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Sir Kenneth Branagh: ‘I relived many painful and beautiful days making Belfast’

Actor, director and optimistic Tottenham Hotspur fan Kenneth Branagh describes how leaving Belfast at the height of the Troubles left a profound mark on his life.

Sir Kenneth Branagh was born in Belfast in a working-class Protestant family, before moving to England as a boy. After attending Rada, he achieved success on stage and screen, and became known for his star-studded film adaptations of Shakespeare, including Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. Over his career as an actor/writer/director, Branagh has won three Baftas and two Emmys, as well as five Oscar nominations. His acting-directing credits include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dead Again and Murder on the Orient Express.

When The Big Issue approached him to write his Letter to My Younger Self, it turned out he had already penned one… in the shape of his latest feature film, Belfast. The film is a beautiful, elegiac paean to the city that shaped his childhood, starring Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe and long-term Branagh collaborator Judi Dench, drawing on his early life experiences and the characters that surrounded him. Here, he explains how a teacher helped change the course of his life and reminds himself of the importance of humour, and of following your dreams.

Leaving Belfast was the key moment of my childhood. I knew who I was there. I felt a great sense of certainty and security and felt literally and spiritually – if I even understood what that meant at the time – that I could not get lost.

We were related to half of Belfast and went to school with the other half. But after leaving [during the Troubles, for a new life in Reading, aged nine], there was a contrasting and equally great sense of insecurity, of not knowing who I was, where I came from, eventually not even knowing how I sounded. I was on high alert. If my life transformed that quickly, it could happen again. That influence on the rest of my life was quite profound.

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Part of embarking on my new film Belfast was to acknowledge and thank my younger self. I wanted to reassure him that he was doing his best and so was everybody else, although that best could be flawed. I knew I wanted to write about Belfast, but I thought it might be about my grandparents, with whom I had a close relationship. At the end of their lives, they passed on lots of funny stories – quite surprising stories. It was very risqué. My granny characterised herself as a rather fast young lady, messing lots of potential boyfriends about. So I found that very charming.

But as time went on, it became clear that the issue of leaving Belfast was very dominant in my life. At the beginning of the lockdown, which coincided with me approaching 60, I wanted a moment of shaking hands with my younger self. I wanted to understand better what my parents went through and re-experience how I saw the world at that time.

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Sir Kenneth Branagh’s new film Belfast is released on 21 January

I would like to tell my younger self that although the world can surprise you by the ferocity of change, it’s important to open up to people. After leaving Belfast, I was more guarded. I remember my parents asking at 13 or 14 why I never brought friends round. I’d somehow decided it was easier or safer to be to be solitary. So I’d say remain open to the world. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, although that was discouraged in Northern Irish men.

I’d also say that although you were doing your best to be brave for your family, it would have been alright to express your doubts and fears. Don’t bottle things up. Because I did for a very long time.

When a teacher suggested I could act for a living, it was a revolutionary idea… Those were life-changing words.

Sir Kenneth Branagh

I remember buying my first book from Woolworths in Reading. My father said, “What are you doing with that when it’s finished?” Well, I’ll put it on a shelf. “But we’ve got libraries, that money is never coming back.” So what? I might read it twice! “Borrow it twice from the library – we pay our taxes for this!” That was us negotiating that books mattered to me.

When a teacher suggested I could act for a living, it was a revolutionary thought. Until I was 16, an acting career was not an option. It was inconceivable. Then I did a school play, Oh, What a Lovely War!, playing lots of different characters. A relief teacher said in the assembly hall that there was a kid who could act for a living. I thought, really, who’s that? I can still remember how I felt when he said it was me. These were life-changing words. A light went on, enthusiasm and possibility.

At that stage, my job options were insurance, the army or British Rail. It made me find out about drama schools and gave me a terrific focus.

Age 18 as a student at Rada. Image: Reading Post/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

There is a world elsewhere, to quote Shakespeare. And the cinema showed me that was the case. Not just places, but ways of ways of telling stories. It utterly set the blue touchpaper off in the imagination. The teenage version of me would have been chuffed with the Thor movie I directed and its companion piece, Cinderella. They’re both a bit subversive in their way.

My younger self would be inspired by my career to think that you can dream big. He would understand that it’s never been to do with wealth, fame or money, but to experience life, experience the world. And if you don’t care for the world as it is, what about experiencing the world imaginatively as it could be, through stories?

That boy would be inspired at the idea those dreams can be shared with other 16-year-olds that might be on their own, dreaming dreams, reading things, living in their minds. He’d appreciate that when you engage imaginatively, those are hands across the water to people from whom you can learn.

