Who would live in a house like this? Believe it or not, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. This north London semi surely says more about the ultimate showbiz couple than any thespian anecdote or Oscar speech. Jonathan Margolis, it's over to you...

By Jonathan Margolis, The Tatler 1994
* Thanks to Jane Land

Set aside for the moment the lists of credits and plaudits and whatsits on their mantelpiece, and which luvvies love them, which bitches bitch about them and why. Let's concentrate on the important trivia about Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, the things no newspaper or magazine - in hundreds of thousands of miles of column inches - has sufficiently exaggerated to the point of getting right. OK. You are thundering along the Finchley Road, out of London. The M1 is starting to get a mention on signposts, as are strange and distant lands we know little of, like Hendon and Mill Hill. We are talking real thundering here; it's a rackety, stinking pig of a road out to Metroland. To your right, fair enough, is Hampstead, but to your left is Cricklewood, which shares a page in the A - Z with Neasden. You turn to your left and continue so far down that road that not even the biggest optimist could say you were any longer in Hampstead. The second turning on the right, and you are in a gentle, narrow, slightly sloping, leafy suburban lane of smallish Edwardian semis.

On your right, halfway along, is a pretty gabled dwelling, partly covered in creeper, the pebbledash Sandtexed, the window frames gleaming with fresh white Dulux. There's a little, crazy-paved front garden, with a few wonky flowers in the holes where diamond-shaped crazy bits are left out. Temporarily removed from the front porch by the builders is a large blue toy parrot which, when in place, looks like the legacy of some student jape. The red front door has a Yale and extra Chubb, the downstairs bay has a heavy net curatin, and in the upstairs front window a large number of soft toys can be seen with their backs to the glass.

When French Elle described chez Branagh as the couple's "cottage de West Hampstead" it was touchingly wrong. Branagh and Thompson's house, the visible monument to their joint persona, is staggeringly normal, a conscious refutation of the age-old show business adage that leading international film stars do not live in suburban north London and display their Oscars in the loo.

It's not that this part of suburbia is devoid of show biz. Immediately across from Ken and Em's is the house of Thompson's mother, the actress Phyllida Law, while a bit further up the Finchley Road, beyond the North Circular, Ken could pop into Kazuo Ishiguro's even more bog-standard semi to borrow his strimmer and chat about how the royalties are going for The Remains of the Day (which Ishiguro wrote and Emma starred in). But on the whole, stars have a house in Kensington or Notting Hill, which they use on the rare occasions they are not at their place in the Hollywood hills. The Branaghs are aware, as well they might be, of the contradiction. Emma's answering machine has been known to convey the jokey message: "I'm not here right now, so I'm probably in Hollywood."

Branagh and Thompson enjoy being different from the show biz norm: which is not to suggest that living in a north London semi, ordering pizzas and watching videos is a pose. But it must be very funny, when you think about it, for them to sit in their little garden in Mr. Pooter territory, with the cricket ground behind it and the Flymo symphony droning in from all the neighbor's little gardens, and know that they are two of the most famous people in the world, who could ring up everyone from Bruce Willis to the Prince of Wales for a chat, and who could affard, if they were bothered, almost any other lifestyle they chose. "My definition of success is control," Ken has said. And he has it.

Five years ago, Ken and Em nearly abandoned conventional suburban life for a splendid Victorian townhouse in prime Hampstead. They pulled out of the deal at the last minute: the agent was so charmed by Branagh's honesty about their change of mind, citing the couple's changing lifestyle, not knowing what tomorrow might bring and all that, that he quite forgave them.

Right... not a word more on the person-next-doorfulness of Ken and Em. It just is. Let's merely consider some amazing facts, before getting to the big Ken and Em questions: why they are such a big deal, why everybody hates them so much, why everyone else loves them so much, why everybody who isn't committed either way is so committed to being uncommitted, like Ken and Em were the European Parliament or something.

