Clips

The Lenny Henry Show, 1984

I’d done a sketch show virtually every year for God knows how long. The Lenny Henry Show was my fourth sketch show.

I had done The Cheapest Show on the Telly with Don McLean, I had done Six of a Kind which was a pilot, and then Three of a Kind happened.

When Three of a Kind came to an end, Paul Jackson had already told me that he wanted to do The Lenny Henry Show with me. But at the last minute, he said he couldn’t do my show, as the was going to do The Young Ones and Girls on Top.

Then the BBC said, “We’ve got this other guy called Geoff Posner, you should meet him.” Geoff was this extraordinary, cool guy with a large Freddie Mercury moustache and a big Afro. He had this cinematic sense of how things should look. And I thought, “This could be a really good match here. He loves music, I love music.”

The first thing we did together was the Thriller video, which became a classic. Once again, we got BAFTA nominated because of the Thriller video. So it was very clever and exciting and funny, with a really good writers’ room, full of people that were from Not the Nine O’Clock News and Carrot’s Lib.

Kim Fuller went from being the script editor on Three of a Kind to being the chief writer on The Lenny Henry Show. Our relationship developed over the next few years. So it was a real perfect storm of everybody coming together and realizing their dreams.

I’d done a sketch show virtually every year for God knows how long. The Lenny Henry Show was my fourth sketch show.

I had done The Cheapest Show on the Telly with Don McLean, I had done Six of a Kind which was a pilot, and then Three of a Kind happened.

When Three of a Kind came to an end, Paul Jackson had already told me that he wanted to do The Lenny Henry Show with me. But at the last minute, he said he couldn’t do my show, as the was going to do The Young Ones and Girls on Top.

Then the BBC said, “We’ve got this other guy called Geoff Posner, you should meet him.” Geoff was this extraordinary, cool guy with a large Freddie Mercury moustache and a big Afro. He had this cinematic sense of how things should look. And I thought, “This could be a really good match here. He loves music, I love music.”

The first thing we did together was the Thriller video, which became a classic. Once again, we got BAFTA nominated because of the Thriller video. So it was very clever and exciting and funny, with a really good writers’ room, full of people that were from Not the Nine O’Clock News and Carrot’s Lib.

Kim Fuller went from being the script editor on Three of a Kind to being the chief writer on The Lenny Henry Show. Our relationship developed over the next few years. So it was a real perfect storm of everybody coming together and realizing their dreams.

I still look back on that period very fondly.

Coast To Coast, 1987

This was a one off, directed by Sandy Johnson and written by Stan Hey, who was a co writer on Delbert.

Stan had written this script about two DJs who buy an ice cream van and smuggle stolen printing plates across Britain, while being chased by gangsters. It was a lark, a spree.

It was a road movie, and the funny thing about making a road movie in Britain is that you start off driving and then two minutes later, you’re there! We had to zigzag across the country.

I got to work with John Shea, a brilliant actor who was in Missing. I also got to work with Peter Vaughan, who was in Game of Thrones and was Grouty in Porridge, George Baker and Pete Postlethwaite. What a fantastic experience that was!

Once again, it was shot chronologically, so you’re watching me get better as an actor minute by minute. By the time we get to the end, I’m actually not doing such a bad job!

Whereas at the beginning, you can see me going, “OK, acting is hard”.

I watched John Shea and Peter Vaughan and George Baker and Pete Postlethwaite like a hawk because I wanted to learn everything about acting on screen. Those guys knew exactly what they were doing.

Lenny Henry In Pieces, 2000

In Pieces came after a period following Delbert where I didn’t want to do any more sketch shows. Because I had done Tiswas, The Cheapest Show on The Telly, Three of a Kind, The Lenny Henry Show, Lenny Henry Tonite, and two seasons of the Delbert sitcom, I didn’t want to do sketch shows anymore.

