New Thoughts…

25 August 2020

Hey, we’re going to save the world in a minute – and, by the way, young people are going to be involved in that.

But I need to promote my stuff first – my new Radio 4 sketch show, my new BBC documentary about the hidden heroes of black classical music, and the second part of my memoir – before I come back to young people saving the world. So hang on a moment. I’ll get to them in just a second.

Let’s talk about my radio show first – The Lenny Henry Show – which starts tonight, 6.30pm on Radio 4.

In 2016, I worked on a radio series called Lenny Henry’s Rogues Gallery with a producer called Sam Michell. He is very clever and was very interested in my writing.

I had written a lot of short stories for the creative writing section of my Open University course, and they’re generally pretty funny.

Sam liked them and said, “Could you turn these into monologues? Because they would work really well as 15-minute stories on Radio 4.” So I did that, and we got two series out of it on Radio 4.

I had this relationship with Sam, which was nurturing and encouraging and all that stuff. We were just chatting away about projects.

I had recently formed a writing relationship with a guy called Max Davis who works on The Mash Report and has worked with people like Romesh Ranganathan. We started noodling around and working on stand-up together. He said, “You should think about doing a sketch show.”

I said, “I did sketch shows for, like, 40 years – I don’t know if you noticed – but I haven’t done one for at least a decade. So it might be a bit weird to go, ‘Here’s this old guy walking down the street with a shopping trolley full of old characters. Maybe we should let him have another go see what he comes up with this time’.”

But Max replied, “No, no, no, no, there’s stuff to say.”

And actually, I realised that when we had been writing the stand-up, there were things about politics and Black Lives Matter and all these things that meant that I wasn’t just talking about retooling old stuff. In my new stand-up set, I was going to be talking about modern stuff that meant something.

So Max said, “You should really think about working on a sketch show and bringing this new stuff into it.”

We sat down with Sam and we worked on it. Then we went to Sioned William, the commissioning editor at Radio 4, and said we wanted to do a sketch show.

At the time, I wasn’t going to be the producer, I was just going to be a dude for hire. But it turned out that they wanted my company Douglas Road Productions to be involved in it.

So between Tiger and Douglas Road and the BBC, we made an arrangement. And suddenly there we were.

The first thing I said as associate producer was that it should be a diverse writing room. What was great was that nobody said, “That’s a terrible idea. Let’s just do what we did 25 years ago.”

They all said, “That’s great. Let’s think about who we should get.”

We talked to Athena Kugblenu, Nathan Bryon, my brother Paul and people like that. I also worked with Max on the show.

Suddenly I saw this material coming in that wasn’t just people writing, “Man walks into a room,” or “Man A and Man B.” They weren’t traditional sketches.

These sketches had something to say and meant something. They were about what was going on now – statues being toppled, Stormzy paying for kids to go to university, the reaction to COVID, the Bullingdon Club scenario, black superheroes, and new pitches for television series involving black people inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

There were all these new ideas that were coming up that were funny and sly and ironic and not just traditional sketch material. And I got very excited.

We had a big writers’ meeting at my house. We were socially distanced. Everybody came and stood in a different part of the garden and yelled the material out, and we laughed a lot.

There were some things that got chucked out because they weren’t funny enough. The big rule was: it’s great if it’s pertinent to what’s going on today, but it’s really important that it’s funny.

After the throw-out, there was still a lot of material left. We went, “OK, let’s rock with this.”

So we did, and we recorded it at a place near Brixton. We had two blocks of two days each, and it was amazing. It was all socially distanced; everybody had to be in a different room, and we all wore face masks when we came in.

We could only have lunch outside and socially distanced. Thank God, there was a Caribbean restaurant down the road! 

We just went in and recorded sketch after sketch. It went from ten till six every day. It was very different from doing the sketch show on the telly because there you’d have three weeks to record everything, and you had make-up and hair.

But this was just us in a room for two days recording an hour and a half of material each day. It was really gruelling and hard on the voice, but we got it done.

We had very talented people there. Vas Blackwood came, and so did Cherrelle Skeete, who was in King Hedley II with me, Llewella Gideon from The Real McCoy, Freya Parker from Lazy Susan and George Fouracres from Daphne.

So lots of people showed up. There was a lot of laughing, a lot of giggling, a lot of stupidity, and we had a really, really good time. Thatstarts on the 25th of this month. I really hope people like it.

