Sir Kenneth Branagh has described how trips to the cinema in 1960s Belfast helped to unlock an imagination which has produced some of the world’s favourite films.
The acclaimed actor and director came ‘home’ earlier this week to accept the honour of Freeman of the City.
During his visit he spoke about his distinguished career and how it was shaped by his formative years in Belfast.
Sir Kenneth, who left the Province aged nine, grew up in the Tiger’s Bay area. His dad was a joiner and his mum worked in a chip shop.
The 57-year-old said growing up as part of a large extended family with a passion for storytelling shaped him to become “celebratory about language and stories”.
Of the honour bestowed on him on Tuesday, he said: “Connected to this great honour, I felt a tremendous sense of freedom while I was here. I felt physically free in the city.
“Although it was a big city it had a village feel that you could never get lost. I felt safe. It felt like everyone knew each other. It encouraged me to be imaginative and open.”
Having begun his professional acting career in Graham Reid’s acclaimed ‘Billy’ plays set in Belfast, Sir Kenneth revealed to the News Letter that the role of Billy had proved to be his first and last acting role as a character from Northern Ireland.
He admitted he has struggled to find an Ulster-based story or character that can live up to the high standards set by Graham Reid’s Billy plays.
He said: “One of the things I was really struck by in doing [the Billy series of plays] was just how far it travelled.
“People liked the specific colour of it, the accents, the visuals [but] it was immaterial the fact it was set in Northern Ireland. This was about family situations and social problems.
“I was spoilt by what a fine piece of work that was by Graham and was honoured to work with the late, great Jimmy Ellis.
“Of course, being an Irish trilogy there were four plays,” he joked.
He said NI was proving to be a “strong example to the rest of the world” on how to set up the long-term infrastructure as a filming location.
He also commended those involved in film in the Province for their “grass roots” work educating children on the possible careers available.
At the City Hall press conference Lurgan College student Maja Ochojska, 17, a reporter with Into Film, asked Sir Kenneth how his childhood shaped his career in film.
He said: “We did things as a family and I remember great big wide screen experiences [in cinemas] here. As an artist you come back to the things that grabbed you as a child.
“What it did for me was allow me to discover that you can immerse yourself in a film. It was escapism in the best possible sense.
“It made me dream, made me imagine. For me, a film is about the unlocking of imagination.
“I feel as though the last three or four movies which I’ve made – big Hollywood movies in a sense of scale, tone, big actors and all the rest of it – are what I started watching here.”
On becoming a Freeman of the City he said: “It’s very humbling and incredibly amazing to follow in the footsteps of so many extraordinary people including some very fine artists and particularly last year the nurses of Belfast.”