Lenny Henry on Shakespeare, his knighthood and the need for more diversity on screen
As Danny and the Human Zoo airs on BBC1, Lenny Henry reflects on his early days in Dudley – and his nights with the Black and White Minstrels
A tall, lean, imposingly bearded figure strides through the hotel lobby exuding an air of gravitas. He’s a knight now: Sir Lenworth George Henry, ennobled for services to charity and comedy. But within a moment he’s just our Lenny from Dudley, off on a cheerful fantasy riff. “No, I haven’t received the knighthood, yet. Do they give you cake, and a special hat? And a castle?”
He’s delighted on a lot of levels: not least for his late mum. “She sat on the same balcony as the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance and kept waving at her. She’d have come [to the investiture] and worn a very, very big hat and hardly have believed it of the boy who couldn’t tidy his room and was difficult at school.” Another delight is that it’s awarded partly for his Comic Relief work. “I feel as if it’s for the whole country. I keep expecting everyone in Britain to turn up demanding some of the cake, and a turn with the special hat.”
So, altogether thrilled. “I feel as if they’d filled me up with lemonade and shook me,” says the performer who will turn 57 this week. That irrepressible cheerfulness has been his trademark and in some ways, a limitation. “For instance, the character Delbert, at the Brixton riots, could articulate something. But then he’d better do silly jokes. Audiences don’t want a 20-minute rant from me.”
But Henry’s a serious man, thoughtful and acutely aware – not least as co-founder of Comic Relief – of how popular celebrity and an aura of good humour can be used for good causes and understanding. Danny and the Human Zoo [below], the first TV drama he’s written, is a story drawn from his childhood in a Jamaican household in Dudley in the 60s.
Danny is a little boy who loves doing impressions and makes it into showbiz. Kascion Franklin, who plays Danny (a character loosely based on Henry) has to impersonate figures from a bygone era, such as the PM Harold Wilson and Tommy Cooper, and, in a glorious opening sequence, he sings My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small, a breakthrough black pop superstar of the day. A tall order for a 21st-century boy? “Yes. I told Kascion to do what I did to catch the impressions – watch Mike Yarwood!”
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The young Henry’s career was founded on winning the talent show New Faces by doing those kinds of impressions 40 years ago, and has never flagged since. He admits that on many levels he knew it could be “a big life raft”. It floated him out of repeating the working-class life his taciturn father led, toiling in a foundry, and “coming home to switch on the TV, tell us to shut up, and become the Daily Mirror with arms and legs”. But it also freed him from deciding who he himself was as a teenager. “When people said, ‘Lenny, just be yourself’, I’d say, ‘Who’s that?’”
The drama based on that teenage time is a “fantasy memoir” he says, because he has used it as “a parallel universe, to make some things better”. He plays Danny’s father, so that with his screen son he can have, “conversations that never happened, because my dad never had them with me. Conversations that should have happened.”
And his young hero can also, importantly, take firmer action against being contractually forced into appearing in a touring stage version of The Black and White Minstrel Show alongside blacked-up white performers, which is what happened to Henry between 1975 and 1979. “I think I was having an extended sad period...depressed, didn’t know it, so just working on, cos my family had a work ethic.
"And I didn’t realise I was being used as a political football: the minstrel shows were under fire then for blacking up white people, and it meant they could say, ‘Oh, but we’ve got that black kid from the telly so it’s all right.’” It was an uneasy time in race relations, and Henry is reflective that on New Faces, too, he was partly adopted as a novelty because he was a black teenager cheekily imitating important white characters. “I was only made aware of that afterwards, that strange anomalous nature of it, that I was black…”