The man who made Kenneth Branagh

AS Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, his action-movie directorial debut, hits the screens, Henry Fitzherbert meets the man who launched the star’s career, and asks if his early promise has evaporated


JUST over 23 years ago, Stephen Evans, a corporate stockbroker bored with City life, took a punt on a promising young actor called Kenneth Branagh.

With no previous experience in the arts, Evans put up £10,000 to launch Branagh as a theatrical impresario having read about him in a newspaper article.

It proved a life-changing bet for both of them.

Evans went on to produce Branagh's groundbreaking movie debut, Henry V, and his subsequent hits, Peter's Friends and Much Ado About Nothing, giving up high finance for a highly successful career as a movie producer (other successes include the Oscarwinning The Madness Of King George).

For Branagh, the result was a stratospheric rise to stardom that saw him hailed as "the new Olivier" and the golden boy of British cinema, earning Oscar nominations as Best Actor and Best Director for Henry V.

Evans, now 64, had no idea he was on to such a winner when, on a Monday morning, he attempted to contact Branagh at London's Riverside Studios where he was directing John Sessions in one-man show Napoleon.

"I didn't believe he was a particularly good bet, I was happy to spend £10,000 on any lousy bet because I was in that mood, " recalls the ebullient Evans, drawing on a cigar in his London townhouse.

Branagh didn't return the calls of the unknown businessman but after fortuitously picking up the telephone, on the fifth and final time Evans attempted to reach him, a lunch was arranged and the pair hit it off.

"When I met Ken Branagh the seductive force was beyond belief, " says Evans. "I'm not used to having heroes but when I met him I thought he was unbelievable. He was in his late 20s and as charismatic as I've ever come across, it was quite weird."

Swayed by his energy and "wagonload of monkey's charm" Evans decided to help turn Branagh's dreams of launching a new theatre company into reality and financed his first proper play, Twelth Night, under the banner of The Renaissance Theatre Company.

It was a sell-out success. "Easily the best Twelfth Night I've ever seen, " says Evans, who was emboldened to help the Belfast-born actor achieve his dream of making a film version of Henry V, following in the footsteps of his idol Laurence Olivier.

Seeing the potential in Branagh's vision for a more gritty and modern rendering of the play ("I loved his pitch, he's a great pitcher") he raised the £4.5million budget from City contacts;

about £13million in today's money.

"I only pulled it off because I had this unshakeable faith in the guy. He was utterly brilliant and subsequently I've never fully had that feeling with any other director."

One evening Branagh telephoned Evans at his Oxfordshire home to discuss the project. "He was appearing in Much Ado About Nothing in the West End at the time and I thought, 'Gosh, it must be the interval, ' but it wasn't. He had just gone off stage for a couple of minutes."

Such an ability to multi-task manifested itself later when Branagh pulled off arguably his most successful year to date: directing and acting in Peter's Friends, starring in Coriolanus on stage with Judi Dench and directing and appearing in Much Ado About Nothing, his hit film adaptation with then wife Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves.

"It was an unbelievable hot streak; how he did it was beyond me, " says Evans whose latest film is the upcoming First Night, a comedy about the staging of a country house opera starring Richard E Grant and Sarah Brightman.

Nevertheless, the glow came off Branagh's movie career faster than anyone could have anticipated, with big budget flops (Frankenstein), ill-judged Shakespeare adaptations like a musical version of Love's Labour's Lost and, acting-wise, some major stinkers like Wild Wild West and The Gingerbread Man.

So what went wrong? In terms of his directing career, Evans believes Branagh's major mistake has been to "operate outside his limits", abandoning his comfort zone of conventional drama to venture into more experimental territory.

"Ken is not a straightforward person but he is a straightforward director and there's nothing wrong with that but you have to know your limitations" says Evans who cites The King's Speech as the kind of film he could do brilliantly ("In my view he would have directed it even better than Tom Hooper").

Instead, Branagh's latest and most unlikely film is comic book blockbuster Thor. "Knowing Ken, I doubt he is doing it for financial reasons.

"He probably regarded it as a challenge but no one can deliver every time they step outside their comfort zone."

Even with Shakespeare Branagh has taken mis-steps, not trusting his natural flair to make the Bard accessible and instead relying on gimmicks, filling Love's Labour's Lost with Cole Porter numbers and making a four-hour, full-length Hamlet ("Much too long").

He adds: "Ken has a gift for making Shakespeare understandable for the viewing public.

On Henry V he was the voice of the common man directing, if you like, but he's never fully trusted those instincts.

"I remember him telling me, 'I always feel inferior because I didn't go to university', and I said, 'Ken, it's more difficult to get into RADA than it is to Oxbridge.' His understanding of Shakespeare is unparalleled."

His interest in Laurence Olivier hasn't helped either, believes Evans, inviting a bashing from the press: aside from making Henry V and Hamlet, à la Olivier, Branagh directed a panned remake of Sleuth (the original starred Olivier) and he even plays Olivier in the upcoming film My Week With Marilyn.

"Olivier is very important to him and that, in a way, is a slight mistake. He's setting himself up for a beating. Even if Sleuth had been brilliant it would have got slagged off."

Evans and Branagh parted company as both began to plough their own careers in film ("There was no acrimony") but nothing will compare to the memory of working with Branagh during his golden period.

"For the three years I worked with him you believed anything was possible because he achieved the impossible but the irony is that no one can continue that. No one."