The outstanding point about Kenneth is unquestionably that on 3 September 1977, his mates advertised him in the teenage magazine Oh Boy! alongside a passport sized photo and the caption: "16-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 would like to talk to a young lady of 15-plus, over 5 foot, not fussy about looks, but please send a photograph anyway."

The next most interesting thing is that the Belfast-born teenager was bullied at his Reading comprehensive and was the captain of the school rugby and soccer teams. The bullying was bad enough for him to feign broken bones by deliberately falling down stairs to get his parents to keep him home. As any schoolboy past or present knows, being a sports star and a target for tormentors is quite an unusual achievement. It's fascinating that, in later life, Ken falls into precisly the same role, as a mind-bendingly successful man who is simultaneously a persecuted punching bag.

The third most amazing fact about Kenneth is that when he was at RADA, he wrote to Lord Olivier to ask how he should play a particular role in Chekhov, and also to the school principal, sying he needed to play his first Hamlet and could RADA please do him the courtesy of putting on a production a.s.a.p.

The single overriding feature about that nice Mrs. Branagh at number 30 is, of course, that she once described her one-woman television comedy show, Thompson - in which she dressed up like a cherry and did a dance routine in a giant bowl of trifle, and was acclaimed for her pains as "sluggish, self-indulgent, and totally unfunny" - as "a little allotment... and above the allotment is a massive and incredibly beautiful oak tree, and that's Shakespeare."

Point two, I think, has to be that when a childhood friend Gerry Murton died of leukaemia, the 14-year-old Emma told the boy's mother, Mary Murton, "Well, at least you have God, Mrs. M." Mrs. Murton was reported as saying years later, "Em was a serious little thing. We all knew she would act one day." It is one of those overly revealing "quotes" you can bet she never quite uttered, but will undoubtedly have meant.

Thirdly, it is Emma Thompson, one-time serious swot of Camden School for Girls, who said of her husband: "I once went to a psychic and he said that in a past life I had been married to my mother, and that my father and my sister were our children. I'm sure Kenneth could have been my son, my servant, my Egyptian toyboy - or my pet turtle."

Lastly, this. When she was gossiped about as having committed the faux pas of talking to Princess Margaret before being spoken to, our left-wing heroine allegedly explained that she was so used to yammering away with the Prince of Wales (as one does) that she had quite forgotten herself.

Branagh and Thompson do not even look like big-time Hollywood stars. They are on a par as far as looks go, with the same well-matched degree of attractiveness, which is sort of middling and varies according to the light. She is gawky with a touch of the jolly hockeysticks, he blond to the eyelash, with a chirpy, everyone's mate, rugby-flanker aura about him. They are wispy, pallid and slightly spotty without actually having spots, although Emma seemed to have a slight rash of them on her chest in Mel Smith's film The Tall Guy. It doesn't quite add up to Olivier and Vivien Leigh, with whom the couple are compared to the point of tedium: Branagh and Thompson's is a pleasant, unthreatening, uncharismatic, unsexy Britishness. Neighbours (and they should know) say Emma is much prettier than she looks in films and photos, while one female journalist tellingly described Branagh as "one of those engaging young men who mysteriously become more handsome the longer you spend in their company."

What is the extent of their greatness? To the non-critic, the youngest-ever Henry V at Stratford - he took on the role at 23 - seems to be a bit boring and technical, kind of likable but not terribly actory, which of course is spot-on for the man who has been called " the golden prince of the middlebrow" and had made his mission the popularisation of Shakespeare. Frank Rich of the New York Times described his Hamlet as "a bland, cautious, theatrical reading of the prince rather than a passionate, risk taking interpretation."

Branagh is not a spectacularly great actor and, to be fair, few critcs have suggested that is where his strength lies. On the stage, he is more like a team captain who is a perfectly good player but whose real skill lies in leadership. Branagh is a visionary and an enabler. He is also, according to his peers, a born director. Brian Blessed goes further: "He's a staggering director. He respects and loves actors and gives them freedom. We see Ken as a door through which we can escape from the fear that the theatre establishment and bureaucracy impose. His example will encourage other actors to break away. He's Sir Galahad in quest of the chalice."

