It’s 30 years since Lenny Henry launched his eponymous TV show, but he questions how much times have changed as the Hackney Empire lies in wait for his many talents. Alex Bellotti meets him
Hopping off the stage in the grand, empty auditorium of the Hackney Empire, Lenny Henry looks like a man geared up for a fight. Not in the respect that he’s about to hit me; rather, though, this has of late been a man on a mission and today he is preaching to the masses.
‘I always used to say Hackney Empire and Brixton Academy: they’re like home gigs because you know you’re going to get some people in that look like you,’ the comedian explains as he sits down. ‘Often when you go on stage yelling, “Black people in the house say HO”, you’re not met with a huge response. I’ve been to Winchester and there was one black guy in the audience crouched down in his seat thinking, “Please don’t talk to me”. But we come here and say that that and it’s like [makes roaring noise].’
Such demographics, he hopes, will flock to the Empire this month to see Rudy’s Rare Records. Originally a Radio 4 sitcom co-created by Lenny and writer Danny Robins, the stage adaptation will see the former line-up alongside Larrington Walker and Joivan Wade as the struggling purveyors behind a family-run Reggae record shop in Birmingham.
A sharp response to the corporate redevelopment of British high streets – ‘except Rudy can’t pronounce gentrification’ – the show depicts an older, community-driven way of life that is the antithesis to the ‘Waitrose’ and ‘humus’ culture that much of East London itself has become known for.
With much of Lenny’s home residence in London also beginning to feel such changes, are the travails of independent shops a conscious concern? ‘Well the fact that we’ve written a show about it shows how I feel,’ he considers. ‘It’s a shame. I feel like it’d be great if people in the community could benefit from these changes but often they don’t.
‘Comedy doesn’t purport to solve any of these problems, we’re just here to go, “Hey, look at this situation”. Rudy’s Rare Records is a confection maybe not best suited to dismantling the political bxxxxxxs of what’s going on today.’
Indeed, recently Lenny has found a more suitable platform to build a social revolution upon. Last month, the Director General of the BBC, Lord Tony Hall, announced plans to bring together a group of experts, including Henry, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Asian Network presenter Nihal and Lady Benjamin, to form an Independent Diversity Action Group. This came in the wake of the news that a £2.1m development fund is also being set up by the BBC to increase on-screen diversity by 5% in the next three years.
For Lenny, these new regulations are the first of many baby steps for ethnic equality in the entertainment industry. ‘At least what is made very clear, and especially with BBC being industry leaders, is that steps are being taken and now what needs to happen is that the other broadcasters need to join in.
‘It’d be great if they matched that fund,’ he continues. ‘That £2.1m is a tiny, tiny fraction of the licence fee, why wouldn’t the other broadcasters make up the numbers and do matched funding? I still think ring fenced money is the way to go by the way; £2.1m is great, but we’re 14.3% of the population – 14.3% of the license fee is not £2.1m.’
The recent transformation of Lenny from comedian to Shakespearean actor – he won the Evening Standard’s Outstanding Newcomer of the Year award in 2009 for his role as Othello at Trafalgar Studios – to political activist has been quite remarkable. It’s easy to forget that it was 30 years ago that The Lenny Henry Show first appeared on our TVs, and there’s also Comic Relief that he co-founded celebrating its 25th birthday last year. With Rudy’s Rare Records also piloting as a TV series however, it’s clear that the lines are often blurred.
Talking at one point of Shakespeare, he explains how the lionized playwright’s vision of holding a mirror up to society still hasn’t been answered and whether it’s through comedy, theatre or politics, that’s something he is hoping to change.
‘It’s not like a fairy godmother who’s going to wave her magic wand.’ he states. ‘When you look at the ladybird book of wars, the Hundred Year War is three inches long – this is going to take a long time, people don’t seem to understand. So strap on your boots and head that way, because that’s what we’re all doing. We’re here for the duration, it’s going to be great, there’s going to be more Steve McQueens, more success stories, more on-screen representations, more upsetting castings for middle England.’
However many steps he helps television take, it’s clear he’s taking his new role seriously. ‘I’m not just talking about me. Two thousand people left the industry in the last three years – and this is off camera – in a period where the industry has grown by 4,000. Which means that for every one black or Asian person that’s lost their job, two white people have been employed – both of them Olivia Colman. Things have to change!’
Lenny Henry stars in Rudy’s Rare Records at the Hackney Empire from 24 September-5 October. For tickets visit hackneyempire.co.uk