So in the 90s I did Chef! and Hope and Glory, Alive and Kicking, White Goods and Coast to Coast. That was me trying to spread my wings as an actor. I never dreamed of doing sketches again.

But in 2000, my mum had just died. I just wanted to do something that made me happy, that would reach out to my audience, the audience that loved my sketches, and give them some new characters and some new stuff to laugh at.

In Pieces won the Golden Rose of Montreux and triggered a five year run of me doing sketch shows every year into the noughties. It was great fun. Once again, working with people like Matt Lipsey and Ed Bye, it was an attempt to create things that were the genre specific and cinematic.

It was not just me doing happy-go-lucky telly. I was trying to do things that had their roots in genre, so it was westerns or historical drama or detectives or secret agents or sci fi.

I was trying to go, “You know this genre, and this is me playing a character within it.” That seemed to work very well.

Three Of A Kind

There were three seasons of Three of a Kind, and it was a huge ratings and critical success.

I had such fun collaborating with Tracey, David and the producer Paul Jackson, one of the best in the business.

It was really exciting because it went from four episodes on BBC2 to being repeated on BBC1. And then we did season two on BBC1, and we won the Silver Rose of Montreux, the Variety Club of Great Britain Award, and we got nominated for a BAFTA.

And then the third season was moved to Saturday nights when we got between eight and 10 million viewers a week. Three of a Kind was major. And then then we broke up the band!

Paul was leaving the BBC. Tracey didn’t really want to do it anymore, and David was going to do what he wanted to do.

But I remember it with great affection. It was brilliant to work on.

Danny and the Human Zoo, 2015

This was me doing an alternate-universe version of my childhood leading up to the moment where I appeared on New Faces. It was a really interesting experience because when you write around the corner from yourself – i.e. when you write a pretend version of yourself – there’s always going to be stuff that touches on real life.

And of course, the media isn’t stupid. They all got what I was telling them, which was that there are dad issues in my family. My birth father is not the father that raised me. Danny and the Human Zoo was a roundabout way of telling that story.

It was spotted immediately and suddenly it was in the papers. We had to really talk to people and say, “We must tell this story in the right way.”

I wanted to honour my mum, who was a brilliant person and who did three jobs to raise us. But I also wanted to tell story of the father who raised me. Although he wasn’t my birth father, he was there every day. He put food on the table. He put clothes on our backs. And he was there.

I also wanted to talk about my birth father because he wasn’t there every day. He was there sometimes, but there’s a difference. So it was important to me to tell that story.

It was also important to me that we found the right person to play me, and Kascion Franklin did a brilliant job. Cecilia Noble was also fantastic as my mum, and Arthur Darvill was excellent as my manager, the Magnificent Jonesy.

Destiny Ekaragha, who directed Gone Too Far, did a really good job as the director. It was shot in the Midlands, and it came together really well.

My sisters came on set, pointed at the actors and said, “You’re supposed to be me, and you’re supposed to be her.” It was a really good experience. It was very moving when it went out.

We did a premiere at the Village Cinema in Dudley, and we invited family and friends. They sat in the cinema and watched it like they were at the pictures. It made me want to make more films like that.

I had the really lovely experience of watching the story that I’d written on the big screen. That was a kick!

It was just great. I loved it. 

Chef, 1993

The scene from this sitcom that people remember is where the customer asks for salt without tasting his food, and my character Gareth has this big rant about it.

I’d been in America and made True Identity. It wasn’t a big success – although the reviews for me were pretty good, I have to say. But it just the film itself was not a success.

So I came back to Britain, and I was a bit down. I had written to the producer Charlie Hanson and sent him some notes on a show about a chef. Charlie thought it was a good idea.

I had been sending him all these articles about Marco Pierre White and Nico Ladenis behaving incredibly scandalously with their customers, freaking out if they hung their handbag on the back of the seats, or were wearing the wrong shoes, or were slurping their food.