My younger self would be proud of the determination to follow his passion for Shakespeare, which was surprising to find in someone of his background. He’d be proud of making the work as accessible as possible, making Shakespeare his parents would be open to and particularly proud of producing a film like Hamlet, with its celebration of diversity and that very direct, understandable language. I’d also tell my younger self not to be ashamed of the fact that you’re in it as well. This is what you do, so don’t apologise.

I met Judi Dench when I was 25. She showed me the value of trying to stay simple – not shallow but simple. She retains a childlike wonder about the work and has a genuine interest in people, so she does not isolate herself.

Judi retains the capacity to be out in the world. She wishes it. She also has a sense of fun about the work – so she’s serious as an artist, not serious about herself and embraces creative danger. It struck me when I first met her that she worked as if she was a 21-year-old. Now she’s 87 and is exactly the same!

With ex-wife Emma Thompson and Dame Judi Dench on the set of Look Back in Anger. Image: TV Times via Getty Images

In terms of love and relationships, I would say be yourself as much as you can be. Do not try to be someone you are not because you think that’s what the other person needs or wants. When you do that, you will exhaust yourself, you’ll have forgotten the person you’re supposed to be. So believe in yourself, believe you are worthy, believe that you are enough. It is also about respecting that other person enough to allow them to make their judgement about you. All of this is very easy to say and hard to do. But the earlier you start learning it the better.

I was always political in the sense of a belief in fairness. When we started our Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987, at the time of Margaret Thatcher, we were seen as examples of Conservative entrepreneurs. But I used my own money to finance it, we paid everybody the same money, attempted a 50-50 gender split and the first time we had a profit, divided it equally. So there was a natural inclination to the cooperative spirit. My politics were always manifest in a disposition towards the egalitarian.

I would tell my younger self to worry less about being liked and worry more about being real. Be as kind as you can be, but also honest and direct, which is difficult because we so want to be liked. Accept you will always fail at these attempts to be a decent human being, but pat yourself on the back for the attempt, don’t punish yourself for the inevitable failure. The journey of 10,000 miles begins with the first step. Keep taking it.

What would surprise my younger self is the circuitous journey to coming home to Belfast with this film, and in so doing reclaiming his sense of humour. As a young person, that boy would have known himself to be full of delicious, lunatic, absurd imagination. The adult world in the middle years darkened that view rather. With time on the clock being more circumscribed, there’s a determination to enjoy and experience everything – and with as much humour as possible.

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The history of Ireland is so charged with the awareness of anniversaries and history. You live in an almost permanent sense of the weight your forebears have brought to the situations and events that brought us to this point. Belfast is about reclaiming the macro part, the human and humane part, that was not indifferent to or ignorant of larger political issues but part of a mosaic of stories to build a cumulative understanding. In this case, one family, one child, one street, one experience in the north of Belfast.

I’d like to have one more conversation with John Sessions. This film is the last thing he did [he died from a heart attack in 2020 aged 67] but I’d like to have been able to tell him – I hope he knew – just how much he was loved. John had a great artistic gift but his gift for friendship was undiminished. He was a beacon to so many people, I admired his capacity to make, keep, and nourish friendships.

Do the things that you love and don’t worry about the apparent eclecticism, celebrate the diversity. Enjoy it. That’s what I’d tell my younger self. I had an instinct that if you refuse to be pigeonholed it was a good thing. I felt I needed to go where passion led me and this was where the best work was going to come as a creator. And I knew what made me happy. Whenever I tried to do anything that just appeared to look good, it never worked.

I have walked or meditated with Brian Blessed at least once a week for nearly 40 years. We met when I was 23, at the RSC. He was in Henry V (and eventually in my film). Brian is 85, we couldn’t be more opposite, but he introduced me to a meditation from which I have benefited enormously. He’s had a big impact on what you might call my spiritual growth. The front facing Brian is this loud-voiced, gargantuan, larger-than-life figure. I also know him as a very deep, very quiet, very intelligent and cultured man.

I relived many painful and beautiful days making Belfast. But if I could go back to one day that I will not really be reliving, although I was technically around, it would be late spring of 1961 and I’d be there for the game that gave Tottenham the league and cup double. But I would like to set it in the present day! In what many would say is a dream or fantasy, I would like to see that double achieved again in my lifetime. Better still the Champions League as well. It’s unlikely. But to quote from Don Quixote, “Where does madness lie? Perhaps too much sanity is madness, or maddest of all to see the world as it is and not as it could be.” Well, I’d like to see the world as one in which Tottenham could win the treble.

Belfast is in cinemas from January 21

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