What’s Kenneth Branagh’s sister doing directing panto in Huddersfield?

Joyce Branagh, sister of Kenneth, directing panto at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.
Joyce Branagh, sister of Kenneth, directing panto at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield.
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Her brother is one of acting’s most famous names, so what’s Joyce Branagh doing directing panto in Huddersfield? She talks to Sarah Freeman.

Kenneth Branagh is currently directing and starring in a big budget remake of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A few dressing rooms down is Michelle Pfeiffer and according to showbiz reports Penelope Cruz has just joined the cast. His younger sister Joyce might not be enjoying such A-list company, but during a break in rehearsals directing Cinderella, the first professional pantomime at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre, she sounds like she just might be having more fun.

“There is an awful lot of silliness,” says the 46-year-old. “We took the cast into town the other day for a photoshoot and if you were a man in uniform, let’s just say you weren’t safe.

“I am absolutely loving it. Panto should be a tonic and, blimey, if ever there has been a year when we could all do with a little escapism, then 2016 has been it, hasn’t it?”

Early in his career when he was a precocious 20-something taking Shakespeare to the big screen, the name of Kenneth Branagh became a byword for a peculiarly British kind of luvvidom. He’s now more of a national treasure and if he’s anything like Joyce, whose enthusiasm for her latest project hasn’t been dampened either by the long hours or the rain which has been fairly relentless over her adopted home town of Todmorden, he should be good company.

“We’re only three days into rehearsals and we’ve already got a big song and dance number and the fairy transformation scene pretty much nailed,” she says. “You never get that long to pull together a panto, so it is all a bit by the seat of your pants, but there is a good feeling about this show.

“Whatever people think, pantos are not cheap to stage. There’s the costumes, a live band to pay, the set and that’s all before you’ve employed a single cast member. I know the LBT had wanted to put one on for a little while and had been saving up, but it was only this year that there were enough pennies in the bank. When they asked me what I thought, I said they should have a chat with Andrew Pollard, otherwise known as Mr Panto.”

It’s true, Pollard is a bit of a legend in the world 
of panto. As well as writing scripts and directing four shows a year, he does a pretty good turn as a dame.

“Good panto is an art form and Andrew is quite simply the best,” says Joyce, who grew up in Reading. “I’ve worked with him a number of times and what he doesn’t know about panto isn’t worth knowing. It’s funny, I saw my first ever panto as a kid and I hated it. I didn’t get it at all. It had Jim Davidson in it and looking back I suspect it was too blue. The best pantos appeal across the generations. Yes, there’s innuendo and a few nudge, nudge jokes for the adults, but I think you have to remember that at its heart it is a family show and that’s what Andrew is so good at. Here in Huddersfield, we are definitely more naughty than nasty.”

Some directors are known for being control freaks, others prefer a more organic, collaborative approach. Joyce says she sits somewhere in the middle.

“I like to come in with a plan. I don’t think being completely collaborative works, it becomes a case of too many cooks and all that. However, I do think you should be open to suggestions. If someone ad libs something funny then I’ll go with it. I think you have to remember that no one has a monopoly on good ideas.

“People can be quite sniffy about panto, but if you don’t treat them with love and handle them with care, then they will flop. I’ve approached this show in exactly the same way as I would a straight play. I do my research and I take a lot of care over the casting. I’m a great believer that if you get that right you’re 90 per cent of the way there. Well maybe not 90 per cent, but you’ve got a pretty good foundation.”

Having relocated to Todmorden a few years ago after her husband got a job in Manchester, for the first time in as long as she can remember Joyce will get to spend much of the Christmas holidays at home.

“Normally at this time of year I’m in digs somewhere miles away. Now I can get home for dinner, which is a real treat. However, most nights I’m not back until around 8pm and then I’m up at 6am going through that day’s rehearsal schedule. My husband doesn’t normally see that side of my work and I’m sure he thinks I’m a bit bonkers.”

Early on in her career Joyce fleetingly thought she might follow big brother Kenneth into acting. However, she admits that she found being in the spotlight terrifying and is much more at home as a director.

“It sort of happened by accident and while I still found it scary, I also found it really enjoyable. I worked on Much Ado About Nothing with Ken, although that mostly involved hiding behind trees trying to get the cast not to talk to the Italian extra. By the time he did Othello I had worked my way up to third assistant director and I really knew then that this was what I wanted.

“I was so lucky that I got to learn on the job. I do remember asking one of Ken’s friends who taught drama whether I should get a proper qualification, but he basically said: ‘Joyce, if you’ve got a foot in the door keep it there’, so that’s what I did.”

Joyce took her first steps into directing at the Orange Tree Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic and while she has since dabbled in radio, it’s the stage which has provided the backdrop for most of her work.

“There is something lovely about working in a theatre in the run-up to Christmas,” she says. “When we open I will be here every night until press night, but then I shall leave them to it. They will probably have had enough of me by then anyway, although I will be on hand in an emergency. In panto that can be anything from someone losing their voice and we need to rejig a song, to a costume malfunction.

“What I love about panto is the fact that the audience really get to share in the jokes and the ad libs. I once worked with a chap who was from Nigeria – he was quite a straightlaced bloke, who always wore a shirt and tie and he had never been to see a panto. One year I said: ‘You really should give it a go, you just might like it’. He came and found me the next day and said: ‘I didn’t understand when the baddie came on why everyone was booing, but then the next minute I was booing too. I loved it’.

“That right there is the power of panto. It’s infectious and just a little bit anarchic. By the end everyone is singing from the song sheet.”

So has she thought of ever persuading Kenneth to star in one of her productions? He would, I suggest, make a pretty good dame.

“Oh God, wouldn’t he just. After Ian McKellen played Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings he could pretty much ask for any part he wanted. Quite rightly he got out a wishlist which included a role in Coronation Street and being a panto dame. I don’t know what would be on Ken’s wish list, but you never know….”

Cinderella, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, December 9 to 31. 01484 430528, thelbt.org