prepared and fully capable," she says, speaking over the phone from her home in New York. "It was definitely daunting to go on set and say these comic book character lines in front of this great genius of Shakespearean drama but Ken puts you at ease immediately.

"He absolutely engages in what drives a character and lets you think you're coming up with it all yourself even though he's guiding you through. That sets the tone for the rest of the set. He is kind and personable and really has conversations with everyone. He's genuinely caring. He looks you in the eye and remembers what you said yesterday. Usually, you really don't see that in directors."

Is there anything bad about him? "Only that I don't get to see him more often," she laughs.

In the event, 'Thor' was a box-office success, grossing more $448m (£289m) worldwide, which has ensured Branagh can do things like 'The Painkiller' (where all the cast members are on the same wage) without too much financial worry. Later this year, Branagh will be back on screen in 'My Week With Marilyn', a biopic that tells the story of Marilyn Monroe's brief sojourn in England when she came to film 'The Prince and the Showgirl' with Laurence Olivier in 1956. Branagh plays Olivier, the man whose mantle he was meant to have inherited.

He is aware of the irony, but "30 years into doing this, the idea that one is somehow obsessed with him, always trying to mimic, emulate, compete is daft, I think". He says he was attracted to the part because of the "Pirandello quality. I'm playing an actor who is directing a film in which he's directing himself. And I'm an actor who directs films in which I direct myself. There were weird layers. I understood. I had some experience of what it would be like."

He concedes that, having reached his half century, he is drawn to roles that convey a level of reflectiveness, of weighing things up, whether that be Olivier, Wallander – the detective incapable of forming a relationship with his own daughter – or his character in 'The Painkiller', a hitman forced to re-evaluate his enforced loneliness.

"I suppose, at 50, you value things in a different way. So you value connections, you value your friendships, you value your health and you are much more aware of time passing. And one of the things you regret is the [missed] chance to communicate and so if you've simply not said what you meant or even felt what you meant, I think those things, you feel them quite keenly. You feel the waste of that."

Given the closeness of his family, it strikes me as curious that Branagh has never had children himself. Would he ever want to? "Do you know, I think it would be wonderful… it just sort of hasn't worked out thus far. I feel that if that's on one's dance card, and obviously it has to be on one's dance card, pretty fucking quickly" – he guffaws – "that'd be great. It's not a subject that obsesses or preoccupies. Who knows? Maybe we'll sort ourselves out."

Is he happy? He looks moderately taken aback. "I'd say so, yeah. Well… definitely, yeah. It's… it's… it's nice being alive." Yet there is a restlessness there, too, a sense that he needs to keep going until he proves himself beyond all doubt. I wonder if this constant motion actually allows Branagh enough time to enjoy all those things he talks about enjoying because, when he leaves, I can't help but notice he has left the raspberry and white chocolate scone half-eaten on the plate.

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