A soundtrack of life

You can’t stop the music – or Lenny Henry in his funny and personal one-man show, Cradle to Rave, Gillian Lord writes

You know the one about talking underwater with a mouth full of marbles? Well Lenny Henry can beat that. This 53-year-old veteran comedian can whisk you away like a high-speed airport travellator. One minute you’re here, next minute you’re waaay over there … and all the while his deep, rich, rollercoaster voice rumbles alongside like a soundtrack.

Not only that, he’s pitch-perfect in delivery, never stumbles, fumbles or even says ”um”.

He’s at the Sydney Hilton Hotel, doing a day of talking to promote his latest touring show, Lenny Henry: Cradle to Rave, which plays at the Canberra Theatre on Sunday night.

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It’s raining cats and dogs outside. ”Sydney’s underwater,” he announces, ”call a taxi, get a canoe …” But he thinks it looks cool, cosmopolitan, New Yorkish even, out there in the street.

Since his star began to rise in 1975, when he won the televised New Faces talent show in the UK (with a Stevie Wonder impersonation), Henry has been in showbiz, with a diverse career ranging from stand-up comedy to (well-acclaimed) Shakespearean acting, to movie roles, voicing characters, and even singing on a Kate Bush album. His is the CV that needs a ring-binder.

He’s also very well-known as Dawn French’s husband; he had a 25-year marriage with the stellar comedian and actor, which ended, apparently very amicably, last year. The couple have a 19-year-old daughter, Billie.

Both French and Henry maintain images of being funny, large, and nice. Henry will tell you that people don’t heckle him because he’s six-foot-four and black, although he did cop it a bit for interrupting Rolf Harris performing Two Little Boys during the Diamond Jubilee concert, something that was attributed to the vagaries of live television. Generally, nothing nasty sticks to Henry.

His latest show is intended to come from a joyous place, he explains, born of his lifelong love of music. It’s a musical journey of his life, in a way, with the songs of various eras as the emphasis. He talks about celebrating the joy of music, its currency when he was a teenager, its dominance at discos, where at first girls all congregated around their handbags and maybe they later danced with you. He talks about how it defines relationships, the musical power struggle that inevitably results once you’ve moved from courting to coupledom.

If R&B and soul was the teenage anthem of this son of Jamaican immigrants, then after he got married to French, it was musical compromises; the likes of Sade (”the Switzerland of music”), or James Taylor, Ricki Lee Jones, nobody minds them, he says. In the ’90s he got into Tom Waits, Prince, and as he ”grew up”, even diversified into classical music, such as Mahler, or Rachmaninoff. ”I can get it,” he says, ”I can understand it.”

Henry says, ”I still haven’t done Dark Side of The Moon – remember, I grew up with reggae, soul, and all my friends listened to Black Sabbath and all, I kind of grew to learn not to slag it off immediately, give it a chance – even though I didn’t like Dylan’s voice, I listened to what he was saying. Marc Bolan was the rocking pixie, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Rolling Stones, Prince, Joni Mitchell, I elbowed my way into a lot of music …”

When Billie came he found himself listening to a lot of Disney music, as you do. To prove the point he breaks into The Little Mermaid. His voice really isn’t bad, deep and rich, impressive even over the phone, something he is obviously aware of or he wouldn’t be taking the risk. Again, he says how music gives him such joy – we’re getting the picture – and how it all gets hijacked by advertisers and movie makers. Like how Carmina Burana will forever be linked to The Exorcist, for which it was the soundtrack.

The sub-text to all the joy between music and Henry is probably the first incarnation of Cradle to Rave, which he says was a bit more autobiographical, with just one sad bit, and everybody remembered the sad bit. So it’s been re-worked, with more music and unmistakable emphasis on joy. He makes it clear he’s moved on in life, with two major events – the death of his beloved mother, then his divorce from his beloved wife, behind him now. He and French ”separated”, but stayed together for a further year, working out a new relationship before finally divorcing in 2010. More recently, he’s been reported to be seeing 45-year-old theatre producer Lisa Makin, who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to French, particularly since the latter’s dramatic, post-divorce weight loss.

Lenny Henry is no slouch. The veteran actor, writer, comedian and TV show host also obtained his MA in English Literature from Open University in 2007, and is currently doing his screenwriting PHd, which looks at the role of ethnic minorities in the media, and involves directing two movies. And inbetween he finds time to tour with a show quite different to anything he has ever done before.