Media: Lenny gets down to some serious stuff: Britain's best-known black comic has high hopes for his own production company, says Steve Clarke
After two years of consistent but low-key work, his production company, Crucial Films, is making its presence felt on the small screen, defying sceptics who thought it would fail through a mixture of misplaced ego and misguided idealism.
There is nothing new about successful entertainers attempting to win back creative control and wrest power from the front office by setting themselves up as would-be moguls. The approach inevitably involves lavish offices, six-figure public relations budgets and managing directors with backgrounds in accountancy or law.
This is far removed from the methods employed at Crucial Films. In contrast to Lenny Henry's flamboyant public persona, his company favours a 'small is beautiful' approach. 'When Crucial was set up, the idea was always to develop organically,' he says. 'Things like this take time.'
The outfit operates from a one-room office in Soho. There are two full-time staff: the managing director, Polly McDonald, who used to run Thames Television's education department; and Akum Uwahemu, a personal assistant. Plans are under way to recruit a script editor. Ms McDonald, Lenny Henry and Dawn French, the comedian's wife, comprise Crucial Films' board of directors.
But independent producers are not judged by the amount of floor space they occupy, but on the strength of their programmes and their power to win commissions from the broadcasters. And in this respect, 1994 looks like being a successful year for Crucial Films.
Last week the company's first drama series, Funky Black Shorts, six 10-minute films mainly by black film-makers, began on BBC 2. The venture marks Henry's debut as a writer and director with an impressive vignette, The Godsend, shown on Monday.
But Henry believes winning network time for Crucial Films' drama series is more important than broadening his own creative horizons. He hopes BBC 2 will follow up Funky Black Shorts with Crucial Tales, a season of half-hour drama now in development. 'Funky Black Shorts may only be six 10-minute, low-budget films, but for the company it's a real breakthrough,' he says. 'We've never done a series before. They are proper films, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It puts us on the map in a way that we haven't been before.'
In February, ITV's South Bank Show will screen a Crucial Films documentary, Darker Than Me, presented by Henry, which unearths the roots of black American comedy in white racism. 'It's by a long margin the most serious thing Lenny's ever done,' Ms McDonald says. 'It's a painful and disturbing film.' In one sequence Henry sheepishly confesses to a black comic how he came to join the Black and White Minstrels as a 16-year-old.
Other company products in the pipeline include the second series of the BBC 1 sitcom Chef], in which Henry plays the uppity chef-proprietor of an upmarket eaterie, and a series based on last November's acclaimed Channel 4 music programme, Young Soul Nation, spotlighting new British soul talent.
Crucial Films productions have so far embraced comedy, documentary and drama. In almost every case they have provided a black perspective on life that viewers will be hard-pushed to find anywhere else in the television schedules, particularly during peak viewing time.
But for some, this is not enough. Critics have said that Chef] is the first Lenny Henry sitcom in which the central character's blackness is not a vital part of the storyline. But this, Henry maintains, is missing the point. 'Lots of images of black people on British television are negative. It's important to show a black person who's incredibly good at what he does, because it's a positive image.'
Funky Black Shorts and Darker Than Me, however, are more likely to satisfy members of the black community who consider that Henry has spent too much time trying to appeal to a white audience. The former tackles issues such as racism at school and the length some Asian families go to in order to ensure they have a male heir.
Henry's own play, The Godsend, recounts what happens when a black, male nanny wins a job in an affluent white home run by a new mother who is unable to cope with the demands of parenting. Danny, played by Treva Etienne, immediately brings calm to the household, by allowing the mother to catch up on her sleep. But his domestic talents are not appreciated by a jealous husband and he is dismissed.
Henry denies that Crucial Films has set out to produce a series of films with a deliberately anti-racist message. 'I wanted to make entertaining films, that was all. If there was a point to it, great. I wanted them to reflect an aspect of the black community in Britain today. And that is not just ragamuffins with black hats on smoking spliffs and saying 'Jah'. It's a diverse community and it's good to see middle-class blacks on British television.'
Ms McDonald says the company was not set up simply to encourage black writers and performers. 'I don't want to give the impression that we employ only black talent,' she says. 'We are not interested in becoming a ghetto.'
But most of Crucial Films' projects deal with black or multi-cultural themes. Among the shows being developed are A Tribe Called Jest, a multiracial sketch show for Carlton; Never Too Late, a sitcom about two late-middle-aged black widows; and a black music show for Channel 4.
Henry established Crucial Films because he wanted to have more editorial control over his projects. He believes his work should confront racism head on. 'The more mature you get, the more you won't want people to go, 'Yeh, yeh, it was funny',' he says. 'There's a West Indian saying: 'Did you see such and such on Top of the Pops the other night? Yeh, he wasn't saying nothing.' When I do 20 minutes on sexual politics - or my mum - it's got to say something.'
The danger is that Henry might lose sight of the fact that his and Crucial Films' work must continue to entertain viewers. Darker Than Me falls short on this score. It lacks the exuberant wit and is less well made than the last film Henry did for the South Bank Show, the brilliant documentary Lenny Henry Hunts The Funk, which explored the history of funk music.
Sceptics might argue that broadcasters are prepared to give the comedian more freedom to do what he wants because of who he is. Ms McDonald says that having Lenny Henry as the head of the company opens doors that might otherwise remain shut, but each project must still stand or fall on its own merit. 'What it gives you, without any question, is great access. People will always agree to see you, but after that you're on your own.'
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