JANE CORN­WELL meets

LENNY HENRY CO­ME­DIAN

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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.

Pic­ture: Stu­art Clarke

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