Stand-up may have put him on the map, but Lenny Henry has turned his back on comedy. As he joins the cast of Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate, he tells Susan Griffin why he still feels like he’s winning.
Lenny Henry doesn’t think it’s strange that so many comedians end up acting.
“I think it’s because you’re used to keeping your straight face when you’re doing your set-up. You learn to be compelling and to tell a story and to convince the audience, before you switch it (for the gag),” explains the 56-year-old.
“I’m never surprised when I see Jack Dee or Russell Brand or Eddie Izzard (acting). It’s part of your upbringing. It’s the skill of describing something that happened, the art of exaggeration, of allegorical storytelling, of metaphors. All these skills you have in your toolbox are brought to bear.”
And so, despite no formal training and the many naysayers who mocked his casting, back in 2009, he took the title role in a production of Othello, which later transferred to the West End. His performance earned critical acclaim and, two years later, he appeared at the National Theatre in The Comedy Of Errors.
“Ahead of doing a soliloquy in Othello, (the director) Barrie Rutter said, ‘You’ve done this before, it’s like stand-up, he’s telling a story’, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m talking to the audience, oh I can do that, I’ve been doing that since I was 16’.”
I’m never surprised when I see Jack Dee or Russell Brand or Eddie Izzard (acting). It’s part of your upbringingLenny Henry
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Henry grew up one of seven children in Dudley.
In 1975, he appeared on TV talent show New Faces and won, marking the beginning of a hugely successful stand-up career.
As he puts it, “it bought mum a house”, but he doesn’t miss the life of a comedian.
“I’m loving being an actor. Since 2009, it’s what I’ve done, mainly,” he explains. “I love comedy as a fan and a consumer, but it’s one of the things I can do and used to do but don’t any more.”
Today, he’s chatting to me between takes filming series three of The Syndicate, Kay Mellor’s third story based on a group of lotto winners.
In this outing, the lucky syndicate is the staff of Hazelwood Manor, a once magnificent building that’s fallen into disrepair. Henry plays the gardener, Godfrey.
“We all know people who become obsessive about certain subjects, and I think Godfrey is on the spectrum of Asperger’s,” explains Henry, who says he watched “this wonderful man talking about his condition on YouTube” and visited an autism centre in Leeds as part of his preparation for the role.
“He knows everything about the gardens. He’s obsessed with wildlife and can code and knows about string theory. I’m useless at maths but I’ve been spouting all of this mathematical dialogue.”
And it’s not been easy.
“Arrgh, did I find it tough to learn! It’s just hours and hours of learning these sequences and numbers and being concerned about them. And numbers are right or wrong, so you’ve got to get it right.”
Though Henry’s popped up in the odd TV show over the last few years, and voiced animations for the small screen, The Syndicate marks his first full drama since 1999’s Hope And Glory, which was set in a struggling high school.
“I had to read for this, I think Kay wanted to see if I could hang with the dialogue. I did it (the audition), and then she took me for lunch, so I knew I’d got it!” he recalls.
He confesses he’s given the real lotto a whirl himself on occasion. “I won £250 once, but felt guilty and had to give it to charity. I did it for a laugh.”
But then he is the face of Comic Relief, the charity he co-created with Richard Curtis 30 years ago.
“It’s one of the great achievements of my life and I’m pleased my mum was around to see that.”
Another is his belated academic success. He got his degree, in English Literature, in 2007, before doing an MA in screenwriting followed by a PhD, studying the representation of black people in the media:“The argument tends to get side-tracked a bit by what happens with representation on screen. It’s more important behind the scenes,” he explains. “All the people who make the decisions about what we see, that’s where it needs to change.”
Henry, who has an adopted daughter, Billie, with his ex-wife Dawn French, has been commissioned to write a film about basketball, is working on a documentary on the Blues for Sky Arts, a one-off film for the British Film Institute called Nine Nights and Danny And The Human Zoo, a fictional memoir, has also been green-lit by the BBC.
At some point, he’ll probably need a holiday – not that he is really any good at switching off on them. “My girlfriend would probably say I don’t,” he admits, laughing. “I have to have a notebook nearby, I’m writing on cocktail napkins and in the sand, because when I’m on holiday, and my shoulders drop, that’s when I start to get ideas.”
The Syndicate begins on BBC One on Tuesday, June 2