Even by Lenny Henry’s standards it’s been a crazy year. David Johns tries to keep up as the Dudley dynamo roars in to town
Photography by Jack Lawson
It’s been quite a 12 months for Lenny Henry. He’s won one or two awards (nothing unexpected there!), appeared before a House of Commons select committee (that’s different!), been diagnosed with diabetes (not pleasant!), shed more than three stone in weight (not easy!) and starting studying for a PhD (wow!) Oh, and did we mention that he’s appearing on stage in Birmingham for the first time (yes, the first time!) in his career in a comedy play about a city record shop? At this point, we feel it’s time to stop and take a deep breath – but Lenny has different ideas as he rattles on in that incredibly rapid and enthusiastic style of his, talking while at the same time eating a quick bite during an all-too-short break in rehearsals at Birmingham Rep.
“The PhD is really cool,” he says. “I’m doing it in screenwriting as part of film and media and it doesn’t finish until 2016. I’ve recently set up my own production company called Douglas Road Productions – it’s named after the road I grew up in Dudley. The plan is to make lots of pitches to broadcasting companies and go from there.” Quite how’s he going to fit that in with everything else is beyond me, if not beyond him! But for now, Lenny’s just thrilled to be back in Brum – especially with a play, Rudy’s Rare Records, that’s been adapted from the BBC radio series which he co-created and starred in. “I love being back in the Midlands and in front of a home audience. I’ve done loads of comedy gigs here but never appeared on stage in a play or at the Rep before.” Rudy’s Rare Records makes its premiere at the Rep on 4 September and runs for 17 nights. It’s set in an old reggae record shop in Birmingham that’s set for demolition and redevelopment, and revolves around the culture clash between old-time shop owner Rudy and his son Adam, played by Lenny. “It’s a battle between old and new. Analogue versus digital. Soda bread versus croissant,” says Lenny. It’s a story that he has a particular empathy with. As a kid growing up, he used to go to Graduate Records in Dudley and flick through all the vinyl, and he’s a big fan of The Diskery, in Bromsgrove Street, Birmingham which is one of the few remaining independent record shops in the city.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love iTunes. I love one-click buying, I’m addicted to it,” he says. “One click and you’ve got what, it’s great. In my time in Dudley there wasn’t the exposure to all the different types of music there is today. I would come into Birmingham every Saturday and hang out in a record shop just like Rudy’s, so the play is very close to my heart. “Back then, kids tended to be in a tribe following one style of music or artist. These days, they can download all kinds of different stuff – and not get slagged off by their mates like we would have done! What’s missing though is the camaraderie and chat that existed in record shops. And there’s music there that you’ll come across that you’re never going to find on iTunes. Extraordinary stuff that makes the whole experience worth the effort. And you know what? I reckon you should have to make a bit of an effort to buy your music!” Maybe it’s the new play, but Lenny says he’s recently started adding to his collection of “3,000 to 4,000” records. “I’ve even gone out and bought a new turntable. I was playing it just the other day before starting here for rehearsals.” While Lenny is best known for stand-up and TV comedy, in recent years he’s also become a powerful straight actor, appearing in highly-acclaimed productions such as Othello and the African-American drama Fences. Earlier this summer he took to a different stage when he gave evidence to the culture, media and sport select committee looking into the BBC’s plans for greater ethnic diversity. He told MPs that Britain is losing talent because of the mistaken belief that ethnic minority actors do not have ‘star’ power.
Lenny’s also famously known as the public face of Comic Relief, which will see the nation don its red noses again next March. “I think we’ll raise over £1 billion,” he says. “£1 billion –won’t that be something!” While Lenny already has an OBE to his name, we reckon that his charity efforts alone now make him deserving of something much greater. So how does ‘Lord Lenny’ sound? “I don’t want go there,” he says, almost embarrassed by the thought. “I mean it doesn’t sound right for a comedian to have a title. Lord Tarbuck, Lord Cooper… no it just doesn’t work.” Oh well, we tried…