Interview: Lenny Henry
NANCY NAPPER CANTER quizzes Lenny Henry on his new-found student life.
Britain’s favourite comedian-cum-student lets The Tab in on the best essay snacks and how to study Shakespeare.
Hi Lenny. What are you doing today?
I’m in New York with a friend, and we’re going to see some shows and do some sight seeing.
You’re studying for a PhD at the moment. What’s your thesis about?
I’m doing a screenwriting PhD by practice at Royal Holloway College London. The ‘by practice’ bit means instead of writing a hundred thousand words/a book, I have to write a screenplay and a few thousand words. I’ve chosen the sport film, and the question, ‘In a world where sports are dominated by ethnic minorities, how come in the sports movie world BMEs [Black and Minority Ethnic groups] are rarely the protagonist?’ Think about it – it’s always Clint Eastwood, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Costner or the Krankies. What the hey?
How’s it going? Hard work?
It’s pretty hard. When I signed up for the PhD course, I hadn’t realized how busy my life was going to be. So far this year I’ve handed in a basketball based screenplay for Revolution Films and featured in the National Theatre production of ‘Comedy of Errors’ – it’s been very tough fitting the studying/writing into the schedule.
Do you do all-nighters?
I tend not to do that. If I’m going to write I put the time aside so that I can go to the library and pretend study and take notes whilst the various other younger students walk in and out of the door constantly, wearing their hair up, down, to the side, jumper on, jumper off, etc… all life is in the library…
My friend used to be able to work only with seven sharpened 3H pencils lined up next to her. Do you have any strange study habits?
Haribo’s Tangfastics or Cadbury’s buttons and a large Fanta must be in full effect.
You got a ‘distinction’ in your MA – nice job. But would you rather have a life or a First?
A life please.
Stand up, student and Jeremy Kyle fan
You dropped out of school at 16 but now, at 53, you’re on your way to a doctorate. Was there a ‘Eureka’ moment when you realised you wanted to study?
Yeah – I was in Blackpool in 1981 doing a summer season with Cannon and Ball (Rock on Tommy etc). By the 6th week, although I loved them, I couldn’t watch them any more, so I decided that I’d take my English Lang and Lit O Levels. When I got my results and found that I’d passed, I had a fantastic feeling of achievement, and that was it. I was hooked on education.
What have you got planned after the PhD? Might you be my supervisor soon?
The PhD is tough, but I’m planning on persevering. How cool would it be to have the brother who used to say ‘katanga my friends!’ and make a peacock noise repeatedly as your supervisor? Pretty spiffy, I’d say.
You seem to be a fan of the bard – what’s so great about him?
The stories. He chooses those that relate to us all – betrayal, lost love, revenge, acquisition of power. Audiences understand this stuff (I’m always amazed that the crowd are laughing at 400 year old jokes – just like Ken Dodd’s audience).
Which play can we look forward to seeing you in next?
I’m not sure I’ll do Shakespeare for a while (although I might surprise people soon by showing up at the end of a Northern Broadsides production with one line.) I hope I’ll do something contemporary soon. I’m a big fan of Mamet, Pinter and August Wilson… a fine firm of lawyers.
You said in an interview with the RSC that Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be studied… so what should we English freshers do with the 7 weeks of studying Shakespeare looming before us?
Form a mini-company and put the plays on for yourselves. Cut the boring bits – do the big scenes, get the taste and feel of the dialogue and action into you mouths and bodies. If you don’t it all tends to just lie there on the page. The only substitute is to watch or listen to the plays repeatedly until they seep into your brain via osmosis (I used to listen in the car.)
Have you succumbed to any of the student cliches?
Yeah, I sit around during the day watching Jeremy Kyle in my pants whilst eating cheesy wotsits. Pretty much the whole student deal. Put a whole Edam cheese (with the red case) in the microwave for 3 mins, when it pings, get it out, pierce it with a knife and then suck out the wet cheese… it only hurts a bit.