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Actor Kenneth Branagh reveals how he looted a shop in Belfast during Troubles

Director tells how fleeing his home city shaped his life

Sir Kenneth Branagh

Roisin Gorman

sir Kenneth Branagh has revealed how he looted a shop as the Troubles erupted on the streets of Belfast half a decade ago.

As movie Belfast opens across the UK with predictions of Oscar glory, the actor and filmmaker reveals how his family's decision to flee the Troubles has dominated his life.

In a new show, the 61-year-old says his family never discussed the move to England or the events which made his parents Frances and William decide to leave their Tigers Bay home.

The film shows young Buddy, played by newcomer Jude Hill and based on Branagh, witnessing riots and looting as the sparks of the Troubles are lit in the late sixties.

"When the world turned upside down as it did for so many people, I felt one did become very lost," he says.

"That feeling of being absolutely who you were and knowing who you were was what I associate with that time and therefore the loss of it has really been a dominant issue in my life subsequently.

"There was no forum for dealing with that and what became in our case a decision to leave as a family was one that was never ever talked about again.

"That is for my parents' generation a very Belfasty thing and in this film I decided to go back and not indulge in it but just look at it and in some way process it."

Branagh, knighted in 2012 for his services to drama and the Northern Ireland community, tells the BBC's Kathy Clugston in an interview to be shown on Tuesday that he can still recall vividly the moment a riot erupted at the end of Mountcollyer Street in north Belfast where the family lived.

He thought the noise was a swarm of insects until he saw his brother William Jnr running towards him as life went into slow motion.

"It sounded like it was a swarm of bees and I realised it wasn't. Out of the swarm of bees my brother was running shouting 'get in the house, get in the house, get in the house'.

"A pair of hands that happened to be my mother grabbed me."

As a child, he struggled to comprehend the chaos but remembers the pavement had disappeared.

Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film Belfast follows a working class protestant family during The Troubles (Brian Lawless/ PA)

"The ground beneath our feet had been lifted, the paving stones were no longer there, they were now up at the end of the street in barricades and we were literally walking on soil.

"I still find it hard to comprehend the utter revolution of that, but of course other people were experiencing it in just the same way," he says.

The film also recreates a moment from his life when he got caught up in looting a local shop and decided to steal some washing powder.

In the middle of the violence his mother marched him back to the shop to return his stolen goods and realised her attempt to teach him not to steal had put them in danger.

He rounded up a stellar cast for the film with Jamie Dornan and Catriona Balfe as Buddy's parents and Ciaran Hinds and Dame Judi Dench as his grandparents. He says his mum and dad would be thrilled with their glamorous portrayal.

Kenneth Branagh (Brian Lawless/PA)

"They would be beside themselves with delight.

"My mum and dad had a fizz. They had a sizzle that I find in a lot of Belfast people. A passion, a fire in the belly and a capacity to laugh, lovers of life. Jamie and Catriona have a movie star glamour that I think is what Buddy sees, or I saw."

Ken has singled out the young actors in Belfast, including Lewis McCaskie and Lara McDonnell, for praise, and has a soft spot for Jude.

"It took me two days to persuade him not to look at the camera, he couldn't help doing that, but once he got the hang of that he was in the moment and lively and he's a special young man," says the star.

Branagh lost almost all trace of his accent to fit in after his move to England, but he had no trouble convincing backers of the movie to allow the cast to use Belfast accents.

He's also delighted that the film has awakened an interest in his home city. And he's been most touched by the reaction of audiences in other conflict zones.

"One of the things that is so astonishing to me about the impact of the film thus far is that people from Haiti, Nigeria, Iran have all come up to me after seeing it and said, 'that's my story'."

The acclaimed filmmaker has conquered film and TV in series like Wallander and blockbusters like Harry Potter and Tenet as well as directing horror, fantasy and thrillers. His break-out TV role was back in Belfast in the Billy trilogy in the early eighties and he also breathed new life into Shakespeare.

He had always wanted to write the film but only found the way at the start of the Covid lockdown, which brought back memories of his first lockdown behind a barricade in north Belfast.

"We are all coming out of this pandemic and we haven't all been entirely put back together. I think sometimes there is a little bit of skin missing. An emotional letting out seems to be necessary or helpful and stories like this provide that," he says.

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