Lenny Henry exclusive: we talk to the legendary comedian
It’s sometimes easy to forget just how much Lenny Henry has achieved in his career. The renowned funnyman has starred in a string of TV shows, made no fewer than 10 films and also wowed theatregoers with his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello; all while fronting a little-known charity campaign you might have heard of, called Comic Relief.
But when we spoke with Lenny it’s he’s back to the day job, stand-up, so how does it feel being back on the circuit? “It feels like the most natural thing in the world,” he says. “I never stopped doing stand up comedy; I know there’s a tendency for people think that if you’re not on TV you’re somehow dead, but that is definitely not the case with me.”
He tells us he’s not nervous about going back on stage; after all he’s barely been away from it, that doesn’t mean he’s not got reason to though. “I’ve had lots of embarrassing things happen to me on stage,” he admits. “Try the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I have to get Rolf Harris off the stage because the producers are in my earpiece telling me to stop Rolf from singing Two Little Boys because Stevie Wonder is now ready to sing. I do so and end up being booed by 250, 000 white people waving Union Jacks. It was like the biggest BNP rally in the world, booing me.”
Lenny describes his new show, Pop Life, as “jokes and stupidness about how much I love music” and it’s a subject he’s understandably effusive about: “The subject matter of the show springs from the fact that we all utilise music continually as a soundtrack for our lives. You go on a blind date, you’re nervous, so you play Sergio Leone’s ‘The Good The Bad And The Ugly’ to psych yourself up - ok so you kill a few guys –what’s the big deal? You feel good.”
It’s a tangent he enjoys taking us down. “Watching the Titanic movie was also extraordinary. All those people jumping over the side as the ship sank, but the band played on. Were they nuts? Jamaican musicians would’ve been on the iceberg saying ‘how do I steer this raatid ting to Kingston?’”
“We also try to work out just how much ganja Bob Marley and the Wailers used to smoke,” he jokes. “When he was saying ‘Get up, stand up’ that wasn’t an intro to a song –that was an instruction to the band: ‘will somebody stand up and play the tune please?’ I also evoke the memory of Freddie Mercury, a fine entertainer who knew how to communicate with a crowd, unlike Leona Lewis who just kinda stands there hoping that her taxi arrives soon. Things like this occupy my mind continually.”
It’s a just a taster of the kind of thing you get to see Lenny cover off on stage, he even plays the piano as part of the show. “I’ve been playing the piano since I was 40” he reveals, “and I’m still only Grade 4 - I’m 54 now - just about to embark on Grade 5. Why can’t we have that upload thing they have in The Matrix?”
Lenny started his comedy career at the tender age of 16. “I won a talent competition at my local disco - The Queen Mary Ballroom on Dudley Zoo” he tells us. “And all my mates said I should pursue comedy as a career - they were drunk mind. I then, at the behest of a local DJ, auditioned for a TV talent [show] and won.” That show was New Faces, a hit series from ITV that aired in the late 70s and early 80s. Of course a very different type of talent show reigns on ITV today, so does Lenny think they’re still a good breeding ground for comic talent?
“I think the right kind of talent show can be an enormous help to one’s career,” he says. “I’m not sure how far a man who sculpts portraits of Michael McIntyre from endless rounds of toast is gonna get, but god bless him. I think it’d be good if there was a talent show that didn’t’ have the ‘reality‘ element – there’s a bit of Christians and lions in the arena about it all.”
So would he go on a show like Britain’s Got Talent if he had the opportunity? “I think comedians, impressionists, double acts, sketch groups really miss out on Britain’s Got Talent,” he answers. “How can you compete with a very old man and a singing dog , or a man balancing 75 buckets on his chin. Comedy is so subjective, it takes time for the audience to agree that they find something funny, by which time the panel have buzzed, eeeeee, boring.”
It would be rude of us not to mention Comic Relief. “I am very chuffed that Comic Relief is now such a big part of our society,” Lenny tells us. “The fact that people know they can effect change with as little as £5 is huge. To be out in Kibera and see how many people struggle to survive on less than 20p a day is incredibly humbling.” Henry founded the charity alongside Richard Curtis in 1985 in response to famine in Ethiopia. It’s since raised more than £750 million for good causes around the globe and the comic promises that 2013’s iteration is set to be “bolder, brighter, faster and funnier than any other time before in its history.”
Recent years have seen plenty of change to Lenny’s life, not least his divorce from Dawn French in 2010 after 25 years of marriage. So how are things away from the stage and screen? “Life is good away from the stage. I have a very supportive girlfriend called Lisa. My family in the Midlands support me a great deal and I see my daughter as often as I can. I also go to the movies a lot and I read books.” He also tells us he’s trying to stay in shape. “I go the gym three times a week and it’s knackering.”
So no wild parties and lavish spending sprees? “I don’t have a celebrity lifestyle, no. How do you get one? Can I get a Nando’s black card? Can I have a vajazzle? Answer me!”
We think it’s probably safer not to. But nevertheless, whilst he might not have free chicken it’s clear Henry still knows his way round a punchline or two, which is great news for fans of a comic who’s nothing short of a national treasure.