Actor Kenneth Branagh has said he is humbled to receive the freedom of his native Belfast.

Branagh, who is also a film director, left the city when he was aged nine. He said his mother and father would have been proud.

He played the title role in the 1980s Billy Trilogy plays, which portrayed a Protestant, working-class family in Belfast and helped propel him to prominence.

Branagh said he had been shaped by Belfast and added: “It is very humbling, and frankly amazing, to follow in the footsteps of so many extraordinary people, including very fine artists and, particularly, and especially last year, the nurses of Belfast, which I think was an amazing, brilliant, perfect choice from this city to honour people who do such an important thing and have done for so long. So, that is a humbling thing to be mentioned in the same breath.”

The poet Michael Longley and singer/songwriter Van Morrison are among past recipients. Mr Branagh receives the freedom at a special event in Belfast’s Ulster Hall, last night and a pop-up film festival was organised to showcase his best-known works around the city.

He has directed or starred in film adaptions of Shakespeare plays and has acted in Hollywood blockbusters, like Dunkirk. He directed last year’s box office hit, Murder on the Orient Express.

Mr Branagh said there is pride in the arts in Belfast and he paid tribute to a lineage that includes the late Belfast actor, Jimmy Ellis, and Stephen Rea.

He noted wryly that the Billy plays, which made his name, were supposed to be a trilogy, but were stretched to four.

Fraught interactions between Norman Martin, played by Ellis, and his son, Billy, played by Branagh, were the keystone of the televised portrayal of a Belfast, Protestant working-class family in the 1970s.

Branagh said he is struck by how far the work travelled, how immaterial it is that it was set in Belfast, because it is about working-class life and difficult family situations and social problems: “Northern Ireland mirrored a million other places. I was spoilt by what a fine piece of work that was.”

He said he has not been “grabbed” by a Belfast character yet, in terms of doing another film.

Sir Kenneth Branagh jokes with Belfast Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister and Belfast City council chief executive Suzanne Wylie at Belfast City Hall as he receives a tour of the building on January 30, 2018 in Belfast. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.
Sir Kenneth Branagh jokes with Belfast Lord Mayor, Nuala McAllister and Belfast City council chief executive Suzanne Wylie at Belfast City Hall as he receives a tour of the building on January 30, 2018 in Belfast. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images.

However, he is impressed by the long-term view of film production taken in Northern Ireland, the infrastructure development, and the open flow of talent.

Fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, is filmed in Northern Ireland and has been a huge success for the local industry, a sea of talent, as Mr Branagh put it.

He added: “It is smart and it has been long-term, and it is a real, strong example to the rest of the world, and the rest of the world is watching, as you know.

“Literally, they are watching the most popular show on television in the world from here, so they know all about it. The spread of imagination, about how to build that business, I think, across these last 10 years, in many areas, has been very impressive.”


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