Um, er, Em...

The Observer, December 1996
By Vicki Woods

Britain's leading leading man opens his heart (and his mouth) about his life, his art and, of course, his wife

Kenneth Branagh is a Roundhead, but he works and has his being in a trade, alas for him, where the Cavaliers have all the glamour and all the best notices. Your auntie would like Ken. There's nothing grungy or frighteningly modern about him or frighteningly sexy, for that matter. He's neat and tidy. He's the last gasp (apart from the looks) of the old-fashioned matinee idols who could play everything and manage everybody. He's rather Victorian. Upright. Personable. Straightforward. Speaks up. Morally sound, with plenty of bottom. These attributes have him perfectly placed for hurling you over A Bridge Too Far or rowing you away from the wreck of the Titanic in A Night To Remember; as do his looks.

He knows about the looks, thanks. `Yes, I'm aware of it, and probably happy about it now. I look a bit more like actors used to look. I mean, I'm not comparing myself to these people but, you know Spencer Tracy, James Cagney. . . kind of '30s and '40s stars who were all shapes and sizes, you know? And it's actually quite unusual to be working in films with that sort of look nowadays.' I don't know why he picked Spencer Tracy or James Cagney (except for the fact that they, like him, were once ginger-haired).

He's not flaky enough, nor morally ambiguous enough to be placed in the same category. Branagh is an actor like John Mills, like Jack Hawkins. A role he should have played was John Proctor in The Crucible. He'd have been much better in it than Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis has more charismatic glamour in his left foot than Kenneth Branagh in his whole sturdy body (and I, along with all the women I know, of any age, would happily choose The Last of the Mohicans as my sole Desert Island vid), but the role of John Proctor slides away from him. Branagh would have had that creeping Jesus bang to rights.

There's no trace of Ulster left in his light, drawly, smoky voice (18 cigarettes in a couple of hours). Except in the expletives, after he's warmed up on the soft questions. `Fackin,' he says gently, as in, `What's the fackin point?' and it's the only bit of Belfast left. I think we all crawl back into our mother tongue at key moments of release, don't we? Women in the labour ward; men when they're fackin, possibly.

But he doesn't speak Belfast when he's back there. His family moved to Reading when he was nine, partly for better opportunities, partly because of the Troubles. Reading was a jumpy place back then, a bit close to Guildford, a bit leery of parked cars; and the new kid on the block spoke in an accent that was a) incomprehensible and b) frightening. So he lost it completely. `I did a job once with a pal of mine and we have exactly the same background. As soon as we got off the train, he started talking in a Belfast accent. . . I found it completely throwing. I'd feel a bit of a fraud. This is how I talk. If you're nine years old, you want to fit in, you start talking the way other people talk.' What made Kenneth Branagh globally famous was his marriage to Emma Thompson. Fame has many levels, and acting isn't enough, even when you're the youngest Henry V (at 23) the Royal Shakespeare's ever had; even when you've bombed atomicwise at the box office in the $44 million Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. There's a million actors out there (Hello, darling, are you working?) but they don't cut it in my local pub. Ian McKellen? Who he? Simon Russell Beale? Daniel Day-Lewis? Who they? Hugh Grant, now. . .

It was the marriage that made of those two clever, ambitious and bankable actors a titanic pairing, around which global curiosity merrily whirled. Ken & Em. Like Larry & Vivien, Taylor & Burton, Charles & Di. Ralph Fiennes would have to marry -- oh, Liz Hurley! -- to float up to those lofty levels down the Royal Oak.

It was famously said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that, `She gave him sex appeal; he gave her class'.

Emma Thompson gave Branagh what sex appeal she had, in a postmodern, blue-stocking kind of a way and she also gave him buckets of class. Dynastic class from her theatrical family (mother Phyllida Law, father Eric Magic Roundabout Thompson). Cambridge Footlights class from her friends (Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery). And your basic knife-and-fork class from her upbringings in the shoe-wearing social stratum. So what did he give her, the working-class boy from Belfast, via Reading? He gave her a great gift, the irresistible gift, of a partnership of professional equals, the whole his'n'hers being greater than the sum of their parts. Which is exactly what women want as our century totters tombwards and what few of us are destined to get. Or keep, if it comes to that.

