Lenny’s the Premier in music, magic and comedy

Lenny Henry
Lenny Henry
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You could be forgiven for thinking Lenny Henry is having the time of his life at the moment.

He’s midway through a 67-date tour of the UK, Cradle To Rave. He’s just had the most successful ever fundraiser for his charity, Comic Relief. And he recently fronted a new prime-time Saturday night BBC One light entertainment show, The Magicians.

But, actually, Lenny’s had a very tough time of late.

‘My sister-in-law died, my brother-in-law died, my mum passed away, my niece died and my nephew died. Plus my marriage ended,’ he says frankly.

The 52-year-old comedian, whose divorce from Dawn French was finalised in October last year, says that during those years he threw himself into work – and studying.

On top of work for his charity, live tour and TV show, he achieved an MA in screenwriting from Royal Holloway last summer, for which he submitted a film called Nine Nights about Jamaican funerals, and he is now starting a PhD and has been commissioned to write a film about basketball.

He’s also in talks to tread the boards again after his acclaimed turn as Othello in 2009.

So when does he have time to sleep?

‘That’s what my wife said! It’s very tough, but my daughter understands and my wife has been very supportive,’ he says, referring to his marriage in the present tense, although the couple are no longer together.

‘All these things are about applied time – using time to get better at it,’ he adds.

The live show, his first stand-up tour for three years, charts his relationship to music and the impact it’s had on him.

‘Music has consumed me throughout my life,’ he says, earnestly, admitting to having 28 days’ worth of music on his iPod.

‘It’s been there at every juncture, from going to the Priory for a week (the canteen’s like Stars In Their Eyes) to my mum dying and my parents never singing lullabies to me when I was a kid.

‘I sang nursery rhymes to my daughter Billie each evening and, when she was older, read almost every Harry Potter book to her. But I don’t remember my parents singing to me.

‘Mainly because my dad was really miserable and I can’t imagine him going, “Baa Baa Black Sheep, Rock-A-Bye Baby, Three Blind Mice, turn the TV on, I want to watch the cricket”,’ says Lenny in a mock Jamaican accent.

‘My dad was so tired and grumpy by the time he got home, he wouldn’t be in the mood for nursery rhymes. If anything, he’d question the lyrics. “Three blind mice? See how they run? I’ll tell you how they run. Into each other because they can’t see a blasted thing”.’

Lenny will be recalling his childhood as part of the Cradle To Rave show.

‘I was a child of the 1960s and 70s and it’s amazing how good those decades were for music,’ he continues, warming to his subject. ‘We had the Beatles and the Stones. What have we got now? Tinchy Stryder. I like him, but he’s no Otis Redding.’

As well as realising what a huge music-lover he is, Lenny lamented his inability to play a musical instrument –‘to share the music I’ve got inside me’.

‘I can sing and move a bit. But it wasn’t until I was 40 that I started learning to play the piano, on the same day as Billie, who was seven.

‘She wouldn’t sit at the piano, she wouldn’t talk to the teacher, she would lie on the floor and do anything but play the piano.

‘But now she can play anything, she’s got a beautiful voice and I’m still going, “Is that an F? That’s a flat” and every lesson feels like I’ve got four packs of heroin in my bottom that I’ve smuggled into a country, I’m so tense!’ he laughs.

‘But I’m going to try and play a piano as a part of this show and that’s really scary.’

One thing that eased Lenny’s nerves ahead of the tour was the director he managed to get on board for the show.

Lenny remembers how it came about while he was in New York making a series for Radio 4.

‘I walked into a restaurant and immediately saw Steve Martin and Paul Simon sitting at a table having lunch together. Steve Martin is one of my favourite comedians on this earth; Paul Simon is one of my favourite performers.

‘As I moved forwards, not looking where I was going, I tripped over a chair, a table, another chair, another table and a chair. In sequence. The waiters thought it was hilarious, Steve Martin just looked the other way. In fact, he knows who I am because I once did an impression of him and he left me a very long, funny answer machine message.

‘Suddenly, Steve was at my table saying hello and introducing me to a man called Sam Buntrock who’d just directed a Broadway production of Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George. I took his card.’

While the first half of Cradle To Rave will track Lenny from babyhood to teenager, the second half covers everything since.

‘In the second half, I’ll talk about moving to London and getting married and the compromises you have to make musically,’ Lenny explains.

‘Dawn had her music; I had mine. On my side, there’d be Thin Lizzy, Public Enemy, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads and Tom Waits.

‘On her side, it would be Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Norah Jones.

‘So we had to meet in the middle. Or, to put it another way, Sade.’

Dawn will crop up a lot in the second half, inevitably, says Lenny. ‘We were together for 25 years and she’ll always be a part of my life. We’re best friends. It’s unfortunate that we’re getting divorced but what’s really good is that we’re united in our love for our daughter.

‘We like each other very, very much and want it to stay that way.

‘Yes, it’s sad that we’re not together any more but what’s great is that, when we do see each other, there’s no acrimony.

‘We’re getting on with it. This is the next chapter in the book and we’re trying to do it the best way we can,’ he continues.

Othello, stand-up, TV presenting – Lenny seems to be continually adding new chapters to his life story. ‘You’ve got to present a moving target,’ he says. ‘You can’t be complacent. I’ve been a comedian now for 36 years. I like to think I can branch out a bit.’