Lenny Henry grew up in Dudley, so goes one of his favourite jokes, "mainly because there was bugger all else to do". But the tale of how a very young black man – a boy, really – living in a crowded, complicated family home in the Seventies rose to fame and fortune by impersonating white national heroes on television was hardly going to be a boring one.
Even if the first hour or so of this 90-minute one-off drama contained more montage than it did dialogue – and the early-Seventies soundtrack was not selected with great subtlety ("School's Out for Summer" signposted the end of the last day of term; "Tiger Feet" walked us through a summer job in Birmingham Zoo) – Danny and the Human Zoo was a moving and amusing attempt, written by Henry himself, to reveal the depths that might have lurked within a young man who, for many, has become a serious figure only in later life.
Every kind of racism was visited upon the teenage Danny Fearon (Kascion Franklin) – who is of course based on Henry, though truth makes the occasional minor foray into fiction – from the bovver boys to the mean-spirited introductions of MCs in working men's clubs, to the well-meant jokes of his Irish girlfriend's father. "I can't be going out with a black fecker like you, my father'll have me guts for garters," she had previously warned him, though young Danny's TV fame solves that problem, while creating a few more of its own.
That Danny was conned into appearing on The Black and White Minstrel Show by an opportunistic manager – a decision that infuriated his family – was in part explained by his failure to win the New Faces TV talent show, in which he came only third. Of course, in reality, Henry won but still took the job, a decision he explained more than 30 years later, a little unconvincingly, as having been a contractual obligation.
And how much were we to read into Henry's casting of himself, as the British Leyland factory worker, "incapable of happiness", who was in fact, as Danny learnt by way of an unfortunate surprise, not his biological father? There were whole long decades of knob gags and oversized jockstraps and the like before Henry, via a well-received run in Othello, turned himself toward more serious things, and here he was, a dour and unhappy man, warning the young Danny against a life of frivolity, but then ultimately accepting it.
Chiefly, it cannot be ignored, that even this drama, directed rather beautifully by Destiny Ekaragha, was commissioned partly to redress the lack of black new faces on the television. Forty years after Henry's talent show triumph, should it have come to this?Reuse content