Tag Archives: Laurence Olivier

Olivier and Branagh


When I saw Kenneth Branagh play Laurence Olivier in the film My Week With Marilyn, it reminded me of the many times in the past when Branagh has been compared to Olivier. First, by his star-making performance of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984 at the age of 23. Then the film of Henry V which he both directed and starred in. By this time he had made his bold move into theatre management with his Renaissance company, performing in or directing several classic and modern plays.  The next film he directed was Dead Again with its evocation of Rebecca, in which Olivier had starred for Alfred Hitchcock.  Later came his film of Hamlet in which he starred. Eventually, inevitably, came the knighthood. Over many years, frequently, circulated the rumours that, following further in Olivier’s footsteps, he might become the artistic director of the National Theatre.

Some writers, like Joe Queenan, have pointed out that Branagh has less acting talent than his success suggests, but in a busy successful career there are always a few false steps. My own  choices for Branagh’s most wince-making were his association, adding spurious gravitas, with the BBC’s over-publicised fantasy/science melange Walking With Dinosaurs  when he had already served as narrator in serious documentaries such as Anne Frank Remembered, and with the BBC’s unnecessary Wallander , when the corporation had already bought and were screening a perfectly decent Swedish version.

Otherwise, I would suggest that TV and film producers have been luring classical British actors to highly-publicised and/or unedifying projects since the 1930s, and, taking this into account, Branagh’s acting CV is almost certainly no worse than many distinguished predecessors like Olivier.

In addition, some of the films which he has directed suggest that one area where he has a greater professional skill than, say, Olivier is in directing, and not merely acting in, a lightweight special effects-driven potboiler like Thor. (I can’t imagine why artistically he would choose to do it, but he clearly seems to have the necessary professional ability!)  Furthermore,  directing a World War One-set version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is certainly something that no previous British theatre knight ever felt inclined to attempt.

One reason I have always had a high regard for Branagh, in addition to his varied and substantial career, is that he has always appeared personally very affable and even self-effacing. I remember a TV interview with Barry Norman at the time of the film of Henry V when he brushed aside media attention with a comment like “There are other actors”. In other words:  you needn’t give unusual attention to what I’m doing.

Olivier lived during an era of much greater hierarchy, his life divided  by two world wars and great changes in social class and the British Empire, where a man’s age and experience greatly affected his own behaviour and people’s perceptions of him. It was often reported that he was prone to jealousy and hated anyone whom he saw as a rival. But then Olivier was one of the first people in his profession to experience the opportunities and success and status which he enjoyed, and the rulebook for socially approved behaviour had not been written.

It may well be true that Branagh’s long-term reputation will rest on his versatility and his project management skills rather than on individual performances, so I’m pleased that he has returned for a while to an area where his talents are of particular value, leading a theatre company in a year-long season of varied plays . His production for the Kenneth Branagh Company of The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s complicated play of jealousy, suffering, loss and reconciliation, was highly suitable for this time of the year, and it was good to get the chance to see it through the currently popular practice of live video screening from theatre to cinema.




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Cultural honours


When UK government honours are announced twice a year, it is those recipients who come from the areas of sport and entertainment who tend to receive the greatest attention.

I always think that two of the key events in the history of cultural honours must have been the knighthoods given to Laurence Olivier and to Matt Busby.

The former led to a succession of elevated thespians, such as John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, and, in recent times, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Sher and Kenneth Branagh, whose status seem especially to impress international audiences.

But Olivier did not get the knighthood merely for being an accomplished and successful actor. I am sure he received it in 1947 specifically for directing and starring in the successful film Henry V which was perceived to be an important wartime morale-booster.

In turn, Busby did not get his knighthood for being the manager of a successful British football team who won the European Cup in 1968.  He got it for being the manager who built a European Cup-winning team from the one who had suffered multiple casualties in the Munich air crash ten years before.

Busby’s knighthood led directly to one for Alex Ferguson. Since Busby had been given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the European Cup, the popular media argument went in 1999, Ferguson should be given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the Champions League. However such argument forgot or ignored the difficulties which Busby, himself seriously injured in the Munich air crash, had to overcome in order to reach his success. Neither Ferguson nor the club needed to overcome any similar challenges in that later era of TV millions.

This has gradually led, in my view, to a serious level of honours inflation. There are a lot of actors and sportsman (you make your own list) who have been given the top honours merely for a decent length of performing career or a number of Olympic medals. Some athletic knights or dames have been so honoured when they are young enough to be still competing.

And it makes me think back to the MBEs awarded to the Beatles in 1965. That event was one of the first times I became aware of the world of news. The award was specifically for the group’s financial success: services to British exports. Yet there must have been plenty of grumpy old men like me who complained about such an honour being given to a group of long-haired howlers. It was still early in their short career. If it had been done at the end of their career, it might have been more understandable. It suggests that some members of the Harold Wilson government were more attuned to the new modern technological world than some later politicians who would rate highly their antennae in that area.


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