Ian McKellen Writings

16 January 2000 | The Golden Quill to Kenneth Branagh

The following message from me was read out by Judi Dench when Kenneth Branagh received the "Sir John Gielgud Award for Excellence in the Dramatic Arts" ("Golden Quill") in London on 16 January 2000:

When I first saw Kenneth Branagh onstage in Another Country he looked about 13. His acting was hugely impressive but I thought it might just be a fluke — he wouldn't be the first young actor to triumph in a tailor-made part. My generation cling to memories of our own apprentice years in repertory theatre where we painfully learnt the craft. I for one was loath to accept that some actors don't need a period of apprenticeship and self-discovery. Yet Kenneth seemed to spring from the cradle or at least from drama school, fully formed, his prodigious technique and imagination already synchronised and ready for anything.

At Stratford his passionate and humorous Henry V was characteristically confident but above all else was a young prince - by this time he looked about 15! During his glory years with Renaissance, youth was again on his side. Young audiences identified with his stage Hamlet, Benedick and glorious Touchstone and older ones marvelled at his energy and daring. He was a reminder that Richard Burbage too was young when he created these parts 400 years ago.

Much as I had admired his performance as Henry in Adrian Noble's bold production I admit I thought it somewhat impudent of him to challenge Olivier's achievement as Henry V on film. So when Simon Rattle told me before its release, that the hard-boiled members of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra had been close to tears when they recorded the music for his film, I was a little sceptical. When I saw the finished movie and heard the Te Deum soar above the muddy victors, I sobbed with the rest of the audience. He had asked me to play Pistol and I still regret that I missed my chance to be part of it.

I know many of the actors who have worked for him and all of them without exception are in thrall to his talent, charm and willpower and to the respect he shows them on and off the set. This effortless combination is what most clearly connects him with Laurence Olivier.

Tonight, it is with some relief that I realise Ken is approaching 40. Three major Shakespeare performances on film in the can and more, surely, to come. We are all in his debt. In the firmament no longer a comet but a constant star. I gaze upwards in wonder and send him my congratulations on this latest honour.

The "Golden Quill" was first presented by the Shakespeare Guild in 1996 to Ian McKellen.  Later recipients have been Derek Jacobi (1997), Judi Dench (1998) and Zoe Caldwell (1999).

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