Best friend of the Bard
Kenneth Branagh is famous for many things. Not least for bringing Shakespeare to the big screen... A lesser known fact about the actor is that he was born in Belfast.
Born in 1960 at Downview and raised at Mountcollyer Street off the Limestone Road, Branagh spent the first seven years of his life in north Belfast. His early childhood was populated by a large extended family, haunted by a fear of puddings at Grove Primary School on the Shore Road, and permeated by a family tradition of storytelling that typified his parents generation.
Branagh also remembers being enchanted by a performance of A Christmas Carol, starring Joseph Tomelty, at the Grove Theatre.
In 1970, the family escaped the Troubles by moving to Reading. Branagh's interest in the theatre was encouraged and nurtured by both school and family, and upon leaving education, he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. After his training was complete, Branagh auditioned for and was offered the part of Billy in Graham Reid's Too late to talk to Billy.
The play was hugely successful throughout Britain, and brought Kenneth Branagh into the nation's consciousness for the first time. Northern Irish audiences were unused to seeing self-portraits on national TV. Billy, with his sulks and desperate attempts to understand his life, became an iconic figure, and Reid penned two more plays featuring the Martin family.
Branagh's York Road roots allowed him to fit into the role of a working-class hero perfectly, although the ensuing years in Reading and RADA has lent him an entirely different natural accent.
Since the platform provided by the Billy trilogy, Branagh has established himself as a leading world actor on both stage and screen. However, he has not entirely forgotten the city of his birth and has been an instigator of various awards and grants for young actors in Belfast, including a grant to the Ulster Academy of Youth Drama for one student per year to study at RADA.
Branagh has gathereed an awe-inspiring list of awards during the course of his career, for his acting, directing and film-making talents. It is perhaps as his many roles in Shakespeare, or for the younger generation, for his role in Harry Potter that he is most fondly regarded. With many more projects in the pipeline, the best could still be to come.