CORDON BLEU COMEDY

THE EYE PROFILE: LENNY HENRY talks with James Rampton
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Barely have we shaken hands at the location for Chef! than Lenny Henry is charging off to the coach that is taking us back to the studio. "Let's sit at the back and make faces at the punters," he shrieks gleefully. As we are getting off the bus at the other end, the driver sheepishly asks for an autograph, while apologising for being sycophantic. "Be sycophantic, please," Henry laughs, as he signs with a magnificent flourish.

Even after a hard morning's filming, Henry has an infectious appetite for mischief-making. It is this sheer exuberance that still endears him to audiences 21 years after he first burst into the public consciousness as a 16-year-old winner of New Faces. Charlie Hanson, the producer of Chef!, elaborates. "Lenny's popularity stems from the same qualities he showed on Tiswas. People know there are going to be moments of madness. He's a larger-than-life entertainer who has a way with an audience. Lenny has a side to him that appeals to kids and that families can enjoy. Although from the alternative generation, he has always been a family entertainer who appeals to a wide age-range."

That is one reason why Henry has always been a fixture on BBC1, while some of his more outlandish contemporaries have been kept on BBC2, where they can't frighten the horses. Henry is so mainstream he has even appeared on The Black and White Minstrel Show, for goodness sake. He is an unashamed, almost old-fashioned jokesmith. "My stand-up is fast and furious," he avers. "I want to get a laugh every 15 seconds."

"He's never been alternative," Hanson observes. "He's taken on board the change in climate that Ben Elton and Dawn French [to whom Lenny is married] brought about and his sensibility changed as he saw other comedians doing a different type of material. But he's never lost his talent as an all-round family entertainer or that ability to appeal across the board."

As he eases his 6ft 3inch frame out of a natty blue suit and into a replica of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls kit in preparation for a lunchtime workout, Henry assesses the advantages of being Mr Mainstream. "I don't want to be on after 9pm," he asserts. "You can be more anarchic pre-watershed because people aren't expecting it. The reason Tiswas was so successful was that it was a Saturday morning show and no one was expecting it to be so `yeah!'"

With success has come a backlash - some of it with a nasty racist tinge. "The accusation against the last Lenny Henry Show was that it was too black-centred," he recalls. "Some cab-driver wrote to Biteback saying it was anti-white, which wasn't even worth answering."

But it is still sadly true that Henry is perhaps our only black comedy star - a state of affairs he has long worked to alter. "I'm not saying that every black actor in Britain should have his own series... [but] prejudice exists. Because I'm Len, people usually approach me with open hands rather than a knife. But I used to get grumpy about things."

Henry is hopeful that the lot of all black actors might be improved by his production company, Crucial Films - responsible for The Real McCoy, Funky Black Shorts and Crucial Tales, as well as Chef! But power brings responsibility. "I've had to accept that people see me as a role-model," he says. "I don't set myself up as such, because then you just get knocked down. When I used to pop into the workshops for The Real McCoy, they'd call me `the godfather of black British comedy' - `grandfather' would be more appropriate. But I reject that. I just do what I do. I'm a comedian. If I can help, great. But `godfather of black British comedy' - what does that mean?"

Henry is an expansive, passionate man - not for nothing was his last live tour entitled "Larger than Life" - but he has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. Nevertheless, he has always been generous with his experience. "People write to me about how to set up their own companies," he continues. "If they are encouraged to do so, that's great. But sometimes it feels as if Crucial Films is the only company which employs black and Asian people in this industry. It's a cross to bear. People ring up and ask for advice and internships, but I don't mind that."

The third series of Chef! shows a maturation in Henry's character, the temperamental Gareth Blackstock. "We're developing a more human side to him," he reflects. After this, Henry is hoping to do some more straight acting. "Yeah, I'm tired of doing campy acting," he smiles. "Casting directors assume I'm really busy. Like every other black actor in Britain, I'm not thought of as someone who's up for parts. You do get a bit typecast. You're either a drug dealer or a love man. But I'm developing action adventures and romantic comedies. I want to stretch myself. People see me as just a funny guy, but there's more to me than that," he says, before glancing in the mirror and adding, "considerably more, looking at that backside. After Alive and Kicking, Coast to Coast and White Goods, people know I can do drama. I'm ready to be pushed."

Hit the phones now, casting directors.

The third series of `Chef!' begins Monday at 8.30pm on BBC1

LENNY'S TOP THREE CHARACTERS

1. Theophilus P Wildebeeste Henry's classic medallion-wearing, hairy-chested spoof soul singer. "You got any Jamaican in you?," he asks, "You want some?"

2. Deakus. The Guinness-supping Grandpa has a wry, I've-seen-it-all-before charm as he ponders the world from his armchair. "People warm to him," Henry reckons. "He's cleverer than you'd think"

3. Gareth Blackstock The chef with the ego the size of his manor-house was instantly popular, but Henry has been fine-tuning him. "The first 14 episodes centred too much on Gareth. Every time I came on, I had a nine-hour monologue in the kitchen

EYE TEST

1958: Born in Dudley, West Midlands

1975: Won New Faces doing Frank Spencer impersonations

late1970s: Appeared on sitcom, The Fosters, and with Chris Tarrant on Tiswas. Changed nature of act: "I remember going to the Comedy Store and realising I could be funnier by being myself"

1980s: Three years of Three of a Kind with Tracey Ullmann and David Copperfield. Two years of The Lenny Henry Show, featuring Delbert Wilkins

1990: Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed, a film of his live show, released

1991: Single, unrewarding brush with Hollywood in True Identity. Alive and Kicking, a BBC film with Robbie Coltrane, won the Golden Nymph at the Monte Carlo Television Festival. Starred in Richard Curtis's Bernard and the Genie for the BBC. Set up own production company, Crucial Films

1993: First of three series of Chef! Received Radio and Television Industry Club Award for BBC Personality of the Year

1994: ITV drama, White Goods, with Ian McShane

1995: A new series of The Lenny Henry Show

1996: Larger than Life tour

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