Sir Kenneth Branagh - the Berkshire boy who became a knight
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 May 2020
Death On The Nile will be in our cinemas in October with Sir Kenneth Branagh directing and taking the lead role of Hercule Poirot, but the sun, sand and heat of Egypt is just the latest milestone in his life.
“I am originally from Northern Ireland,” said Sir Kenneth, “but my acting career really started at school in Reading and I have never forgotten the part this great county has played in my life.”
Living in Berkshire was a far cry from the city of Belfast where Kenneth was born on 10 December 1960. His father, William, was a plumber and carpenter while his mother, Frances, also had varied jobs. Kenneth had an older brother, William Jnr, and later a sister, Joyce.
“Growing up in Belfast there was a great sense of family and community. Life was built around visiting people. I remember years of coming home from school and going to my Auntie Irene’s, who lived two doors down, before my mother came home from work. My granny gave me my lunch every single day,” said Kenneth.
“My mother never wanted to move. None of us did. But the offer of a house came at about the time when we had this experience of rioting in the street. It was scary because, overnight, a peaceful, mixed Protestant-Catholic street turned into this dramatic-looking landscape where the paving stones had been pulled up by the residents to put a barricade in at either end. Suddenly, we were in a street where the fellow who was the postman was now also a vigilante at night. There were men with makeshift truncheons from the shipyard parading after dark and armoured cars. I remember it being a dramatic transformation of what previously had been a place where one felt very, very, very secure.”
The Branagh family moved to Reading and that, for Kenneth, presented its own problems as he had a thick Ulster accent and since the Northern Ireland troubles were never out of the news, he was on the receiving end of some bullying.
“I worked hard to change my accent and that led to me getting my first acting role,” he said. “My parents did not encourage anything other than a normal job although at family gatherings they were the life and soul of the party themselves, singing and telling jokes. They were not very happy when I started to act but later they were very supportive and I was pleased that they lived long enough to join in my success.
“I went to Whiteknights Primary School and Meadway School in Tilehurst, and that is where I appeared in school productions. One of my favourites was Toad of Toad Hall. I knew then what I wanted as a career. I joined some local groups until I had the chance to go to RADA and learn the trade. I had my first performance before Queen Elizabeth when I was asked to perform a soliloquy from Hamlet. I was terrified, but it seemed to go OK and I was thankful for what I had learned in Berkshire.”
For many years Kenneth has been showered with praise and awards but his knighthood took him by surprise.
“I found it hard to believe that this boy from Belfast who had been moulded in Reading and not particularly clever at school was going to receive a knighthood for doing what he loves most. For once I was lost for words,” said Kenneth. “Before the day itself I took advice from two friends, Sir Michael Caine and Sir Roger Moore. They told me to go for the kneeling stool with the handle as there was less chance of shaking and thus having one’s ear removed by her Majesty. My whole life flashed before me. It included that transformation of me that took place when I started to go to school in Reading. I am aware that I owe many thanks to Berkshire for my journey thus far.
“The new Death On The Nile is not exactly Shakespeare but hopefully people find it enjoyable,” he added. “I don’t mind being associated with Shakespeare – I’m flattered. It is when people start talking about you in hallowed terms as the new Lord Olivier or something like that. All that is just talk. It is delivery that matters and I do try to deliver.”
What a great county
Sir Kenneth is not just aware of his schooldays in Reading but also how the county has featured so much in his career since those very early days.
“I joined several local societies in the Reading area and they have all contributed something to my career,” he says. “I have lived in or near Berkshire ever since and I do love this part of the world. As an actor, just being near to Pinewood Studios is inspirational. I am as happy on stage as I am on the screen but I must confess it was a thrill to go through the gates of Pinewood for the very first time. It is a fantastic place and has a leading role in the whole history of film-making.
“Hollywood has the tinsel but Berkshire is close to Pinewood and I know which I really like best. I think Berkshire has it all.”