The marriage broke up a year ago (in public, at least, you remember), when Thompson opened the door of her house to tell assembled hacks: `Due to pressure of work God, don't ask me, I can't even string a sentence together get a newspaper' and Branagh was halfway through directing himself in his full-text filmed Hamlet, which opens next February, and ducking a load of tabloid headlines about him and Helena Bonham Carter, who starred with him in Frankenstein.

Let's get the meaty bit out of the way now, shall we? Kenneth Branagh is talking into my tape-recorder in a large reception room at Shepperton studios, wearing a funky Armani suit (slate-blue) and a Calvin Klein shirt (terracotta). He has already talked for an hour, in long, articulate paragraphs, about his work. So. . . verbatim.

Q: Do you miss being married?

A: [a paralinguistic noise, best rendered as] We-ee-eargh.

Q: Are you divorced?

A: We're not divorced yet, no.

Q: But you will be?

A: Yeah. [pause] I think [pause], you know, a kind of on-going intimate relationship [pause] is a great thing. When you've been working [cough], a kind of intimate human contact is really [cough-cough] -- of whatever kind -- whatever marvellous, miraculous balance in it. . . [pause] if it contains all the things that it might do [pause], then that's even better.

Q: Can we talk about romantic interest?

A: I'm. . . not crazy about doing that. . . erm -- bit tedious to hear. . . but for all the kind of usual reasons. It has to be said, and this isn't just a line, that this project has been so all-embracing that, erm. . . it's more or less what I've been doing.

And that, reader, is where I left it. Not very meaty, no, but I fell apart slightly when Branagh's paragraphs, which up until then had been perfectly seamless and controlled, broke up into these atmospherics and flutters and wows. So. Call me a poltroon, but I couldn't muscle up the bottle to even mention Miss Bonham Carter's name, nor to ask him the difference between an on-set romance (I think we all know there's an actors' licence on film-sets, like students' licence at Open University summer camps) and a continuing affair.

The project that was so all-embracing that it's. . . erm, more or less what he's been doing, is a vast Hamlet, not only in length (four hours, plus intermission) but in scale; shot at Shepperton and Blenheim Palace on 20 acres of artificial snow, with a cast of thousands, including (note the usual Branaghian casting chutzpah) Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Richard Attenborough, John Gielgud, Jack Lemmon. All these Alpha-list names have tiny parts (John Gielgud's is a non-speaking role, for heaven's sake, as Priam, and so is His Grace the Duke of Marlborough, who appears in full cavalry kit as Fortinbras's Second-in-Command, bless him). There's no denying Branagh's bottle, whipping this lot in.

It took two years to shoot this epic, but it's taken him 20 years to work up to, and it will either restore his reputation to the glittering heights of five years ago, or leave him in the mire into which Mary Shelley's Frankenstein tumbled him. When he was 15, he saw Derek Jacobi (`TV's I Claudius' said the billing) in a compelling performance of Hamlet at the Oxford New Theatre. The experience left Branagh a) shaking and b) determined to become an actor, as he's told every journalist in every interview he's ever done since. And so it came to pass that 20 years later, he cast Derek Jacobi as Claudius to his own apocalyptic Hamlet. On Jacobi's last day of filming, he was given the usual topping-out ceremony (actors are romantic little noddies, like journalists and bricklayers, and they guard their craft-traditions conscientiously). But as the cast and crew gathered to applaud his work on the film, Jacobi gave them all a surprise. He handed Branagh a small red-bound copy of Hamlet, which had been passed by Forbes Robertson to successive actors including Michael Redgrave and Peter O'Toole with the condition that each recipient should pass it in his turn to the finest Hamlet of the next generation. (Simon Russell Beale should hearken on, because it ought to be coming along to him in due course. Or so I'm told.)