I’m going to do a bit of publicity for it because I’d like people to listen to it. So I’m on Zoe Ball on Radio 2 and I’m talking to 1Xtra because I would quite like young black kids listen to it. I want young people of colour – YPOCs! – to check it out, particularly because there’s some grime on it.

I’ve got this character called the Yorkshire Moor, who is a bit of a piss take of Bugzy Malone. I like the idea of a northern rapper, you know, giving it, “All right? When you cut me, I bleed tea, you know what I mean?”

Lawrence Insula has designed the music for the show, and he’s brilliant.

It was great to be back in the world of sketches, but it’s not like I stopped being funny.

People say, “Oh, it must be terrible to not be doing comedy anymore.” But I’ve still been doing stand-up and corporate gigs and writing comedy for the last 10 years. So I haven’t abandoned comedy for this hinterland of theatre.

Yes, I have been doing more serious work in the theatre, but I’ve also still managed to keep my comedy going. Nobody asks Jimmy Nail if he’s still got a sense of humour.

I feel like I’ve got I’ve got every right to do theatre, whilst also maintaining a career in stand-up and comedy and enjoying jokes. They’re not mutually exclusive. You can do both.

We did the whole of The Lenny Henry Show in lockdown over four days. It’s been a joy to do.

Another thing I would really like to talk about is Black Heroes of Classical Music (working title), a new BBC TV documentary that we have made at Douglas Road Productions.

It’s epic and cinematic in its scope and breadth.

Part of the show focuses on Chineke!, who are this extraordinary diverse orchestra. They are the first orchestra I’ve seen where there are black and brown people and there are different types of hair.

There are Afro puffs, there are ringlets, there are curls, there are massive Afros, and there is straightened hair. There are all kinds of people in this orchestra.

It’s the first time I’ve seen an orchestra of colour and brilliant gender diversity on stage.

They play pieces by composers you might not have heard of like Florence Price, George Walker, Scott Joplin, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, George Bridgetower and Chevalier de Saint-Georges. These are all people who have been erased from the classical music canon perhaps because they’ve been deemed unimportant to the mainstream audience.

What this documentary seeks to do is to perform an “unforgetting”, if you like, and to say these people have made brilliant music and they deserve your attention.

Take Samuel Taylor-Coleridge, who wrote wonderful pieces like “Song of Hiawatha.” That piece packed out the Royal Albert Hall for seasons on end, and then once that circle of music was over, he just got completely dropped from the mainstream.

Or look at Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a brilliant musician, a fencing master, and a soldier, but once his time was over, he also got dropped. These people deserve our attention because they made great music, but they’re just not in the canon.

So we very cheekily said the BBC, “We should put that right.” And they agreed.

I co-present the documentary with Suzy Klein, who has her own programme on Radio 3, and she’s been superb.

She also plays the piano beautifully. There are moments when she accompanies us. At some points, she plays, and I sing. I sing a Scott Joplin song, and Suzy accompanies me on the piano. Later, I dance a minuet, and Suzy plays the harpsichord. Suzy also talks very eloquently about various people who are featured in the programme.

We also discuss Scott Joplin’s opera, which is called Treemonisha and is now out of the repertoire. John Sessions gave me a copy of it. Joplin wrote other operas, but Treemonisha is the only one that still exists.

It’s an extraordinary piece of work. It’s also quite forward-thinking in that it features a woman as the hero who doesn’t get married and who doesn’t die at the end. She ends up leading a community.

That ties in with people like Booker T Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois in terms of pro-black, anti-racist thoughts and writings. Treemonisha makes the black protagonist the hero.

Usually, operatic heroines die for the love of a good man. They are spurned, or they end up singing this aria and then stabbing themselves. Well, Treemonisha ends up leading her community, for Christ’s sake! It’s wonderful.

The documentary also highlights George Bridgetower, who wrote beautiful music and who lived in Croydon. He was at the Royal Academy and made all this amazing music.

Bridgetower had a remarkable life. He was befriended by Beethoven, who thought he was a brilliant violinist and wrote the Bridgetower Sonata for him.

But the sad thing is, because they fell out over a woman, Beethoven changed the title to the Kreutzer Sonata. And so Bridgetower never really got the praise and honours that he deserved because people didn’t know he was in the end.

In the documentary, we also look at Ignatius Sancho. He was a fantastic musician who composed for London society. At the same time, he was conducting an anti-racism campaign. But even though there’s a plaque to him in Greenwich Park, he has also been forgotten.

