Lenny Henry: “I was the unhippest comedian in the universe”

The comic turned actor explains why radio gives him more creative freedom than TV – and why comedy's ready for a revolution

Lenny Henry (Getty, EH)

“Douglas Adams said that on the radio, you build the sets,” Lenny Henry is telling me. “You do all the special effects. You close your eyes and it’s your canvas, and you can do anything you want on that canvas. It’s a workout for your mind.”

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We’re talking ahead of a new run of Rogue’s Gallery, Henry’s Radio 4 series of short comic monologues with twists in the tale, the subjects of which last time ranged from American GIs in Cornwall during the Second World War to aliens on Earth – the kind of zany freedom for imagination that only radio really allows.

He recalls an old Goon Show script that said “a sock full of custard explodes”, and believes television budgets can’t make that happen in the same way.

“When you write for telly, they say, ‘I don’t know about that, we’ve only got £5 and a toffee apple.’ When I write for radio, I don’t feel like I’m limited. You can stretch out, you can do anything you want.” This series opens with a story about Stan Clayton, a butcher who hopes his sons will follow in his footsteps and take up the family business – but his dreams are dashed when one of the boys comes home with a bright red Stratocaster.

Short stories, for Henry, are a natural fit. “Growing up, I was a devourer of Stephen King short stories and Marvel comics, the Fontana sci-fi books, Weird Tales, Tales to Astonish… There was something quite horrific and naughty and forbidden about them. When you’re a kid you like that ‘DUN DUN DUN – oh my God, she was a werewolf!’ stuff. They had a big effect on me, and that’s the reason I want to write them.”

Another of the stories in the new series is inspired by radio itself – an episode of John Peel’s Saturday morning show Home Truths.

“People would talk about their lives – a beekeeper, or someone with a disability,” explains Henry. “One person was sightless and they made aural postcards of sound effects to describe their life. It was beautiful. Another featured people talking about regaining their sight. ‘A blow to the head, bars of light, before everything snapped into some kind of half-focus.’ I think I might have cried. I wrote about a guy getting his eyesight back during a mugging because of that story.”

Henry’s own tastes include Book at Bedtime – “I loved Rachel Joyce’s The Music Shop recently” and Dirk Maggs. In comedy, the world in which he has worked for more than four decades, he reveres those who are mining the current febrile political atmosphere for laughs.

Lenny Henry (Getty, EH)
Lenny Henry with his BAFTA Special Award in 2016

“The past ten years, we’ve been waiting for a bit of anarchy,” he says. “We’ve now got a moment of complete and utter political madness and it doesn’t seem like anybody knows what’s going on. There’s a need for sensitivity, and the opposite, too – for somebody to kick down the door of whatever the taboos are.

“Comedians have got very excited. There’s a slow, growing thing of comedians getting braver and I love that. It’s like the late 1970s all over again. It reminds me of punk. Creativity abhors a vacuum, and when changes are happening in the world, comedy rises to meet it. I’m not sure I’m doing that with this, though,” he adds, referring to Rogue’s Gallery.

“People like Mark Steel, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Trevor Noah – they’re calling people out. On late-night talkshows in America, they’re having to be comedians-slash-talkshow hosts-slash-activists. They’re required to have a response to what’s going on in the world, and that’s healthy.”

So who does the Dudley-born Henry, 59, who has lived in south London for the past five years, think is getting this politically fuelled comedy right? “Here, Russell Brand’s strange, messianic approach to comedy is amusing, and also his sense of activism and wanting to change the world through comedy is refreshing. I love Graham Norton’s show, because it’s celeb-tastic, and he gets a chance every week to talk truth to power in a way that not many other comedians do”.

Does he think he’s been as political as he could be during his career? “I didn’t do politics when I was young. Talking truth to power – it sounds like it’s hip, and I was the unhippest comedian in the universe. I did impressions of Frank Spencer and got paid for it. If I was starting as a comic now, I’d have a go. But I’m an actor now, I don’t have to do that – hooray!”

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Lenny Henry: Rogue’s Gallery is on Wednesday 15th November at 11pm on Radio 4