JANE CORNWELL meets
LENNY HENRY COMEDIAN
LENNY Henry lets out a low scream and cradles his head in his hands. ‘‘ I am not nice,’’ he groans, oblivious to the stares of other customers in this up- market London hotel cafe. ‘‘ I don’t care what the critics say: I am capable of giving offence.’’
Henry, 50, is set to deliver the fun when he tours Australia next month with his one- man show Where You From? , a mix of stand- up and character comedy that has played to packed houses across Britain. Ads for his Australian tour feature that familiar, decade- old quote from Britain’s The Daily Telegraph : ‘‘ Six foot two of baggy- suited sunshine and good humour. He seems’’ — and herein lies the rub — ‘‘ incapable of giving offence.’’
‘‘ Oh bloody hell,’’ responds Henry benignly, heaving a sigh.
A sort of live take on Lenny’s Britain , a BBC documentary series that featured Henry visiting different parts of the country to investigate the humour of each area, Where You From? turns the journey inwards, with the comedian examining his own comedy roots.
‘‘ So it’s about me growing up in Dudley in the Midlands, my mum and dad, winning ( the talent show) New Faces , doing The Black and White Minstrel Show.’’ Henry is still doing comic penance for touring with the dodgy blacked- up revue in the 1970s.
Henry sold out a tour of Australia in 2004 with So Much Things to Say , a heartfelt collection of linked pieces pitched somewhere between comedy and theatre that took its title from a song by reggae master Bob Marley.
Music has always been a passion for Lenworth George Henry, one of seven children born to parents who arrived in England from Jamaica in the ’ 50s.
‘‘ Our house was filled with music,’’ he says animatedly. ‘‘ Ska. Elvis. Chuck Berry. Country and western. Everything. My mum had this big Blue Spot, which was like a piece of furniture with a plastic record player in it. I remember dancing around as a kid to reggae hits from the Trojan label, which I’d put on because they had a semi- naked woman on the cover.’’
In his teens, along with most of his friends from high school, he got into glam rockers such as David Bowie and Slade. His elder brother Seymour introduced him to funk and soul: Booker T, James Brown, Funkadelic.
‘‘ Stuff that was all to do with moving your hips,’’ says Henry, who has fronted his own band, Poor White Trash and the Little Big Horns, since the early ’ 90s. A funk- soul outfit featuring Hugh ‘‘ House’’ Laurie on keyboards and Ben Elton’s Australian wife Sophie on bass (‘‘ I do vocals and say ‘ hunnh’ a lot’’), Poor White Trash comes together intermittently to play gigs for friends, fans and the charity institution that is Comic Relief.
Established in 1985, Comic Relief was inspired by the success of Live Aid and set up by comedians, including Henry, to use comedy as a means of raising money for causes in Britain and Africa. It has so far raised nearly £ 500 million through Red Nose Day and Sport Relief campaigns. Comic Relief underscores Henry’s status as the most high profile black face on British television. Earlier this year, however, he bemoaned that fact in a speech to the Royal Television Society, hitting out at British broadcasters for a lack of ethnic diversity on screen and off.
‘‘ I started off surrounded by a predominantly white work force. Thirty- two years later not a lot has changed since the days of Alf Garnett and Love Thy Neighbour . There are no black or Asian commissioning editors. I’m tired of being one of very few black people on British telly.
‘‘ There is more diversity in the real world,’’ continues Henry, who has been married to Dawn French ( or, as he nicknames her in Where You From? , Dawn- French- off- the- telly) since 1984; the couple have a daughter, Billie, 16.
Many problems are more about class than race, he adds: ‘‘ The media is a closed shop; middle- class writers direct middle- class drama. In the future I can see myself going back as an executive producer’’ — he had his own production company, Crucial Films, from 1991 to 1999 — ‘‘ to try and redress the balance.’’
A decade ago Henry tackled his insecurities about his education and enrolled for an English literature degree.
‘‘ I went to a state school and didn’t go to university. I’ve always felt I wasn’t good enough alongside all those Oxbridge types. So when I hit 40 I decided to get my learn on,’’ says Lenny Henry, BA ( Hons), referencing the funky 2001 hit Get Ur Freak On (‘‘ I’ve decided to get my fit on as well,’’ he’ll say later. ‘‘ I’m getting fat.’’) He devoured the classics he’d previously dismissed as the stuff of Oxbridge types: George Eliot’s Middlemarch , Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Emile Zola’s Germinal .
Henry has kept his learn on: he is midway through a master’s degree in screenwriting for film and TV. ‘‘ I love it. It’s a course where you go on these week- long retreats, which forces you to concentrate.’’
He also wouldn’t mind doing some serious acting. Othello , maybe, or any of a handful of other Shakespeare plays. His recent BBC Radio 4 documentary on the Bard emphasised Shakespeare’s inclusive qualities: ‘‘ It doesn’t matter where you’re from or whatever your accent is like, you can do Shakespeare. You might have to go posh if you’re a king or one of the high court, but that’s OK. It’s acting.’’
He might think about calling his next show So Much To Do, So Little Time. ‘‘ I don’t know about you,’’ he says, ‘‘ but as I get older I think time’s running out. I got to do more stuff. You know, eat snails, run a marathon, do that painting thing. There’s a lot to do. I don’t want to waste any time,’’ he roars, theatrical again.
The Australian tour will re- energise him, he says. ‘‘ It’s a quest. It’s like joining a different life system. It’s an injection of energy and a great way of reconnecting with being a stand- up.
‘‘ They see me very differently in Australia, too. There I’m an international comedian, which is great. Here, because there’s so many comics in this country, they think of you as a comedian from Dudley.’’
That’s not the case, I say, because it isn’t. ‘‘ Actually,’’ Lenny Henry says, relenting a little, ‘‘ I don’t mind how they think of me.’’
He flashes a grin. ‘‘ Just as long as they don’t think of me as nice.’’
Where Are You From? tours Australia July 3- 20.