Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Book review: Beginning - Kenneth Branagh

Here’s a question: what have Chloe and Sam from The Only Way Is Essex, Paddy from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Aleksander the fictional meerkat from the Compare The Market adverts got in common?

Bare knuckle boxing? A fanatical devotion to fake tan? Sidekicks called Sergei? All good guesses, but no.

In the past few years all of the above have released autobiographies.

Isn’t that depressing? I’m sure they’re all nice people (apart from the one who’s a fictional meerkat, obviously) but, come on guys, really? The cult of the celebrity memoir, together with the celebrity perfume, is one of the things I find most depressing in the world. I mean, who is buying this stuff? And why have they got so much money to waste?

Cast your mind back 25 years and the situation was rather different. Autobiographies were reserved for people of experience (trans: old) who’d accomplished great things in their lives. The idea that someone young would publish one was ridiculed - they’d barely lived a life yet, how egotistical and ridiculous it would be of them to write their life story.

Such was the general reaction to Kenneth Branagh’s autobiography, Beginning, when he published it at the tender age of 28. The reaction and the accompanying perception that he was a complete egomaniac are something with which he is still associated today as one look at any reviews of his performance as the prototype egomaniac Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which many critics suggested he was sending himself up, will show you. Which is a shame really since, as far as I can work out, that perception is complete and utter bollocks.

It’s also a shame for Beginning which, rather than the self absorbed rantings of an insufferable luvvie, is actually a really interesting, well written and pretty self effacing read. It’s one of only two non-fiction books that I’ve ever reread (Rupert Everett's Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, since you asked).

It helps, as it always does, that its author has a very interesting life story. Born in Belfast and raised in Reading, Beginning tells the story of Branagh’s life until the age of 28 as he finishes filming his masterful Henry V and takes in his stint at RADA, early career and setting up the Renaissance Theatre Company - a remarkable company featuring the likes of Judi Dench and Richard Briers - en route.

For me it’s the Renaissance story which is the most interesting. For anyone with even a passing interest in theatre it’s fascinating to see the mechanics of someone setting up their own theatre company from scratch; everything from trying to devise an understudy system to securing venues and finding financial backing. Renaissance was designed to be an actor’s company, giving all its members fair conditions and the space and opportunity to create exceptional performances in a repertory context (it’s contrasted favourably with the RSC in this regard). The first season that Renaissance performed, which is discussed in detail in the book, was a cycle of three Shakespeare plays directed by great actors who had played the lead roles before; a concept which just sounds like heaven to me. It also led directly to the making of Henry V which is just another reason to love it. The story of how this was pulled off (or not, in the case of the attempts to get Anthony Hopkins to direct Macbeth) is utterly fascinating. And pretty inspiring too, frankly. I mean the force of nature you have to be to make shit like that happen is pretty awesome.

Beginning is also a beautifully written book. It’s joyously frank (in the preface, Branagh poses himself the question of why the book is being written and answers, “money”), laugh out loud funny in parts and gently self-mocking throughout. I love the stories of his early stories with chronic corpsing, struggling to assert his authority over a maverick Aussie director and attempting to learn to ride a horse. And of course there are a lot of fascinating anecdotes that feature other amazing talents (Gielgud, Jacobi etc etc etc) which all avoid coming off as vanity name dropping. I guess because they’re legitimately included as people he’s known. Which is just damn cool, frankly.

I’m not sure how easy it is to get hold of a copy of Beginning these days (I could just Google it but, y’know, I’m lazy) but if you can you definitely should. I’d offer to lend you mine but I don’t trust you to give it back. No offence. I just love this book too much to take that risk.

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