Kenneth Branagh's London

American Airlines Magazine
*thanks to Paula Verderame

He was a green teenager "up from the country like a character in a Dickens novel," arriving in London in 1977 to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. One can imagine Kenneth Branagh just off of the train, staring open-mouthed into the maw of Europe's largest city. But Branagh did not cower before the royal metropolis. He leapt right in, embracing the city's action and attractions in a single nonstop day -- a whirlwind of activity that left him breathless. Having conquered London, he did the same thing in his career, attacking everything at once: forming his own theater company and embarking on a blur of writing, acting, and directing. To fund his theater company, he penned the first installment of his autobiography, Beginning, at age twenty-eight. Now, he's known for his roles in films ranging from Woody Allen's Celebrity to William Shakespeare's Henry V to John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man. But, he's equally renowned as the director of eight films, such as the star-studded version of Hamlet and Dead Again, in which he also played two different roles opposite his then-wife, Emma Thompson. Branagh's now back as the evil Dr. Loveless, terrorizing Will Smith and Kevin Kline in Wild Wild West. But when the cameras are off and the muses are quiet, you'll find the squire at his home just outside London. Here's Branagh's take on the capital where he came of age.

My Favorite Day in London

"I came to London when I was just seventeen to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I had come from Reading, which is about forty miles outside London, as green as a green thing. When I first came to London, I had never been in a black taxi, I had never been on the tube, I had never been in a London bus, and generally felt as though I was up from the country like a character in a Dickens novel. So I was taken on what's called 'a real London day' with a couple of friends of mine. We met up for a breakfast and had a real fry-up -- sausage, bacon, eggs, et cetera. Then we went to see a matinee of Peter Pan. We went to troll the bookshops in Charing Cross Road, and then had the most fantastic chocolate eclairs at tea time. We went to see a movie, La Luna by Bertolucci. Afterward, we had supper at L'Escargot, where I had my very first snails. I did all that in one day, and it was a great day. I ended the day back in my apartment after midnight. I just thought, London is an amazing place, because as you go through the day, you hear every sound, every accent, see every color. If you've lived in the suburbs until you're eighteen, it's quite a shock to the system."

Celebrated Weekend


Lodging- "The Covent Garden Hotel is right in the center of town. It's a newer hotel, but it has an Old World feel to it, without being chichi. The hotel has a brasserie that's a good place for a drink or a light meal. It's a good atmosphere -- nice long bar as well. If you have the money to stay in a suite on the riverside, The Savoy is really terrific. The place is full of memories. It's full of tradition without being imposing."

Dinner- "Although it's a cliche from someone like me: The Ivy. It's probably London's top theatrical restaurant. It is much favored by actors and showbiz people. The thing I like best about it, apart from the very friendly service, is the food. It has a wonderful mixture of European and what you might call British Comfort food. Their sticky toffee pudding is a dessert that you have [childhood] memories of. It conjures up images of stickiness and sweetness and sponge and custard and all those things that I associate with Britain and it's sometimes terrible diet. Despite the fact that it's showbizlike, it's not an exclusive or snobby kind of place. The Ivy's sister restaurant, Le Caprice, has tremendous fish cakes and a very nice bar as well."

Nightlife- "One of the things that has happened with London, thank God, is we have become slightly more of a late-night city. If New York is the city that never sleeps, London used to be the city that never got up. It used to be rather embarrassing to bring visitors from abroad and find that everything had closed down. Now, you can go to 192 in Notting Hill, a restaurant that also allows you to have a nice drink. Notting Hill is very vibrant, very multicultural -- a very cosmopolitan place."


Park- "The parks continue to be the lungs of the city. On a Saturday, if the weather is good, a great place to go is Hyde Park, where there are a number of places to just sit and have a coffee. In the summer, you can rent deck chairs, which is a peculiarly British thing to do. You see all these Brits hanging around with handkerchiefs knotted in all four corners over their heads to avoid sunstroke, having their coffee."

Sights- "Waterloo Bridge is wonderfully romantic. When I was at drama school, I used to walk across it every night. As you stand in the middle of Waterloo Bridge, you can look one way up the River Thames and see the dome of St. Paul's and the bridges farther up the river. If you look the other way, you can see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. It's a Wonderful place to enjoy a sort of cliche' postcard of London. It's very hard not to be moved. You sense London teeming all around you, and you're reminded of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson's phrase, 'When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.' "

Lunch- "On a Saturday I probably would have lunch at Chez Gerard, a place with a balcony at one end of the Piazza in Covent Garden Market. The restaurant is very simple. There's also The Dove, a pub right on the river. The Dove is very Old World - full of nooks and crannies. You have to bend your head going in so you don't bang it on some great wooden rafter. It feels...Dickensian, and I'm very fond of Dickens. If you want a real English lunch that leaves you a bit stodgy but is delicious, fish and chips is the thing to have. You would go to The Sea Shell."

Culture- "I have a couple of favorite museums. One is MOMI, Museum Of The Moving Image. It's very much a living museum. It's the history of film and television. It's beautifully laid out, and there are films to see. There are actors [who serve as tour guides] and interactive exhibits. Another favorite museum is the Imperial War Museum, if, like me, you're interested in the extraordinary history and nature of warfare. The third one is The Victoria and Albert Museum, which is particularly good at exhibitions."

Shopping- "A shop that I particularly like is Liberty, which is on the corner of Great Marlborough Street and Regent Street - a great, famous shopping thoroughfare in London. Liberty feels like a throwback, a wonderful building full of wooden doors and old-fashioned elevators. London is a great place for bookshops. The center for all of that is Charing Cross Road, sort of a book-buyers paradise. There are bookshops on every conceivable subject, and one of London's biggest and most famous bookshops is Foyles. These are places I haunted in my days as a drama student. There are lots of secondhand sections, so it's possible to shop for books cheaply on Charing Cross Road. That's a great way to spend an afternoon."

Tea Dance- "For a bizarre thing to do in the afternoon, go to Le Meridien Waldorf. Not only do they do a very good English breakfast, but they do a tea dance on weekend afternoons, which is an English ritual where, at 3:30, you have sandwiches, cake, and tea, and an orchestra plays while you dance. It's in a palm-ridden ballroom, and again there's something very old-fashioned about it. I love walking into it in the middle of a London day."

Dinner- "Alastair Little in Soho. I like eating downstairs there. It's a kind of modernist bistro. I like the atmosphere at Alastair Little. I feel as though everybody else is in there discussing films, as well. You feel as though you are in the middle of post-show discussions. There are so many brilliant Indian restaurants. I think the best one I've eaten in is The Bombay Brasserie. It's huge -- cavernous. They are particularly fantastic with their Indian vegetarian fare. I was taken there once by Ismail Merchant, producer of the Merchant Ivory films. He should know because he makes a mean curry himself."

Theater- "I like to go to the Royal National Theatre. It's a very people-friendly operation. Even if you don't go and see a play there, they are forever having what they call platform performances, which are discussions or conversations with people in the plays or about the plays."


Breakfast- "A good place for breakfast is The Room at the Halcyon Hotel. They do a great English breakfast. You get sausage, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and fried bread, and if you're really crazy, baked beans. If you want a terrific English Sunday lunch, I recommend a place called Maggie Jones. It has wooden tables. There's lots of great English food - English puddings, bread-and-butter pudding, and terrific roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which is a huge favorite of mine."

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