Kenneth Branagh Accepts the 2000 Gielgud Award in London

Shakespeare Guildlines, February 2000
Published by the Shakespeare Guild (John F. Andrews, President)
*thanks to Sondra Hopkins and John Andrews

During a January 16th ceremony in a venue that Shakespeare and his fellow actors had hallowed in 1602 with the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night, the Guild saluted the poet a recent BBC survey has identified as The Man of the Millennium, and went on to laud the achievements of a versatile actor, director, producer, and script artist who has revived the sagging fortunes of a 435-year-old has-been and turned him into today's hottest screenwriter. In the words of Billy Crystal, this year's winner of the Gielgud Award "has been to Shakespeare what Viagra has been" to Kenneth Branagh's elders.

Crystal wasn't in Middle Temple Hall for the festivities, but he was one of many stars who sent messages for what the Evening Standard labeled a joyous "feelgood event." Other greetings came from notables like Richard Attenborough, Julie Christie, John Cleese, Joan Collins, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, and Robin Williams.

Woody Allen commended Branagh as one of his best pupils. Kevin Kline said that apart from himself, he couldn't think of anyone more worthy of The Golden Quill. Sir Ian McKellen expressed relief that a marvel whose accomplishments had been so awesome was finally approaching the age of 40. And Sir John Gielgud dubbed the 2000 laureate a "prodigious talent" and talked about how much he'd enjoyed appearing in several of his productions.

Following an Elizabethan prelude by Philip Pickett and the Musicians of the Globe, and an eloquent welcome from American Ambassador Philip Lader, the program opened with remarks by Sir Derek Jacobi, who'd garnered the Gielgud Award in 1997, and who spoke of how long he'd admired the protege who had given Sir Derek his first job as a director. Jacobi told Branagh he wished him Sir John's longevity - in part because "I may need the work." Next came comic writer Ben Elton, who insisted that Shakespeare owes a lot to Branagh for convincing millions of young people that the Bard isn't just "a boring old git."

Samantha Bond, who'd warmed our hearts as the title character in David Hare's Amy's View, presented the "Gallop apace" soliloquy from Romeo and Juliet. Then, after remarks from Bob Hoskins and Timothy Spall, the ever-popular Richard Briers said that before he'd met Kenneth Branagh he'd been a beloved comedy actor. His persuasive friend had transformed him into a highly regarded classical actor. "My income fell 65%," the wry Briers lamented with an endearing smile, but now at last "my family respects me."

After she'd praised Kenneth Branagh as one of the most extraordinary human beings she'd ever known, Helen Bonham Carter read letters from Brian Blessed and Ralph Fiennes. Then comedian John Sessions adopted the persona of Al Pacino to deliver a trouble Mafioso's "To be or not to be." Sean Rafferty, a BBC radio host, said how much the Belfast native's support had meant to his compatriots in Northern Ireland. Stephen Fry, best known for his Oscar Wilde in a touching film about that figure, depicted the honoree as "an act of God, a force of Nature, " and, in a toast to this sense of humor, noted that Branagh was the only one who'd ever made him laugh so hard he vomited. Film composer Patrick Doyle drew tears to some eyes when he sat down at the piano and played a theme he'd devised to accompany Branagh's magisterial St.Crispin's Day speech in Henry V.

Once she and Geraldine McEwan and Sir Derek Jacobi had shared the remaining messages from well-wishers who couldn't attend ("This is the number of our English dead," she intoned as she began unfurling what looked like a scroll), Dame Judi Dench, who'd received her own Golden Quill in May from her predecessor, Miss Zoe Caldwell, in New York's Barrymore Theatre, added her own tribute to all the praise that others had bestowed on Mr. Branagh for his brilliance, courage, thoughtfulness, and wit. She then asked him to come up for his just desserts.

He did so, and, after a few quips about a "medieval version of This is Your Life," he delivered an acceptance speech that illustrated all the qualities that had earned him so many fervent accolades from his various friends, colleagues, and loved ones.

With charming self-deprecation, he commended nearly everyone who'd contributed to his success, among them Hugh Crutwell, the drama teacher who'd laughed at the schoolboy Hamlet he'd tried as an audition piece for admission to RADA, David Parfitt and Stephen Evans, his early partners with the Renaissance Theatre Company and its counterpart the Renaissance Film Company, Tamar Thomas, his loyal administrative associate, and Dame Judi Dench's husband Michael Williams, whose acting had taught Branagh so much about the profession. He singled out a global support group, the Ken-Friends, who'd donated thousands of dollars to the Ulster Association of Youth Drama, Mr. Branagh's favorite charity.

He asked everyone to raise a glass to actor-director Richard Clifford, who'd overseen most of the arrangements for an evening Branagh later called "overwhelming." Then as he cradled his trophy and prepared to leave the stage, the walls of a storied setting reverberated with the din of a sustained ovation.

Through the generosity of Intermedia and Pathe, the UK producer and distributor of the awardee's new Love's Labour's Lost, and the kindness of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which made BAFTA's Princess Anne Theatre available, those who took part in this year's Gielgud activities had a chance to preview a palpable hit well before its scheduled release date. The two afternoon screenings were repeatedly punctuated with applause, and attendees were delighted to see several of the evening's participants, among them Mr. Clifford, who plays Boyet, in roles that will soon be entertaining moviegoers around the planet.

For these added attractions, and for the tea, scones, and hospitality that came with each viewing, the Guild is deeply grateful to Intermedia chairman Guy East and Pathe director Alexis Lloyd, as well as to Philip Rose and Geraldine Moloney, who collaborated with Julie Chadwell and Amy Minyard at BAFTA to provide these much-appreciated treats. The Guild is also pleasantly indebted to BAFTA's chief executive, John Morrell, and his capable assistant Sue Vale, for all their help and encouragement.

Others to whom the Guild owes special gratitude include trustee Lillian Solomon of the Naomi & Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, whose grant made this year's gathering possible, actor Clive Francis, whose wonderful caricatures adorned the printed program, Ken-Friend Ngoc Vu, whose Web site,, lured so many Kenthusiasts to the gala, Middle Temple catering manager Colin Davidson, who facilitated the ambience for a memorable occasion, and sculptor John Safer, whose gleaming trophy had never looked more splendid. The Guild also thanks marketing specialists Stephen Browning and Davina Christmas, and publicity consultants Sarah Keene and Jan Du Plain, who generated a remarkable volume of press coverage, form the BBC and ITN and NPR and SkyNews to the Guardian, the Independent, the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Telegraph, the Times of London, and The Washington Post.

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