Branagh has updated Elsinore to the mid-1800s say, 1848, the year of revolutions? which gives the play a broad political focus: killing Claudius will destabilise the state, never mind upset his mother. Which is not to say he's modernising Hamlet: I think he may be taking it back, beyond even the Victorian Hamlets. Branagh's own stage Hamlet (for his Renaissance Theatre Company in 1988) got completely away from the modern tortured neurasthenic who hurls his psychic baggage all over the stage for us to empathise with. Your `modern' Hamlets, even in 17th-century costume, are wet, Me Generation, post-Freudian moral cripples. They agonise. They talk in psychobabble. They could all do with a five-year stint in analysis, if you ask me. Not Branagh. Branagh's stage Hamlet was a man of action, caught up in a moral problem, not banjaxed by a psychological one. There was nothing wet about him. He was dying to get a grip, haul on his sword and heave Denmark out of this rotten state, goddammit.

His stage Hamlet wasn't full-text, not by a long chalk. Four hours of movie is a lot of movie, especially when you can only sell half as many tickets in a day, and half as much popcorn and Coke (which is much more profitable than tickets, anyway). Especially in America, especially after his epic opus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was excoriated, here and in the States. `Oh yeah, worldwide,' he says. `I was quite proud of myself for actually having the bottle to go and do the press tour, for two months round the world, and have that question asked at the start of every interview. You know, What does it feel like to be in one of the most critically savaged films of all time? Ah, it's not very nice, what can I tell you?' So there's a lot riding on Hamlet, both for Branagh and for his producers, who have spent $18 million on it.

(I thought that was quite reasonable for 20 acres of snow and all those Hollywood to Heathrow first-class flights. `Mmm,' he says. `Could you ring Castle Rock Entertainment and tell them that?') There seems to be a bit of wobble about the length, though, with Castle Rock keeping their options open on a shorter version.

`I had a long discussion with them about a poster for this picture there'll be an American one-sheet and a one-sheet for the rest of the world. One-sheet. It's a fackin poster, I don't know why they call it a one-sheet. They've got. . . a very good-looking thing. . . I just felt there were other ways to go about it. We had the free and frank exchange of views, and in the end, I just said, `Listen, you guys know who you think this is going for - if you feel that strongly about it, then that's cool. That's fine.'' (I'd be curious to see the fackin poster the Americans felt so strongly about myself. The current filmed Shakespeare playing in the States is Romeo & Juliet, and the one-sheet urging Californians to go and see it is a line of foot-high type saying, in a matey, Brush-Up-On-Your-Shakespeare kind of way: `Romeo & Juliet DOST THOU GET IT?' Way cool, prithee.)

Branagh is 36 in December, just passing the biblical mid-point. He's building a house near his mum and dad, designed by Tim Harvey, who's designed all his films.

`For the first time actually, in as long as I can remember I don't have any great kind of long-term plan,' he says. `Finishing this film has been the end of some sort of chapter. It feels as if some new thing is beginning. The house. . . it's a personal rather than a professional thing. The house is to do with creating something. Creating a place to be. In the last few years, I have said to myself on numerous occasions, I do not know who I am. I Don't Know Who I Am. And I feel that really painfully. I do know that when I was back there in Belfast, I fackin did. We all knew where we were there. We knew who lived in the street and around. It's a miniature city and you almost feel you know everybody in the whole city: you have parents who know, or you have cousins or relations who knew, somebody you went to school with. . . There was just no question of not feeling, This is where I belong.

`And the process of doing this film has been putting my feet back in the Earth. For me. The decision to stick at doing it to say to myself, `Don't do anything else until you've done this because it's important to do this'. More than just making a film. And do not be embarrassed about that seeming perhaps selfish or indulgent because if it's fundamentally important to you, do not walk away from it or think, you know `O God I'm doing a Shakespeare film again O God it's gonna be long O God I'm going to get terrible notices and people are going to shite on me all over again. . .' `All that gathering business, all that kind of taking stock thing, is in part what Hamlet's about. A man caught more or less at the same kind of moment. If he'd not killed someone, then perhaps with the knowledge he gains during the play, the self-awareness that he begins to develop, he might have had a wonderful life. And given that, so far touch wood I haven't killed anybody, I might learn from him.'

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