Branagh is the one who has the idea of doing what no one else dares, then has the baffling and infuriating gift of being able to ask people to help in such a way that they feel they cannot refuse. It is an ability shared by Robert Altman, who can persuade huge names to take walk-on parts in low-budget films like The Player or Pret a Porter. So what happens when Ken wants to take everyone who's anyone to twinkle in Tuscany for six weeks and make a new film of the irritating Much Ado About Nothing? Precisely that. Off they all trundle, their Oscars metaphorically clanking in their holdalls, to eat pasta cooked by Emma and her ma, earn a pittance and never for a moment wonder what induced them to join Ken's happy band.

Curiously, the enthusiasm that sweeps everyone in the theatre along in his ambitious wake extends even to audiences. Did you go to see Much Ado? Probably - it outgrossed Arnold Schwarzanegger's Last Action Hero for a while. Did you honestly, cards on the table, enjoy it that much? Possibly, but it's likely you went to the film because of the fuss rather than due to any true desire to hear Shakespeare in Dolby stereo. I rest my shaky case.

Emma Thompson is easier to get a handle on, although you have largely to ignore what she says about herself because at various times she has probably uttered almost every combination of words in the English language, and - inevitably - not all of them have been flattering to her formidable intellect. She did not train professionally as an actress, but took to the idea of being one after a term at Cambridge, whereupon, according to an acquaintance, "she waltzed in, all flowing scarves and fantastically theatrical." Sir Anthony Hopkins regards her as "the most exciting actress I have ever worked with," and nine critics out of ten think she is simply magnificent.

The Evening Standard's film critic, Alexander Walker, interestingly differentiates her thespianism from conventional stardom. "The thing to remember about Emma Thompson," he writes, "is that she is an actress first, by choice and talent, and not primarily an ambition-driven star. A star stays essentially the same in role after role, rotating, often entertainingly, the personality angle that first fired public interest. An actress, on the other hand, is driven by the need to be continually reinventing herself. Emma is this kind of animal."

The opposing - and strictly minority - view is that her portrayal of English gentlewomen curiously lacks something. She sometimes seems stretched like elastic into the parts she is given, is not too hot at accents, and has a strongly contemporary voice that makes Shakespearean English sound slightly odd flowing from her throat. She was shown up a little in the "dream cast" production of King Lear on Radio 3 earlier this year to celebrate Sir John Gielgud's ninetieth birthday. In the company of Dame Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins (who played Goneril and Regan), Emma's Cordelia sounded particularly amateurish. Deprived of the flashing personality of her teeth, her voice made you pine for, say, Miranda Richardson in the part.

Ken and Em's physical fallabilities and general niceness are, of course, very attractive to the general public in Britain, who find glamorous stars rather threatening; there's certainly nithing sniffy or snobby about the couple at Number 30. The Americans love them because they're British and, in Hollywood terms, plain. They also, crucially, represent "high culture," which makes the Americans feel worthy and clever. If it does not sound too appalling, Ken and Em are a good minority cause in the same way as are films about the Holocaust, Vietnam and AIDS. You can almost imagine the self-congratulation amongst the Oscar selection committee: who, after all, is going to admit they preferred Home Alone to Henry V?

What, then, is the cause of the anti-Thompson/Branagh feeling in this country? Why, when I was looking for a copy of Branagh's autobiography - the one he wrote at 28 - for this article, did a succession of bookshop assistants groan? One smirked and said, "It's out of print, but don't worry, he's probably written part two by now."

