He has tackled Shakespeare, written sitcoms and now comedy legend Lenny Henry has taken up music for his latest tour. He talks to Roz Laws about his learning journey.
The Lenny Henry who comes on the phone is barely recognisable from the man who screeched like a loud bird, shouted ‘Katanga my friends!’ and threw custard pies.
Now he’s softly spoken, in a mellow mood and not cracking jokes with every sentence.
Perhaps it’s his spell on stage as a Shakespearean actor which has calmed him down, or all the books he’s been reading for his PhD. It’s a far cry from his Tiswas days and his over the top characters like Theophilus P. Wildebeeste.
Not that this serious work has knocked all the comedy out of the Dudley comic. In fact, he’s trying to appear more upbeat on his latest one-man show.
“I toured last year with a show called Cradle to the Rave, using music to talk about my life,” he recalls.
“It did well but one reviewer said it was one of the saddest shows he’d ever seen. I certainly didn’t intend that.
“So I did a remix to make the show more joyous and funny. It’s doing what I love to do, make people laugh.”
The new show is called Pop Life and takes in smaller venues like the 300-seat Bromsgrove Artrix (October 18) and 336-seat Solihull Arts Complex (November 12) as well as Redditch, Shrewsbury and Telford.
Lenny, aged 54, says: I came to Birmingham and Dudley on my last tour, so I thought I’d come to different places now.
“I like playing theatres and more intimate venues. I don’t mind playing to 2,000 people in sports arenas, but there’s always a worry that people will come out and play basketball in the middle of the show.”
In Pop Life, Lenny talks about the influence of music on his life and how music could have improved moments in history. Parts of the Bible come with added Beyonce, while he takes to the piano to illustrate some points.
After months of practising, he performs Blueberry Hill, having recently passed his grade four piano exam.
“Music doesn’t come naturally to me, surprisingly,” confesses Lenny.
“I expected to sit down at the piano and be brilliant, to have a horn section suddenly appear and someone put a cape around my shoulders. I wanted to play like James Brown or Stevie Wonder, but I had to start with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star like everyone else.
“Blueberry Hill was the first thing I heard in our house, followed by Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis. There were lots of pictures of Elvis in our house for some reason. For many years I thought he was a relative!
“The first record I ever bought was Skin Tight by the American funk band the Ohio Players.
“Music has been a constant in my life, it does help you through the hard times.”
There have been a few of them lately. His 25-year marriage to Dawn French ended in divorce two years ago, then he suffered three deaths in his family in just 12 months. His older brother Hylton lost his wife and two children, to cancer and TB.
But he’s putting a brave face on it, and is thankful that his divorce from Dawn, mother to their 20-year-old daughter Billie, was amicable. He is now dating theatre producer Lisa Makin and says “I’m in a happy place”.
There’s more music in his Radio 4 comedy Rudy’s Rare Records, set in an old-fashioned record shop in Handsworth, Birmingham. A new, fourth series starts next week.
Performing means his university studies have had to take more of a back seat.
He thought of going back to education after his beloved mother Winifred died in 1998.
“I left school with seven CSEs, not even O levels – the equivalent of a chocolate fireguard in the world at large.
“I was doing an engineering apprenticeship at a welders in Dudley when I won New Faces in 1975. I left and never finished my diploma. My mum was very disappointed, and when she died I decided to go back to studying.”
In 2007 he gained an Open University degree in English Literature after six years. He went on to do an MA in screenwriting at Royal Holloway College in London.
He’s now two years into a PhD in screenwriting, with special reference to ethnic minorities in sports films, and does not expect to be finished for another four years.
“They say a PhD is a black hole for people who want to get lost in education. They go in and never come out.
“I hope to finish in 2016, but it’s harder than I thought. I have a research assistant but I have to do a lot myself. The only way is to read all the 150 books and see all the films on my list. I have 50,000 words to write, but I love learning.
“I hope I can inspire people. If they think that the bloke who did ‘Katanga my friends’ can do this, then they can.”
After his tour, Lenny plans to act in an August Wilson contemporary play. Then towards the end of next year he is hoping to work again with director Barrie Rutter, who guided him to an award-winning performance in Othello, in a production of Macbeth.
He has also written a sitcom which he hopes will broadcast on BBC1.
What he probably won’t be doing any more of are TV adverts for Premier Inn.
“I’ve had a good run, but that’s probably over,” he laughs.
“Thanks to them, every time I check into another hotel, I am mercilessly teased. I’ve had yellow ducks on my pillow and once a lifesize cutout of myself on the bed. I’ve no idea where they got it from.”
* Pop Life goes to the Bromsgrove Artrix (October 18) and Solihull Arts Complex (November 12) as well as Redditch, Shrewsbury and Telford.