I’m one of the executive producers along with Angela Ferreira and it’s a really good programme, once again made with a diverse crew and cast. Guy Evans directed the film. He is really pleased with the way it’s come out.

We have produced a documentary where we talk to really smart people about how to re-insert these great artists back into the mainstream classical canon. So it’s not just a niche programme. I think it’s a programme for everybody and deserves to be seen by the widest audience possible.

I’m very proud of it, and I hope lots of people watch it.

If you are a black-led production company, one of the things you’re supposed to do is to champion stories about yourselves. It’s not the only thing, but it’s one of the things. You can champion stories about the Windrush generation, say, or the hidden history of black composers.

For instance, we recently produced a documentary where Mica Paris went around America and Britain seeking out the roots of black gospel music.

Mica had never really done a documentary before, but she’s really passionate about this stuff. And so she went off around America and talked to various people.

She went from Amazing Grace to Stormzy’s Blinded by your Grace, and she did everything in between. It was great. Mica was brilliant and she sang in the show.

These are the programmes we want to make, but we also want to make drama and comedy and talk about Black Lives Matter and Grenfell and all of those things in between.

So that’s what my production company is for. We’re not just there to talk about all the terrible things that have afflicted black people during the course of the last 300 years. We want to also make histories and movies and plays and drama and monologues.

We want to make sure we produce programmes that are in the centre space, as well as talking about marginalized issues, too.

We were BAFTA nominated for Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle, and we also won various awards for that, too. So we’re getting there.

But you know, black-led indies have it hard in this country because they’re competing with all the big indies. So we just have to keep going on, trying to make our mark in other areas and produce even more credible and smart programmes that people want to see.

I’d also like to talk about the second part of my memoirs, which I’m drafting now.

The process of writing the follow-up book to Who Am I, Again? has been very difficult because I am writing about Three of a Kind, The Lenny Henry Show and The Comic Strip Presents.

So it’s a career-based memoir in that it’s based on my work – it’s not about family stuff. It’s not about my marriage or my kid or whatever. It’s an act of remembering.

I’ve had to go through it and really think about how you do this. Who do you talk to?

Then I remembered an excellent memoir by Bill Graham, the concert promoter who ran the Fillmore East in America.

He took everyone from The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin on tour, and he wrote a terrific autobiography.

Basically, he went around interviewing everybody he had worked with. There were big chunks of people talking about him, and then it would cut back to him.

So it was very much a prose documentary with Bill Graham as the host linking to various people from his life and times. And yes, he talked to his family and his sisters and his various friends, but he also talked to Mick Jagger and Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, and they keep popping up in the book.

And I did a similar thing where I talked to as many people as I can remember who have been involved in my career, and I think it’s going to work really well.

I’m really enjoying writing it. It’ll be different from the first one. There will be cartoons and artwork in it, and there will be a lot of me narrating my career from 1980 to the year 2000.

It’s not just two books. There’ll be more books because I want to do a proper accounting of my life and times in this business that we call show.

Let’s chat now about the new normal. We’re still here.

Everybody keeps prefacing things by saying, “In these unprecedented times.” Well, yes, they are unprecedented. We’ve never seen things like this before. We’ve never spent this much time with our family, for goodness sake!

Neither have we ever watched so much telly. My mother in law has watched Normal People twice. She’s 92! I don’t know what kind of ideas she’s getting from it! 

I have watched a lot of telly – I’ve never worked my way through six seasons of anything before, apart from things I really want to watch like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad

But during lockdown, I’ve watched all of This Is Us, and I’ve watched all of Somebody Feed Phil, a brilliant programme. I’m also on season four of Schitt’s Creek, and I’m working my way through Dead to Me.

I’m really enjoying watching telly because normally, apart from The Chase, The One Show, odd episodes of Loose Women and endless episodes of University Challenge, I don’t watch very much telly because I’m always watching movies or things I really want to watch, not just things where the broadcaster says, “You will watch this”.

But I’ve really plugged back into watching television both on the terrestrial networks and on the streaming channels.

There just seems to be a lot of television out there, and especially a lot of shows like Tiger King. They are zeitgeist, watercooler type programmes where after you’ve watched about three episodes, you go, “I don’t know if I’ve got the heart to watch all of this.”

I certainly don’t know if I have got the stones to watch every single episode of Tiger King, but I happily sat and watched every single episode of Line of Duty, from Lennie James right through to Stephen Graham. I’ve also watched nearly all of Killing Eve. 