These were the first instances of the rock star chef. Chefs Behaving Badly. I thought this was a really good premise for a series. How prescient was that because now people have seen the way the chefs behave in the kitchen. They’ve seen Gordon Ramsay shouting at his staff, and they’ve seen people going, “Yes, chef!”

But in the 90s with writer Peter Tilbury’s very, very forward looking approach, we were creating these new characters for a public who’d never seen that before. And so there was a lot of catching up for them to do.

I think if we were doing a sitcom with a black lead about a Michelin starred kitchen now, people would be very comfortable watching it and would enjoy it more than they did when it first went out – because a lot of it was very foreign to them back then.

Who knew there was a black chef, who knew there were Michelin stars, who knew that people were this fussy about food quality, who knew that chefs would bollock customers for putting salt on their food without tasting it?

It was shot on film by Remi Adefarasin, who was a cinematographer of colour. I had never met one of those before. So that was really exciting for me. I’m really proud of Chef!

Hope And Glory, 1999

This was an attempt to bring back the passionate teacher.

Ian George is a passionate teacher who is tasked with turning a failing school around. He is at a posh school, and then he goes to visit a failing school that is about to be shut down. He’s black. He’s successful.

When he gets to the failing school, he talks to the kids and the teachers, and he’s moved by these kids and by these teachers that care. He is also shocked by the way the incompetent head teacher treats the school, the pupils and the staff. By the end of episode one, he’s volunteering to take it on.

It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But for me, it was a breakthrough in terms of acting. It gave me the opportunity to go to work and act every day and learn my lines and figure out just what it was I was doing in front of the camera. It was like doing a play. For me, it was like doing Othello.

To learn about hitting your marks and about where the camera is – that was a big learning curve for me. And thank God, Lucy Gannon thought I was the right person to do it because it could have been anybody.

But thank God it was me!

The South Bank Show: Darker Than Me, 1994

This was a South Bank Show about African American comedy. Basically Melvyn Bragg responded to a pitch I made because I wanted to do anything that allowed me to go to America. Anything that got me into business class!

I wanted to go to America and make a documentary where I could talk to my favourite black comedians. And so it was a perfect opportunity to make Darker Than Me.

As always with these things, it wound up starting with slavery and Jim Crow, and ended up with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby and some of the new guys.

It was an extraordinary journey because Richard Pryor was poorly and so wouldn’t talk to us. And Bill Cosby just refused to talk to us. So it meant being inventive. But we got to talk to Keenan Ivory Wayans and various other people, and we got to go to the Comedy Store.

It was a really, really exciting, very moving show for me. I got to meet Paul Mooney, who was Richard Pryor’s co writer and running mate. Paul Mooney is famous for writing the joke where Richard Pryor says, “You go down to the courtroom looking for justice. And that’s what you’ll find: just us.”

It’s the only joke that Richard Pryor credits to somebody else. And as Paul Mooney was the best friend and co writer to one of the most extraordinary, alive, Chaplin-esque, ingenious black comedians that ever lived – well, it meant a lot to me to be in the same room as him.

We also did a tribute to minstrelsy, where we put on the white gloves, blacked up and put on the lips and the eyes. I said to him at that point, “You know, I was in The Black and White Minstrel Show.”

I don’t know where I got the courage from because I thought, “This will be the moment where he tears me a new butthole.”

But he didn’t. He said, “You’re not the only black person who’s been in a minstrel show. And some of the best performers that ever lived like Bert Williams were minstrels and wore blackface, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You have to know that you stand on the shoulders of giants.”

That reconciled me to my experience on The Black and White Minstrel Show and not hate it so much. So that was important from that point of view.

It was just a riot making Darker Than Me. Everybody on the crew in LA was armed. We were about to go downtown, and the producer said, “Right, does everyone have what they need to have?” And they all revealed their guns. I was really, really scared. But it was a really diverse crew and making that show was a brilliant experience.

The South Bank Show: Lenny Hunts The Funk, 1992

This was a documentary about funk.

