Hooray for Henry

EMMA LEE He's one of the most well-known and well-loved faces on TV. In a career spanning more than two decades, Lenny Henry has had audiences in stitches and tears. But he is always looking for new challenges, he tells Emma Lee as he hits the road in his latest one-man show.

EMMA LEE

“I believe it's important to do things you are scared of,” says Lenny Henry.

The comedian is talking about his show So Much Things to Say, which calls at Norwich Theatre Royal next week and at King's Lynn Corn Exchange next month.

The show features five characters, which he plays himself, and Lenny says that bringing them to life has been a welcome test for him.

“I have been doing stand-up comedy since I was 16 years old and I wanted to give the show a theatrical basis – I wanted to move it on and challenge myself. I think the theatricality of the characters means I really have to work hard and make them believable,” he says.

“It is a one-man show but it features five characters. It starts out as a stand-up show, but it's quickly overtaken by the characters who turn it into a play. The characters, who are introduced in the first half, represent a cross-section of black Britons in the 21st century: a soldier in Iraq, a very very old man and a woman who's very bored and wants to leave her husband,” he says.

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“Iraq is just one of the things they talk about. One of the things I wanted to do was say 'look we are all confused about what's going on there – there are no weapons of mass destruction, why are our boys out there?' I'm certainly not a ranter, but like everyone else I was confused.”

Lenny grew up in Dudley in the West Midlands where he was one of only three black children at his school.

He's had an incredibly varied career since he made his debut on TV's New Faces in the '70s and appeared on anarchic Saturday morning show Tiswas.

He starred in the BBC sketch show Three of a Kind with Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield before winning his own solo show.

Characters such as wideboy Delbert Wilkins and Gareth Blackstock in the sitcom Chef! have made him one of the nation's favourite entertainers. Lenny has had a major influence on the creation of black-centred comedy and characters both through his own projects and shows produced by his film company Crucial Films.

His Step Forward workshop for new writers, run in conjunction with the BBC, led to The Real McCoy – a show designed to present a black perspective through humour, sketches and musical numbers.

He is also heavily involved with the charity Comic Relief which celebrates its 20th birthday next year.

While he is known primarily as a funnyman, a number of dramatic roles have won him great praise – notably his performance as headteacher Ian George in Hope and Glory.

The series memorably ended with Lenny's character collapsing and dying from a heart attack – and he went to great lengths to make sure his performance was authentic.

“It was great, we worked very hard on it, it was the last ever episode I was not going to do any more. It was a big challenge,” he says.

“I had to learn what it was like to have a heart attack, I watched films of people. After it was shown people rang up crying 'I didn't know that was going to happen'.”

He says he is “itching” to get his teeth into some more meaty dramatic roles.

“I am hoping to do more theatre, but a guy has to be asked. I am up for anything really – but perhaps Shakespeare or Beckett. What you have to overcome is that if you are going to have a career you cannot just be Mr Funny all the time. But I do not think there's anything wrong with playing up to the character type audiences expect,” he says.

“I like doing characters, because it's not me,” he adds.

Lenny is, of course, married to comedienne Dawn French, and they have an adopted daughter, Billie. He admits that juggling career and family life is a delicate balancing act.

“I would like to do film if it was a good director and good script. But it would have to fit in with my family,” he says.

“You want to be a good Dad and want to be there for all the things that happen. On tour, you leave the house at three and get back at midnight. I try and be sensitive to what's going on in the house. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes you get it wrong, but you do the best you can,” he says.

Lenny says he is enjoying being back out on the road.

“When you shoot TV and films you make it and have to wait to find out what people think. Live, you know immediately – if they like a joke they will laugh. It's really energising,” he says.

Lenny is on tour until the end of November, and after that there is no sign of his hectic schedule slowing down.

Next year he will film another series of The Lenny Henry Show, and is also due to visit Ethiopia for Comic Relief – and they are setting their sights big.

“We are just gearing up for next year's – it's the 20th anniversary of Live Aid and the first Comic Relief single. We raised £100,000,000 last time and we are going to try and beat that,” he says. t

t Lenny Henry is at Norwich Theatre Royal on Tuesday and Wednesday, October 26-27. Box office: 01603 630000. The show calls at King's Lynn Corn Exchange on Thursday, November 18. Box office: 01553 764864.

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