'This is a Len they’ve never met before': Lenny Henry talks ahead of Midlands shows on new book tour
There is really very little that Sir Lenny Henry cannot do.
As well as being one of Britain's best-known and most celebrated comedians, he is also an acclaimed writer, radio DJ, TV presenter, co-founder of Comic Relief and an award-winning actor. In addition, Lenny has a PhD in Media Arts – "Dr Henry, I presume" – and in 2015 was awarded a knighthood for services to charity and drama.
But now, Lenny is returning to his first love: live performance. Kicking off at the Birmingham Hippodrome tonight, also coming to Dudley Town Hall on November 22 and Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre on November 27 , the performer is touring the country with a brilliant new show, An Evening with Lenny Henry - Who Am I, Again?
Following the publication by Faber on October 3 of his memoir, also entitled, Who Am I, Again?, Lenny will be travelling the length and breadth of the country with his new live show.
It is not a conventional stand-up show; rather, the performer will (hopefully) dazzle audiences with stories from his life.
In the first half, Lenny treats us to a series of anecdotes - triggered by writing his memoir – which are both hilarious and poignant. He recollects growing up in the Black Country, puberty, school, friendship, family secrets and unabashed racism.
He remembers how – with his mother's mantra of 'H'integration' ringing in his ears – he did his best to overcome those obstacles and make his way in the world.
Lenny proceeds to regale the audience with memories of his stellar career. After he burst into the public consciousness in 1975 as the splendidly gifted 16-year-old winner of the TV talent show, New Faces, he enjoyed enormous success on such TV shows as Tiswas, Three of a Kind and The Lenny Henry Show.
Despite his huge popularity, however, Lenny could not help himself wondering at every stage: Am I good enough? Is this what they want?
In the second half, Lenny will be interviewed by friend, broadcaster and author Jon Canter, offering further insights into his life and career. There will be audience interaction throughout: perhaps their questions will help Lenny work out, "Who Am I Again?"
The performer says he can't wait to be back on stage.
"Live performance is just the best," asserts Lenny.
"Being in front of an audience is the best thing you can do. Films and telly are extra, but live is you unfiltered.
"It's just you stood there talking to an audience."
The performer, who has also starred in such sitcoms as Chef! and The Fosters, goes on to recall the greatest live show he ever witnessed. "
What Morecambe and Wise did in front of a live audience was very different to what they did on telly," he said.
"Their TV show was brilliant, but Eric was probably 20 times funnier on stage than he was on telly.
"I worked with him in Bournemouth in 1979, and it was one of the most extraordinary live experiences I have ever had. It was so funny and loose.
"I try to get to the same space when I perform live, create real sense that this is unmediated and unmitigated.
"I attempt to communicate to the audience that 'We’re gonna have a great time for the next 90 minutes, and then we're all off home’”.
The new live tour will be bolstered by the presence of his legions of loyal fans, who have followed him up and down the country for the last four decades.
The performer, 61, who has also appeared in such top-class dramas as Broadchurch, Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle, The Long Song, The Syndicate, Danny and the Human Zoo and Hope and Glory, reflects on the amazing rapport he has with his audience.
"People show up – sometimes not all at the same time," Lenny joked.
"To be honest, it is a long time since 'Katanga, my friends’ or ‘OOOOOKAAAAY!’, but it seems that people still want to come and see the show and be entertained.
"What is lovely is that my audience has grown with me over the years, they get me – and what I’m trying to do – I really cherish that.”
The other aspect of live performance that he adores is that he can improvise - live and direct in the moment.
Lenny, who has also given memorable stage performances in Othello, The Comedy of Errors, Fences, Rudy's Rare Records, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Educating Rita and King Hedley II, reveals that,
"With this show, the audiences are not just going to get a prepared, scripted presentation, but the bits in between, too.”
"My favourite comedians are the ones that have not only put in the hard work on their show, but they can also (once the show is up and running), swim between sections of their script and fool around.
“Those are my favourite performances: where you’re allowed to improvise right then and there, and the audience gets that.
"That's what's really exciting about live performance; you're not watching a robot; you're watching a human being. If you come to play, the audience really appreciate that."
Even though his live show is tied to the publication of his memoir, the performer is swift to point out that An Evening with Lenny Henry - Who Am I, Again? is very far from a conventional book tour.
He discloses that: "I thought, 'I'm not going to do the normal book tour thing. How can I do that? I'm not sure comedians are supposed to do book tours in the way other people do them.
"There is a weight of expectation about a book tour, and people would be severely disappointed if a comedian started to navel gaze and talk about how his parents beat him viciously as a child.
"People are not going to get therapy on stage from me. They will get stories, character stuff and songs.
"I’m sure he’s a great guy, but It's not going to be a Julian Barnes type evening, OK people? We don’t get down like that."
As he looks back on his early years in the business, Lenny underscores how valuable they have been in forming him as a comedian.
"If you write a book about your early years, there is a palpable sense that the past is another country and that you're looking at yourself from 1000 miles away," he commented.
"You write with these words indelibly printed on your brain: ‘Well… that was a very interesting time… these were interesting experiences… they probably made me who I am today.’
"This kind of reflection can make you realise why you are the way you are in the present day - I’ve noticed that I now stick up for myself and also want to be an integral part of the creative process, which all stems from the experience of my first 10 years in the business."
Lenny closes by emphasising that the show should not only be entertaining but also provide insight into his true identity.
"I hope people enjoy their evening out with me – but I also want them to feel at the end, that they’ve learnt something about who I am and how I got there.
"This is a Len they’ve never met before. The show is going to be loose, fun, insightful, and revelatory.
"Did I say ‘fun’ yet?" Yes, you did, Sir Lenny.
An Evening With Lenny Henry UK tour comes to Birmingham Hippodrome tonight, Dudley Town Hall on November 22, and Wolverhampton's Grand Theatre on November 27.
Lenny Henry’s autobiography Who Am I, Again? is published by Faber, £20 out now.