Lenny Henry: 'I constantly ask myself if I'm doing the right thing'
Certainties have been lacking in Lenny Henry's life. But, on the eve of a new tour, he tells Rob Sharp that he'll always have stand-up
Monday 17 January 2011
Three days before the launch of a nationwide stand-up tour, Lenny Henry is feeling the strain of his numerous commitments. His face looks drawn and his mood is sombre. The first thing he says is: "How long is this interview going to take? Because I'm afraid my daughter is going to set the house on fire."
The comment is surprising from a man so known for his amiability, but in his defence, it is Friday evening and his current itinerary is gruelling. As well as last-minute rehearsals for the tour – From Cradle To Rave – he is also promoting Magicians, a light entertainment show on BBC1. As well as sharing parenting duties with his ex-wife Dawn French for their 19-year-old daughter, Billie, he is also undertaking a PhD in screenwriting at London's Royal Holloway, although, perhaps understandably, that may be on hold until his tour completes later this year.
Henry's workaholic nature has made him one of Britain's best-known comics. His 35-year career began when he appeared as a finalist on the TV talent show New Faces in 1976, and continued through The Lenny Henry Show, which ran intermittently on BBC1 between 1984 and 2005. Forays into Hollywood, character-based comedy and music followed, and his fame peaked with his involvement with Comic Relief in the 1990s. In 2009, Henry reinvented himself yet again with a critically acclaimed title performance in a West Yorkshire Playhouse production of Othello, which later went to the West End.
That such a cripplingly busy day job took its toll on Henry's private life is perhaps no surprise. In October, Henry completed his divorce from French, with whom he had a 26-year marriage. He has said his work commitments "probably didn't help". The couple are still friends, but Henry looks morose when the subject comes up, and he leaves long pauses between sentences. "It's just the way it is. We're good friends. It's just the way it is."
Speaking in a London hotel, Henry, 52, is more effusive when discussing work. He talks passionately about music, the focus of From Cradle to Rave, and enthuses about the 28-days' worth of songs on his iPod, everything from Marvin Gaye to Dizzee Rascal. He is a keen scholar of comedy, and controversially defends Frankie Boyle, recently embroiled in a row over his use of racial language in a joke about British soldiers serving in Afghanistan.
"Controversial comedians have always been around," Henry says. "From Max Miller to Alexei Sayle to Frankie Boyle. Richard Pryor was controversial in his day. The American comedian Robert Schimmel only did material about porn. There are some people who say you can make jokes about anything. And it's up to you whether you like it. If you don't, you can turn over the channel."
In person, Henry is physically imposing, too big for the poorly-sprung sofa on which he perches. He is emotionally transparent, candidly discussing his weaknesses and strengths, immediately making him genial. An intense interviewee, he segues from jokingly threatening physical violence to comedic yelps. He brands From Cradle to Rave "autobiographic-com". It tells his life story through the songs that have inspired him. "The show should be called Lenny Mia, because it has better jokes and no songs by Abba," he laughs.
Henry's story began in the West Midlands town of Dudley, where he was born in 1958 to working class Jamaican parents. While he says he worshipped his mother, he had a more strained relationship with his Dad. "He never talked very much. He was quite a negative influence in my life. In 1977, seven days before he died, he started telling me stories and wouldn't shut up. I felt really cheated."
He says his parents never sang to him. His father, especially, withheld affection. Henry, though, clearly dotes on his daughter, and claims to have read her every Harry Potter book cover to cover, impersonating Professor Dumbledore in the style of Tommy Cooper. His concern for her well-being seems to fulfil a need not to repeat the mistakes of his parents.
In From Cradle to Rave, there are further regrets. He discusses whether he could have made a career for himself as a soul singer. At the height of his fame, his smooth-crooning character Theophilus P Wildebeest attracted music industry interest. But he had a meeting with the producer Trevor Horn, which put him off. "He talked about the idea of committing totally to music or ... he was sort of saying don't be a dilettante. I said ... comedy has paid for my Mum's house. Music is good fun but it's a hobby."
It was French who suggested Henry should try serious acting, and his turn as Othello paid off. "I was expecting to review a theatrical car crash," the Daily Telegraph theatre critic Charles Spencer wrote of Henry's performance. "This is one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen."
His keenness to take risks has therefore eased the transitions in his career, which has spanned three decades. A comedian fast becoming an institution, he also says he is watching and learning from today's cutting-edge comics.
Necessarily, Henry says he is much better equipped to deal with the competitive stand-up circuit than the fresh-faced naif of yesteryear.
"When I first started I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "It was survival. I was thrown into the deep end. I saw my first appearance on New Faces quite recently, and I was really moved by it. I used to get up in the middle of discos and try material out. I've only just come back to that over the last five years, going to clubs and seeing what people think about my material. Road-testing it."
So, 30 years of comedy and one marriage later, in the words of 1980s funksters Odyssey, Henry has gone back to his roots. There's a catch, though. "Part of me wonders whether I don't like myself very much," he concludes. "I've always had to ask myself whether I'm doing the right thing over the years and the constant touchstone is the stand-up."
He departs the hotel with a swift handshake, and while waiting for his taxi, asks whether he has been a cooperative-enough interviewee. He still looks exhausted. His eagerness to please, it seems, is as much a key to his never-ending fame as it is a constant weight upon his broad shoulders. He is still, however, the man.
Lenny Henry's 67-date nationwide From Cradle to Rave tour begins tonight at Newbury's Corn Exchange. For more information visit lennyhenry.com
A Life in Brief
Born in Dudley in the West Midlands in 1958 to Jamaican immigrant parents, a 16-year-old Henry got his first break on the talent show New Faces.
Henry moved from impressions to character-based comedy on the children's show Tiswas. As well as touring as a stand-up, his career spanned sitcom, sketch and drama, and his Othello received widespread acclaim.
He received a CBE in 1999 for services to charity including Comic Relief, which he co-founded in 1985.
After 25 years of marriage, Henry and Dawn French separated in 2010.
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