From Elvis to Shakespeare
Lenny Henry has been making us laugh for 36 years. But his new tour, Pop Life, may be his farewell to stand-up for some time. It’s because of a new outlet for his talents: acting.
In a frank yet at times hilarious interview, Lenny revealed the heartbreak he has been through in his personal life over the past couple of years; how he lived in one of Africa’s worst slums as part of his work with Comic Relief; and the “life-changing” experience he went through three years ago which is now shaping his career.
Lenny had always thought he was not clever enough to understand Shakespeare and kept well away from the Bard’s works. But a meeting with Barrie Rutter, artistic director of Northern Broadsides theatre company which performs Shakespeare in a regional accent, proved to be the catalyst.
Rutter cast Lenny as Othello – a huge gamble on someone who had never performed in a straight play before. Such was Lenny’s success in the role that last year he trod the boards at the National Theatre as Antipholus of Syracuse, one of the twins in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.
In the next 18 months Lenny will be doing a contemporary play – he is currently in talks and unable to give more details – followed by another stint with Northern Broadsides, this time in Macbeth.
He has this advice for his fans in the Midlands: “I’ll keep doing stand-up but it won’t be at the forefront of what I do, so this tour will probably be the last I do for a while.”
Anyone who does catch one of his dates in the next couple of months will, according to Lenny, find it funnier and more intimate than his previous tour Cradle to Rave.
One broadsheet newspaper proclaimed that the show was really good but very sad. So he sat down with writer Kim Fuller – brother of impresario Simon Fuller who manages the Spice Girls, David Beckham and Andy Murray – and put together Pop Life. It is more about music and less about Lenny’s private life.
Playing the piano
“It’s much more fun to do now,” says the 54-year-old who will relish playing in some smaller venues.
“I did 70 dates on my last tour, so this is hoovering up a lot of the places I didn’t do the first time around. That always happens after a big tour.
“This show is perhaps better suited to smaller venues. I much prefer doing gigs in theatres because it’s more intimate, the sight lines are better and people can hear you better.”
Proving that he is not afraid of tackling anything new, Lenny will actually be playing the piano during Pop Life.
“It’s really weird playing your pieces on stage in front of 1,000 people because I bet they’re all thinking ‘this guy’s rubbish!’
“I’m grade 4 on the piano. You end up having to learn Twinkle Twinkle Little Star just like everybody else. I’m about as good as a three-and-a-half-year-old Chinese child at the moment. So I’m hoping to improve.”
Music has played a massive part in the life of Lenworth George Henry CBE who began by impersonating Elvis Presley. Lenny, in his inimitable fashion, says he thought Elvis was a relative because there were so many pictures of him around the Henry household!
“Elvis was brilliant because everybody liked him. Our family would regularly gather round the television and watch Elvis films like Fun in Acapulco and Girls Girls Girls.
“Me and my sister used to count how many times Elvis would kiss somebody. We’d always run out of energy after 26.
“That’s how Elvis decided what movies to do. ‘You’re playing the pope.’ ‘Do I get to kiss a girl?’ ‘Sure.’ ‘I’ll do it.’ ‘As long as he got to kiss a girl, he’d do the movie; ridiculous criteria,” says Lenny who spits the words out so quickly you wonder how he manages not to run out of breath.
“I’m a huge fan of disco music but as I’ve got older I’ve realised my taste in music has become more populist. Like everybody else in the world, I’ve got two copies of Queen’s Greatest Hits and I don’t know where they’ve come from.
“I have four copies of Abba Gold; I’ve got nine copies of Gracelands by Paul Simon – I’ve got it on CD, DVD, vinyl and cassette. I don’t remember buying them. So there’s obviously another Lenny Henry going around just buying lots of middle-of-the-road stuff.”
Lenny emits an anguished shriek when I ask him to look back to 1975 when as a teenager he won the television talent show New Faces. I want to know what his ambition was then because he could not have envisaged many of the things that have happened to him in the past three decades.
“The guy who managed me first of all said ‘you’re going to be as big as Max Bygraves one day’. He was huge at the time. He had his own TV show, he had a recording career, he’d done movies and stuff.
“I ended up doing a movie, making records, I had a decade of doing my own TV show.
“I bring everything I’ve learned in the past 36 years from doing working men’s clubs, the Royal Variety performance, the Queen’s Jubilee or appearing on stage in Australia or New York – I bring everything to bear on every project I do. So I approach every project the same – I’m going to learn something here; let’s keep my eyes and ears open and see what happens.”
As for his private life, Lenny does not bat away questions and admits the past couple of years have been “quite rough”. His 25-year marriage to Dawn French ended in divorce, two of his family died and a couple of friends passed away too. But he remains stoical about those times.
“It’s like chapters in a book – they close and another one opens. I’ve had to move on from that stuff. You can’t let these things get to you.
“I love being a comedian. The fact of being on stage and making people happy fuels your journey. My work has been able to facilitate me surviving bad times. Thank God for that.”
Lenny will again be concentrating next year on Comic Relief. The organisation of which he is one of the trustees has raised more than £1billion since 1985 and continues to help people in desperate need.
Recently he went to Kibera on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi to see for himself what the charity has been doing there.
“Kibera is one of the biggest slums in the world – a million people camped into a space the size of Central Park, no electricity, no plumbing, no sewage. So we’re working there, trying to change people’s lives for the better.
“I have to say Comic Relief has been an amazing constant in my life. I really love doing it and the British public are the most generous people in the world.”
Before that, though, Lenny will be visiting Mansfield and Chesterfield with Pop Life.
“I love coming up north. I think up north taught me how to be a better comedian, actually.
“I remember going up north and doing several gigs and moaning to my mum that it wasn’t going very well. She said (Lenny adopts a high-pitched voice) ‘You have to take off your jacket and roll your sleeves up. They need to see you sweat!’ I did that and it worked.”
I point out that Lenny, from Dudley in the West Midlands, ought to know that Mansfield and Chesterfield are not in the north. “Well, they’re north to Londoners!” he retorts.
Lenny apologises as he has to cut the interview short. I manage to get in one final question: he has done advertising work for Premier Inn, so will he be staying in the company’s hotels while he is on tour?
He lets out a guffaw: “I don’t know. They sponsored the last tour but they’re not sponsoring this one, so I’ll probably be staying in lots of other places. Whichever hotel I go to there’s always a yellow rubber duck on the pillow!”
* This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Country Images magazine