About 10 percent of it is probably that people see one of the other (but usually both) of them in films and fail to understand what the fuss is about. A larger group simply find the concept of showbiz couples a bit de trop. If the cliche theatrical pairing of plain, brilliant male director and stunningly beautiful female protegee equals the sexual dodginess of the English teacher going out with the pretty sixth-former, then the Ken and Em relationship is akin to the wholesome (but equally, or even more, revolting) spectre of the head boy dating the head girl.

Another section of the public see the pair as having been grossly and ridiculously over-exposed by the media, and feel that Ken and Em themselves must have been party to the conspiracy of noise. Hollywood and the press are often charged with forcing famous couplings (such as the doomed Kiefer Sutherland/Julia Roberts relationship), but they had nothing to do with Ken and Em. If anything, the press has made a virtue of necessity in liking them, because they have absolutely nothing on them. Unsubstantiated rumours come and go about a rift between the two: and in the run of things, what with the general rise in divorce and its historical popularity in the acting profession, such a thing would hardly be utterly amazing. But from day to day, they seem a delightfully happy couple. If the media is blamed for lionising Thompson/Branagh, it is responsible too for making a huge, national joke of the luvvy syndrome, of which Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson are seen as the epitome: the Nineties version of the old "Dear, dear Johnnie, darling, darling Ralphie" stuff. It has got to the point where it is next to impossible to mention Branagh and Thompson to a taxi-driver without inciting the Pavlovian response of the word luvvy.

It is often said, especially in relation to Ken and Em (but never by Ken and Em) that we in Britain have a problem with success, love to kick people down when they're up and so on, but that argument is largely luvvy nonsense that you hear equally in America and everywhere else. It is a human characteristic (though, granted, a particularly strong one in Britain), to laugh at twits. End of story.

There is, to be fair, a powerful desire by our press to seek out twittishness. Yet negative press reaction to Ken and Em has been negligible and is all based on the worn luvvy theme. Those in the media and the theatre who do take a swipe at Ken and Em must ask themselves how they would react if they were invited to their house. They would, of course, be RSVP positive, and leave the "at home" card on the mantelpiece for decades.

What we really need to know about Thompson/Branagh is this: when Emma gushes at the Oscars and talks a lot of excitable balls about this or that political cause, and when Ken gives parts in films and plays to her, as well as to all her old Cambridge Footlights friends, and even her mother for heaven's sake, are they taking the proverbial, or are they being serious luvvies? The answer to the question is crucial: if it is the first option, they would gain credit for being very funny, ironic people; if it is the second, we are talking something akin to stupidity. Since, so far as I can tell, no one has yet had the nerve to ask them whether the nepotism is a joke or not, we can't know the answer. There is for the record, a good Ken and Em nepotism joke:
        Ken: "I'm in the kitchen, darling!"
        Em: "Ooh, can I be in it too?"

My guess would be that in the privacy of Number 30, behind the net curtain, they would quite appreciate this gag, that the luvvieness bit is all a huge laugh, ditto the lefty causes, definitely ditto the Olivier/Leigh myth. But you can't be absolutely sure, can you?

[An accompanying section to this article.]


Massive success tends to irk the British. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson have it in spades. Tobyn Andreae spoke to friends, collegues and opinionated people and discovered we either love them, hate them or conspicucuously ignore them.

Michael Winner, film director:
They're very much a force for the good. Kenneth has motivated a great deal of film and theatre in this country that might not have taken place without his influence or inspiration. As far as his own work goes, you can't expect everything a person does to succeed, but overall he's done extremely well. People who criticise his whole work because of those films that haven't done so well at the box office or at the hands of critics are being petty and unrealistic. Take the touring theatre productions he is involved with. They offer less financial reward than he could get from film work, but he throws himself into them regardless. She is an extremely fine actress and he is a competent actor who has not yet put himself in line for the super-historical roles. As far as their media coverage goes, there's a great shortage of international-class celebrities in Britain and no shortage of people to write about them. In such an environment it is inevitable that they will recieve the kind of exposure they have. They've both done a lot of work and are entitled to receive a lot of attention. I like their theatricality: I'm rather camp myself and have a fondness for similar characters. Who knews what the futre will hold for both of them? I suspect they will remain important figures, but how important remains to be seen. I think in time they will produce some of the most definitive acting that the country will ever see.

