As the First Minster was announcing his resignation, I was being transported to the same world fifty three years ago, by Kenneth Branagh’s film Belfast in the company of my grown up daughter, her English husband and my young granddaughter, sitting all together in an almost empty London multiplex. Branagh dedicates the film to “those who stayed, those who left and those who were “lost.” We are among the second. For the past 50 years, I’ve led a two centred life, the first 15 or so years with BBCNI in Belfast, the rest based in England but coming and going. My daughter, Belfast born in 1982 left at 3 years old. Like her 11 year old daughter, she has been a visitor with attitude without direct experience of the Troubles. What strikes a chord with all of us is Branagh ‘s powerful author’s message delivered by Grandad, (a splendidly authentic Ciaran Hinds): “Wherever you go, people here know you and will look out for you.” I would amend that slightly. People know who you are; that is, they know your background better than you know it yourself. Visits “home” can be both an unsettling experience and a warming voyage of discovery. Kenneth Branagh tells us what it was like for him.
Belfast is without doubt a labour of love. It is Branagh‘s half imagined autobiography of the brutal shattering of innocence in his old home territory of Mountcollyer Street in Tiger’s Bay, then a mixed street experiencing by then an ominously shifting demographic. It opens with children playing happily in the street while the grownups went blithely about their business. Then cut to the sound, then the sight of a sudden ferocious Protestant attack on Catholics in the street on the 15th August 1969, to “take the heat off the police” in the battle of the Bogside, so we’ve been told. This was the day the Army arrived on the streets of Belfast, after Bombay Street a couple of miles away had been torched. The shock left its mark for life on Branagh, like many thousands of others.
The unfolding story is the losing battle between the security of the old life and the new normality of “struggle”, leading to departure. It’s seen through the eyes of nine years old Buddy, brilliantly played by Jude Hill who is the appealing film version of wee Kenneth himself. Pa (Jamie Dornan, playing basically a good guy for a change) visits home between shifts working in England, while Ma (Caitriona Balfe) is left literally holding the baby. There’s tension between the couple over his gambling – he has to pay overdue taxes – and the growing pressure to leave. Ma protests: “Nobody will know us and what they’ll know they know they’ll hate.” Grandad is more reassuring. “If they don’t understand you it means they’re not listening.”
Buddy is dead keen to get on at Grove primary school to be able to sit near his sweetheart Catherine, a Catholic who is top of the class. His bright child’s penetrating questioning about the meaning of what’s going on largely excuses the exaggerated sentimentality of the film that is the flip side of sectarianism. When you think about it, the old local comedian James Young’s adage reflects a totally unjustified pride in Norn Ir’n: “the greatest wee place in the world if only we’d stop fighin”. To my mind it has served as a kind of antidote to the horror of life as it really was. It reveals itself in the confused love- hate relationship so many have with the place.
Even as violence escalates, outside life is not all bleak. Dances and visits to the cinema showing westerns provide day to day relief as well as an allegorical context for the film. The songs of Sir Ivan reaching his early peak set the tone. An episode of looting at the local Stewart’s supermarket draws Buddy into it. This is the last straw. Pa’s High Noon confrontation with the local budding UDA hood Billy Clanton seals it for leaving. “You think you’re better than us.” “ We are.” After Clanton’s arrest, Pa is now a marked man, about to attract the attention of “people more serious.” Fortunately the family can escape to a better job in England. Buddy and his Catholic sweetheart Catherine poignantly exchange parting gifts and a few hesitant words : “I’ll be back.” “See you do”. In a rare touch of irony, director Branagh has a local woman bawl out an excruciating Danny Boy, Oh come ye ba-aa aa- ck… .
The grandparents Buddy so wants to come with them are inevitably left behind. Grandad dies of cancer just before they depart. The last words of the film are spoken by Granny (an ill- cast Judi Dench): “Don’t look behind you.” But of course they do – in time, but after she too has gone and it will never be the same again.
Belfast is not social realism, despite the reverence shown to authenticity. It is essentially a theatrical piece, even in the sectarian attacks and the formalised confrontations between Buddy’s anti- sectarian pa and the hood Clanton. It could easily transfer to the stage. The message that there was and is life beyond the Troubles comes as welcome relief. Criticism that Belfast avoids the essence of the Troubles is beside the point. It brilliantly conveys the massive shock of the sectarian attacks that followed the months of civil rights and answering protests. It finely captures a human spirit which has survived 30 years of Troubles, as such spirit usually does.
Branagh’s abiding affection for the place is moving and impressive when he could so easily have ignored it, certainly after the success of the trilogy of the Billy plays by Graham Reid that launched his career in the early 1980s. It is perhaps just a small stretch to imagine that Branagh’s gift of gathering kindred groups of theatre folk together for ambitious projects is inspired by his memory of interrupted family life as a child.
14 years ago – so long ago! – my daughter Rebecca and I sat in a different London cinema, clutching at each other as we watched my wife, her mother Helen Madden play the cameo role of Bobby Sands’ mother in Steve McQueen’s film Hunger. She was an occasional actor who also toured in Belfast playwright Marie Jones’s hit play Women on the Verge of HRT. In 1969, as Mountcollyer Street and much of working class Belfast was engulfed in violence, she became Miss Helen the presenter of Romper Room, the daily programme for the under 5s. It was broadcast on UTV between the horse racing and a news summary. Here was innocence writ large, sustained for five years. For the rest of her life former toddlers and their ageing parents came up to her to shake her hand. Down the years she remained entirely recognisable.
Helen was reared right on the interface with Catholic Ardoyne at the junction of the Crumlin Road with Twaddell Avenue. This was a street named after a Unionist MP and paramilitary organiser whom the IRA assassinated in 1922. During the Troubles, loyalists would never have risked mounting the three years of Camp Twaddell protests from 2013 to 2016 right outside her old front door long after her parents had died, against the re-routing of Orange parades. Paradoxically perhaps, to our son and daughter in the 1980s and early 90s, Twaddell Avenue meant looking forward to bowls of grandma’s soup and a riot of flowers in the back garden and all the family love and warmth that went with them.
Helen died suddenly of Covid complications in November 2020. How we wish she had been with us to see Belfast. We would have heard quite a lot about that love-hate relationship.
Billing courtesy Universal Pictures
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London