Sir Kenneth Branagh delighted to receive freedom of Belfast

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

The film director and actor receives the honour after leaving the city aged nine. He said his mother and father would have been proud.

He played a central role in the 1980s Billy plays which portrayed a Protestant working-class family in Belfast and helped propel him to prominence with a UK-wide audience.

Sir Kenneth 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."

Sir Kenneth Branagh speaks at a press conference at City Hall ahead of receiving the Freedom of Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)
Sir Kenneth Branagh speaks at a press conference at City Hall ahead of receiving the Freedom of Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Poet Michael Longley and singer/songwriter Sir Van Morrison are among past recipients.

Sir Kenneth receives the freedom at a special event in Belfast's Ulster Hall on Tuesday evening and a pop-up film festival has been 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.

Sir Kenneth said there was pride in the arts in Belfast and paid tribute to a lineage including 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 ended up stretching to four.

Fraught interactions between Norman Martin, played by Ellis, and his son Billy, played by Sir Kenneth, were the keystone of the televised portrayal of a Belfast Protestant working-class family in the 1980s.

Sir Kenneth Branagh arrives with Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister at City Hall (Niall Carson/PA)
Sir Kenneth Branagh arrives with Belfast Lord Mayor Nuala McAllister at City Hall (Niall Carson/PA)

Sir Kenneth said he was struck by how far the work travelled, how immaterial it was that it was set in Belfast because it was about working-class life and difficult family situations and social problems.

He added: "Northern Ireland mirrored a million other places. I was spoilt by what a fine piece of work that was."

He said he had not been "grabbed" by a Belfast character yet in terms of doing another film.

However, he was 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 (GoT) was filmed in Northern Ireland and has been a huge success for the local industry - a sea of talent, as Sir Kenneth 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 (GoT), 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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