Howard Jacobson, writer:
The trwo of them would have been much better of sticking to poor-quality university drama. I think they are two of the worst actors in Britain today: ersatz actors playing ersatz roles in ersatz films for the American audience. Emma Thompson excels at being a dreadful and thoroughly non-English actress. Take Howard's End, an astonishingly inaccurate and artificial portrait of England. She won an Oscar in the worst film to come out of this country in the last decade. There is surely some form of conspiracy. I think we must all know in our souls that they are both risible performers. The whole cinema was laughing when I went to see Much Ado and I assumed it was because of its sheer awfulness. When I came out and everyone said they'd loved it, I thought I must have been hallucinating. It is the most embarrassing film I have ever watched. The sheer comedy of seeing that little man with his puny fingers on his pathetic hips trying to exchange vitalities with the worst kind of middle-class, saccharine actress was extraordinary. I hooted with laughter. It is the only production of Shakespeare I have ever seen that made me think what a hopeless writer he was, and that is a real achievement. Branagh has broken the first rule of being a good director, which is never to direct yourself. America gets notoriously tired of fads and fashions, and I think their bubble may have burst by now and there will be no future for them.

Julie Burchill, film critic of the Sunday Times:
I like him but intensely dislike her. I was thinking about them the other day because they strongly remind me of another couple and I couldn't think who. Then suddenly it dawned on me: they're like Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford. These are both couples of whom one half, namely Branagh and Crawford, are extremely attractive, successful at what they do and yet down-to-earth, but they have had the misfortune to marry luvvies, namely Thompson and Gere. It's a tragedy that two such nice, genuine people should both suffer at the hands of the luvvy brigade. If only Branagh had married Crawford, then we really would have had a super-couple.

Mariella Frostrup, presenter of The Little Picture Show:
The two of them are much maligned, and although they have become the focus of so much media attention I don't think they have ever asked for it or particularly enjoy it. The work Branagh has done in breathing life into British cinema desrves better credit than the luvvie label he has been landed with. He is a good actor and an even better director. Much Ado was one of my favourite films of last year. To make Shakespeare come alive for a younger generation with such vitality and colour is a real talent, particularly with a work that is often criticised for lacking substance.

While Emma Thompson has done some rather strange roles in her time, she came into her own, glamorous and catty, in Much Ado. The two of them are great. They are victims of the curious British habit whereby we knock anyone who becomes successful. It is consequently wonderful that they have decided to continue working in England, leading relatively low-key lives. I don't think they themselves think they are anything special: they are two people who enjoy the work they do and want to be able to continue doing it. Apart from anything, I think Branagh is very sexy. I'm a real sucker for that little twinkle in his eye.

Wilf Stevenson, head of the British Film Institute:
They are the most extraordinarily talented couple. Ken deserves the label of genius for having mounted, produced and acted in so many theatrical and cinematic enterprises in what has been a comparatively short but nonetheless diverse career. She is a remarkable actress. The role I most admire her for is the nurse in The Tall Guy. It was a very difficult part, particularly for a relatively inexperienced actress as she was then, and she really held the whole film together. They are both very unassuming people. When I first met them I was expecting two monsters, but they were both pleasant, genial and instantly likeable. As for him, I most admire Henry V. Initially it looked as though he had set himself an impossible task in the shadow of Olivier's version. It could easily have been misinterpreted, but turned out to be terrific. He is now on the board of the BFI and has proved himself to be a great campaigner and ambassador for the British film industry. Those who label them luvvies are just ridiculous: they have both achieved so much that one has to admire them. As far as I am concerned, it's more of the same, please.

