Songs in the key of life

Lenny Henry tells Richard Smirke why his new show based on his love of music is more honest and funky than before

As a young child growing up in Dudley in the 1960s, Lenny Henry remembers being fascinated by the enormous moulded plastic gramophone player that sat in his family’s front room and which “was so big it felt like the house was built around it”. His parents’ collection of early rock and roll records by Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino was the dominant soundtrack to his life during those years, later augmented by his sister’s collection of Tighten Up reggae compilations.

“They were collections of the best reggae records of that year and they all had semi-naked girls on the front,” recalls the 52-year-old comic. “I think that had a lot to do with triggering my interest in music. I used to think: ‘Hang on? Music seems to be this place where there are girls in bikinis wearing pop socks and juggling or playing with a fire hose.’ It all happened at a very formative time in my life.”

“Music has always played a big, important part in my thang.”

It is no exaggeration to say that a deep love of rock, soul, pop and reggae has played a pivotal role in his career ever since. Notably, it was an impromptu impression of Elvis at the Queen Mary Ballroom in Dudley at the age of 16 that marked his first performance on stage. Nationwide fame soon followed, first via his appearances on TV talent show New Faces and then in the 1980s with the hugely successful Lenny Henry Show, which introduced TV audiences to characters such as Theophilis P Wildebeest, an overtly sexual soul singer, and Brixton pirate DJ Delbert Wilkins. Sketches mimicking everyone from Michael Jackson to Earth, Wind & Fire (the not particularly subtle Break Wind & Fire) to Prince have also been a constant in his comedy, which, while never cutting edge, has consistently drawn a large audience that crosses barriers of age, sex, gender and race.

“Music has always played a big, important part in my thang,” states the man born Lenworth George Henry in his distinctively chirpy voice. “When Prince walks onstage I scream like a 16-year-old schoolgirl. It’s because Prince is groovy, he plays the guitar like a mo-fo, plays piano and drums and he can do the splits and he’s got two false hips. But comedy has the same thing. The way a comedian comports himself on stage can be very rock and roll. Look at Steve Martin and the way he used to be on stage; Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy practically wore Michael Jackson’s entire wardrobe when he did the Delirious tour, so I think there’s always been a strong connection between music and comedy.”

Henry’s latest one man show, Cradle To Rave, takes that connection one step closer. An autobiographical journey told through his love affair with music, the Sam Buntrock-directed production has won plaudits for its warm and nostalgic narrative, which veers from strutting impressions of Mick Jagger to a rousing singalong finale.

Previously unspoken personal revelations also feature in the stand-up set

“It tells the story of me from birth to present day. It’s Lenny [Mamma] Mia but without music by Abba and better jokes,” says the comedian, actor, writer, TV presenter and fund-raiser, who will premiere his rusty piano-playing skills in the show. In a distinct move away from the character-based comedy that Henry is widely known for, previously unspoken personal revelations also feature in the stand-up set, which wryly references the comic’s recent split from Dawn French after 25 years of marriage, as well as a revealing examination of his upbringing.

“I rarely talk about my father in shows and in this show I actually talk about my father and what he was like. He was quite grumpy. I don’t think I ever had a proper conversation with him until he was in his hospital bed before he died and then he wanted to talk until the cows come home. Then he died when
I was 19 and I was really sad. My relationship with him meant that when he died I didn’t cry. Because
I just thought: ‘Well, I don’t know you. I don’t know who you are.’ I think essentially he was a good man but he was quite negative. It’s his voice I hear sometimes when I feel that I can’t do something.”

One such occasion when Henry says that he had severe doubts about his abilities was taking on the highly demanding role of Othello for an extensive theatre run last year. He need not have worried. Praised as a triumphant piece of casting by critics, his graceful portrayal of the Moor netted him the best newcomer prize at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards and remains an obvious source of pride for the seasoned performer.

A return to serious acting will soon follow, he says

“People will never know how big that was for me. It came at a time of my life when I was seriously thinking ‘I’m 51, what next?’ And I think Othello proved to me that I’m more than just a comedian and that I can do other things.”

A return to serious acting will soon follow, he says, including a possible return to Shakespeare. Discussions are also underway with revered contemporary playwrights Roy Williams and Kwame Kwei-Armah about appearing in a contemporary play. Not that he has any plans to abandon stand-up just yet. Being a comic continues to be his main love, claims Henry, and while he takes a more theatrical approach to writing and performing a live tour these days, the very art of comedy still excites and inspires him more than anything else.

“I’m a fan of comedy. I love comedy and I watch comedy and I listen to comedy. I could do Richard Pryor’s routine about monkeys off by heart. I know Bill Cosby’s albums backwards. I love Tommy Cooper. I love Eric and Ernie. I’m a huge French and Saunders fan. I love watching comedy and dissecting it with my friends and talking about it and I’ve always been like it.

“Because I’m a mimic I was influenced by various comedians when I was coming up but now that I’m in my fifties it’s time to shape how I want to do comedy. After 36 years of being a fan of comedy and loving comedy there’s still the unobtainable thing, which is: I’d like to do a wonderful show where I’m really, really happy with it. Like a lot of comedians, I don’t think I’ve ever done a show where I’ve gone: ‘That is brilliant. That is up there with anybody else.’ And I think that’s worth going for, really.”

Cradle to Rave, 25 February, St George’s Hall, Bradford, then touring. Photo: Rankin

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