Lenny Henry changes his tune

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 11:54 10/06/2012
lenny henry
ANDREW GORRIE/Fairfax NZ

Lenny Henry's show Cradle to Rave is an homage to the British comedian's love of music.

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I love New Zealand," Lenny Henry is saying enthusiastically, seconds into our interview. "People there seem to get what I'm on about, which is great.

"When I go to America, sometimes they don't understand at all. When I go to America, there seems to be a bigger chasm. We are cultures linked by a vaguely similar language, but New Zealanders seem to get me, which is brilliant - it means I can play."

So begin 20 precious minutes with the British comedy great, 20 meticulously organised minutes that swing from talk of Stevie Wonder to Shakespeare and back again, and in which I barely have to ask a single question.

It's unsurprising that Henry, a seasoned performer with more than four decades of solid work behind him - including co-hosting this week's Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert - should have his spiel down pat.

Still, it doesn't feel like that until I'm off the phone, and have to sit there for a few minutes wondering what just happened and resisting the urge to call my mum, who was addicted to Chef! in the mid- 90s and is dying to know what the real-life Henry is like.

Born in the West Midlands in 1958, Henry's well-documented first break came on the 1970s equivalent of X-Factor. He won talent show New Faces for his impersonation of Stevie Wonder, and followed it up with what he describes in hindsight as ill-advised comedy work, including travelling the country as part of the cringingly named The Black and White Minstrel Show.

He struck his real vein of comedy gold in the 80s, though, when he met and married Dawn French - they went through a very public divorce in 2010 - on the alternative comedy circuit.

This led to a plethora of projects, including the role of chef Gareth Blackstock in the popular Chef! TV series.

For the record, the former comedy duo separated on good terms, but she's not what he wants to talk about today.

What he's talking about now, in his slightly amused-sounding Brummie accent, are his pocketed dreams - the fact that all he has ever really wanted to do was sing. That's exactly what he will be doing when he comes to New Zealand for shows in Wellington and Auckland this month.

Lenny Henry: Cradle to Rave is a homage to his love of music, the career he never had. The show touches upon his love of imitating Marvin Gaye, the difficulties of juggling dreams with marriage, although he never explicitly mentions French, and how his own musical dreams were crushed by record producer legend Trevor Horn.

"I nearly had a musical career in the 80s, because people said I had a slightly good voice," Henry reflects.

"But then he [Horn] said to me: 'You've got a halfway decent voice, but are you going to do this for real or are you going to piss around about it?' I just thought, 'Well, comedy's paid for my mum's house', so I decided to say no."

Impersonating singers was what threw him into the limelight at a young age, with Stevie Wonder and Elvis among his star turns.

"I loved Elvis. We had pictures of him all over the house. I used to watch his films and count how many times he kissed a girl," Henry laughs.

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He wrote Cradle to Rave after finding audiences over the years reacted well to his musical anecdotes. Although he is a long way from being able to play the piano like Wonder, he is trying to fit in at least two hours' practise a day and performs all his own songs in the show.

After beaming into people's living rooms in Chef, Henry took on The Lenny Henry Show and the rest should have been history. By now an established comedian, Henry could have continued to entertain punters with his tongue-in-cheek impersonations and sardonic wit and have them chortling happily into their pints for the rest of their lives.

Instead, he decided to act, with a role or two in a series at first, a made-for-television movie. He was selling butter here in TV ads in the early 2000s  remember that?  while continuing to do voiceover work and the odd comedy gig. Then, in 2009, he got serious and did Shakespeare.

The reviews in the British press after Henry's Othello debut had an almost incredulous air, but were unanimous in their praise. "Rather than a theatrical car crash, Othello with Lenny Henry at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a triumph," The Telegraph wrote.

But Henry, who is also studying towards his PhD in playwrighting, plays down the plaudits, saying comedic timing is all about acting.

"Before you give a punch line, there's always a bit where you've got to keep a straight face. That's acting, and keeping people interested is acting too.

"I love being on stage, so it's not a hang of a lot different really. I was so chuffed and honoured to be involved in it  it was one of the best creative experiences of my life."

As for his next move, he has written a couple of scripts and had an autobiographical film commissioned, which he will be working on in the next little while.

Otherwise, it's anyone's guess in what guise Henry might turn up next.

"I want to do more acting, more writing, more plays. I want to be in movies, so if anyone's got any work, just give me a ring," he signs off, the phone line abruptly silent.

Henry - Cradle To Rave is on at the Michael Fowler Centre on Wednesday, June 27, at 8pm.

- The Dominion Post

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