On The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg very cleverly has authored essays. It’s not just him saying, “This is what I care about.”

He allows artists to come in and say, “This is something I care about passionately, and I want to share it with the viewer.” And so I wanted to share my love of funk with the South Bank Show viewer.

It was great for me because I am a huge funk fan – you know, Earth, Wind and Fire, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, the Brothers Johnson.

I was able to go everywhere. George Clinton was exactly 24 hours late for our interview, and Bootsy Collins blew all the speakers in the Bass Centre in Dagenham. So it was really a journey. I got to pretend to be George Clinton at the end. I got to wear a silver tin foil spacesuit! It was just great to meet lots of people from the world of funk. It was an amazing experience.

Work Experience, 1989

This won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 1989. It was directed by my friend James Hendrie, who is a very talented director and writer

It was lovely because when he collected the Oscar from John Candy and Rick Moranis, James looked very, very young. He looked like a 12 year old boy who had somehow managed to sneak in to the Oscars. He mentioned me when he collected his Oscar, and it was really, really moving.

Then I took him to dinner at a restaurant in Shenfield. He brought the Oscar with him, and I think we got extra pudding because they had not had an Oscar in their restaurant before!

Live and Unleashed, 1989

That was a really, really exciting experience because I’d already done a South Bank Show with Andy Harries, the remarkable director, producer. He ended up running Granada and then leaving to become the head honcho at Left Bank Films and producing The Crown.

Andy is the real deal. If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. He’s one of those guys. And I was really enamoured of him. When he said, “We are going to make the first ever stand-up film on film, and you’re going to be the comedian,” I was so excited.

There had been stand-up specials before, Dave Allen had had his own TV series, and Billy Connolly had made a documentary. But nobody had made a feature film of their act yet. Andy facilitated it and made it happen. It wouldn’t have happened without him.

I already had an act that I’d been doing on tour. But Andy made sure that we improved it and got a little writers’ room together to just add finishing touches to things. So I was able to marshal Kim Fuller and a team of writers. We also got Robbie Coltrane to make a little film as a taxi driver.

We got Norma Hill to do hair and makeup. She turned me into Steve Martin. If you can believe it, Steve Martin then rang my house and said, “Hello, I believe this is the home of Lenny Henry…”

He just left this long rambling message taking the piss out of me for being a black guy impersonating a white guy. “How is that even allowable?” It was a really, really exciting thing.

From that moment, I was able to say to Steve Martin, “Can I come and see you?” So I went to see him on set when he was making Father of the Bride. I went to his house and I got to hang out with Steve Martin.

So from Live and Unleashed came not only came my film career – when I was snatched up by Disney to make True Identity – but I also got to meet Steve Martin and lots of other people. It was a pivotal moment in my career.

Bernard & The Genie, 1991

I had an idea about a genie because I was tired of the old genie trope – you know, black guy in baggy trousers and a turban saying, “Zim Zam a Bim!”

I thought that it would be very good to set it in the present day – this should be the moment where the genie becomes more contemporary.

And so I took this idea to Richard Curtis, and he was really interested. It’s the only thing that Richard and I have done together apart from Comic Relief.

He went away and wrote 50 pages. I read it, and I just thought, “This is brilliant. But how do we do this? Because there is such a demand on Richard’s time and he is very busy.”

But Richard said, “I’ve got time to do this. Let’s see if we can interest Paul Weiland in being the director.” Paul read it and liked it, then Peter Fincham got on board. Eventually it just became a roller coaster, until one day it was happening.

Richard is another person who just makes things happen. All of a sudden, I was in a Richard Curtis movie! It was a joy to go to work every day.

It’s funny, even today people still write to me and say, “Where can I get a DVD of Bernard and the Genie?” Or, “Every Christmas we watch Bernard and the Genie on this old VHS. It’s always brilliant, and we love it.”

So Bernard and the Genie was really worth doing.