There are some programmes that simply hold you in a vice-like grip and won’t let you go. That’s a testament to good writing, good producing, good directing. These are people who really know what they’re doing.

Phil Rosenthal in Somebody Feed Phil is such a charming host that you just love being with him. You’ll go anywhere with him. Whether it’s Bangkok or New Orleans or New York City, you want to be with him and you want to see him eat food because he enjoys it so much.

When he starts eating, he begins waving his hands in the air and dancing around. And you think, “Wow, this is a guy eating a cheese and bacon sandwich. How much joy can you get from those things?”

But when you watch him eating a lamb tagine in Marrakech and you see the expressions on his face change, you want to be his best friend.

I also want to meet Phil Rosenthal because he presided over the writers’ room of Everybody Loves Raymond. He’s a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant man.

Not only is he a raconteur, and a gag-meister, but he really knows how to run a writers’ room. He also knows where to find a decent pizza in New York.

So one day I’m going to talk to him, hopefully. If I do my own podcast, Phil Rosenthal will be one of the people I want to talk to because he’s as smart as paint. 

I also have plugged into reading again. I read The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentlemen and read Time is Tight, which is a book about Booker T. Jones.

He was in Booker T and the MGs. He’s the guy who played the organ on “Time is Tight.”. He was also a major sideman to people like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett, all those guys. At the time, he was just a child. That really makes you think.

When Steve Winwood joined the Spencer Davis Group, he was just 16. These guys were kids. You have got to remember that in the great heyday of pop, everybody was 18, 19, 20 years old.

For a decade, old people were saying to them, “Yes, The Beatles are quite good, but they are basically not for us.” There was a sense of that kind of army class person presiding over everything and being in charge of everything.

They were Oxbridge, army class, white men of a certain age imposing their tastes on the burgeoning pop, literature and art scenes.

Suddenly what happened was, all of the young people in music and art and television and writing burst out of their seams and said, “Actually, you’re not the people who are going to tell us what to do anymore. We’re going to be in charge now.”

All of a sudden, the people making the decisions were young, had longish hair, were smoking dope, were behaving outrageously and changing the face of the entertainment industry. And I love that. I love that young people were making decisions.

And now we get to the bit about saving the world!

We’re seeing that again now, aren’t we? It feels like a long time since a young person ran things in industry, in art, in painting, in television. It feels like we need another punk because punk was a massive tearing up of the script in the late 70s, wasn’t it?

It’s amazing. When you watch the Black Lives Matter marches all over the world, and when you watch Greta Thunberg onstage preaching about climate change, it feels to me like there is the beginning of a massive sea change of young people going, “Actually, we’re not going to take that shit anymore.”

I remember in the mid to late 70s, the old school Hollywood studios literally didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t understand why all of these musicals and big movies they were making weren’t working.

They didn’t realise it was because kids were into Roger Corman movies and going to drive-ins and snogging whilst watching all these weird crap sci-fi crap movies, and they were laughing at old school Hollywood.

Because old school Hollywood was spending billions and billions of dollars on things that nobody really wanted to watch starring actors of a certain age.

Suddenly you have these new guys like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin saying, “Actually, we know what kids want to watch.”

Dennis Hopper makes Easy Rider and he makes millions of dollars. Francis Ford Coppola, the same. Martin Scorsese, the same

All of a sudden, there’s this conversation between people like Steven Spielberg and the studios. Robert Evans takes over a major studio, and he’s a young, good looking guy who used to sell pants. But Robert Evans had an idea about what the kids liked and revolutionised Hollywood.

We need that energy now. And I think it’s coming.

I think that more and more young people are going out on the street and saying, “We’re not going to take punitive stop and search anymore. We’re not going to take Grenfell Tower being burnt down and people still not being housed in decent accommodation anymore. We’re not going to take being bullied and pushed around anymore. We’re not going to take being overlooked anymore. We want you to listen to us now.”

There was this hiatus where older people were asking, “Where are the young people? Why aren’t the young people saying anything? The people who are going to change this with their votes and with their voices are young people, and where are they? They’re not voting.”

But I think that’s really changing now, and the next elections are going to be very interesting. Because actually I think young people are taking the bull by the horns and saying, “Listen to us. There needs to be a change, and we’re the ones who are going to drive it.” 

Hallelujah, I say.

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