Melvyn Bragg, novelist and editor of The South Bank Show:
As a stage actor, Branagh is extremely good. In fact I'd go so far as to say that he's on his way to being a great actor. I remember going to see Another Country and everyone raving about Rupert Everett but, for me, Branagh was the one who shone in it. Likewise in the RSC's Hamlet: I know I'm not going to make any friends here, but I thought the production as a whole was ramshackled but Branagh's performance steady, thoughtful and considered. And his Coriolanus was one of the very best I've seen - quite marvellous.

I started by having one or two reservations as to his film work, but as he has progressed he has become better and better. He knows how to use a camera imaginatively, he casts well, which is 90 percent of a director's skill, and he is a tremendous organiser. There is a tendency to think of a director as some aesthete who occasionally peers through the lens, but more and more a director has to be an entrepreneur and a team leader and Branagh has shown himself to be remarkable at this.

He has tackled all kinds of film genres - the thriller, Shakespeare, comedy and so on - with equal vigour and enthusiasm. Much Ado was a delightful gallop through the play, with very amusing and deft direction. As for Emma, she really came into her own in Howard's End and advanced her quality 500 percent. It was a truly exhilarating experience to watch her earth her career; like seeing a really good goal being scored. Though she gave a very competent performance in The Remains of the Day, the film was too long and you could see the length was taxing her and Hopkins to the limit. But she is so unafraid to take on fresh challenges: no American actress could have done her parts in Howard's End or Remains. She is also a very good-looking, handsome woman. In person Branagh and Thompson are generous, modest and enormously talented. They are both going to carry on doing what they want to do, whether it's Shakespeare or Frankenstein. You never know what they'll do next, which is very exciting for their audiences. Good luck to them both.

After ten days of fruitless quote hunting we learnt that a round-robin had gone out from Ian Shuttleworth, asking for comments. The Branaghs followed up with another circular requesting that recipients of Shuttleworth's letter "should not feel obliged to help."

Ian Shuttleworth, Ken and Em's biographer:
Throughout my correspondence with the Branaghs they have been nothing but courteous, but have stressed their reluctance to be biographised. Despite this they have now come to accept that I am going to write the book and have said that they would not deliberately obstruct me in my research. I haven't seen the letter that has been sent, though I have been told about it, and I originally suspected that it may not have originated with them. Though it is printed as being from them, they have not actually signed it and I had thought that one of their friends may have taken it upon themselves to write it. It transpires that Ken did send the letter though, like Charles and Di, their associates and colleagues can be more protective of Ken and Em than they are themselves and are reluctant to talk to me. I decided to write the book because I felt that the two of them are just hitting an interesting moment in their careers where they are graduating from being premium-class British stars into global players. They have overcome their ostentatious coupledom and have succeeded on thier own merits. Emma, for example, has now been drafted in to help revive Schwarzenegger in a new comedy called Junior. Ken, on the other hand, has become a truly powerful force in the industry, with producing and directing becoming the base of his talents. He has shown himself to be an astute, talented and skilled dealer.

As far as their luvvieness goes, they show a mixture of admirable committment to individual causes and quasi-camp, embarrassing comments. I remember particularly when the two of them were touring with Look Back in Anger when Ken was asked if he wanted to have a family. He replied that he would love to have children but that we have to save the planet first. In their maturity they have realised the dangers of this media label and have repudiated it with silence. Ken goes to great lengths to emphasise their ordinariness. His career goal has never been to have fame or wealth for their own sake, which is a hangover from his comfortable but modest background. Emma likewise comes from a close and intimate background which has nurtured her throughout her career and she has no desire to jettison it for the Hollywood lifestyle. As time goes on, their success and the media hype will make it harder for them to reconcile their fame and their homeliness. In a perfect world they would both just like to get on with their work. Branagh bears with him the terrible millstone of having to live up to the expectations that people have of him: being hailed as the new Olivier is a tremendous burden which he has tried to shake off wherever possible. I am certain that they will continue to rise another couple of notches on the scale yet, though.

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