Lenny Henry's tragedy

The cruellest and funniest scene ever in Ricky Gervais’s Extras was the one where Andy Millman (Gervais) is asked by Keith Chegwin if he can think of a single funny black British comic. Millman mulls this one over for a while. Tumbleweed rolls by. And the camera pans across the walls, pausing to linger on a publicity photograph of Lenny Henry.

Millman shakes his head. Try as he might he just can’t name one.

The reason the joke was so painfully funny, of course, was because it’s so true. Even as a child in the Seventies watching Henry doing Frank Spencer and David Bellamy impersonations on programmes like New Faces and Tiswas you instinctively knew this. My brother and sister and I even had a saying when we were kids: “As funny as Lenny” – meaning, “as horribly unfunny as you could possibly be.”

But like a lot of the people who’ve never found Lenny Henry remotely funny, I’ve always felt rather bad about it. A bit like you do when you discover that someone hideously ugly who you don’t fancy at all is quite madly in love with you: dearly would you love to be able to recipocrate to spare their hurt feelings but you can’t because – well, look at them!

Partly I’m sure this is bound up with the whole white middle-class race guilt thing. Henry was one of the first black comedians to make a name for himself in Britain, and you wished him well in much the same way you wished Trevor McDonald well when he came on to read the news. It was more than not wishing to be seen as racist; it stemmed from genuine delight that someone from a minority background should be doing well in field dominated by white people.

Partly too, though, it was the result of something Charlie Spencer rightly identifies in his theatre review of Othello (in which Lenny plays the Moor).

“With his gurning jollity and funny voices, he seemed desperate to be loved.”

Exactly. There was something almost terrifying about this desperation. You could almost see it in his eyes, that he knew that you knew he wasn’t funny, and that one day, if he ever caught you in a quiet, dark alley he might have to kill you so as to ensure your silence. I wonder whether this may have contributed to his general grimness when off stage. Comedians are, of course, known to be pretty miserable sods when not away from the spotlights. But I’ve rarely met one quite so forbiddingly gravely earnest as Lenny.

Anyway, I thought of all this when reading the abovementioned Charlie Spencer review of Othello, now playing at Trafalgar Studios. (It’s in the London print edition of the Telegraph but I don’t think it’s online yet, otherwise I’d link to it).

Charlie is hugely impressed:

“As Othello he has acquired dignity, grandeur and a stage presence that rivets attention even when he is simply standing still. Better yet, after so many weeks on the road, his verse speaking has greatly improved and there are now only fleeting passages when he loses the pulse of the iambic pentameters.”

With luck we can now look forward to seeing Lenny Henry’s King Lear, Hamlet, Tamburlaine, The Jew Of Malta, Julius Caesar, The Master Builder, Konstantin in The Seagull, and so on, for just as long as we can think of new vehicles for his tragic talents.

Keep him away from the comedy, that’s the main thing.