Sir Lenny Henry CBE has been on a long journey in the British arts industry. From stand up to TV comedian with his own shows; Hollywood film actor, to critically acclaimed stage actor, to diversity activist, to come full circle back to TV with his new film ‘Danny and the Human Zoo’ which will air on BBC 1 this Autumn.
In Henry’s own words, Danny and the Human Zoo is about parallel universe Lenny, and where truth meets fiction comes his chance to right some wrongs.
The few times I’ve met Henry, it’s been brief, it’s been nice, it’s been a bit surreal. I grew up watching him on the telly! Which is what I mumbled to the comedian Alexei Sayle whilst shaking his hand after the preview screening of Henry’s latest project. Seeing Alexei threw me back to the days when there were only four channels; when British TV was packed with comedy sketch shows and sitcoms. Back in the day when I was unaware that British TV had a diversity problem.
Fast forward to 2015 and the British TV landscape is quite bleak. The phrase ‘pale, male and stale’ sticks in my throat because it’s been turned into an ironic cool slogan which mainstream bigwigs throw out at diversity debates pretending that they’re dedicated to changing the status quo. Yet after such passionate words of commitment have been delivered with a wink and a smile…we get home, we turn on the TV…It’s still ‘pale, male and stale’.
Danny and the Human Zoo, directed by Destiny Ekaragha (Tight Jeans, Gone Too Far) is a life adjacent adaptation of Lenny Henry’s first foray into comedy as a young Caribbean boy from Dudley. In this case, it’s 16-year-old Danny Fearon, played by fresh new talent Kascion Franklin who takes the brave step to place himself under a very critical spotlight. Dealing with racism, family dynamics and trying to define his position in his world, Danny and the Human Zoo brings to life some of the trials and tribulations Henry had to deal with during teenagehood with a stellar cast of young actors alongside the legend that is Cecilia Noble who plays Danny’s mother, and Henry himself who plays Danny’s ‘father’.
Back to the diversity debate. In 2014 when Henry reared his head above the pulpit to make demands on the British arts industry to change its stuffy white ways, he was met with support and pride but there was also resistance to the man who in his early years as a comedian starred in an actual minstrel show. The man who married that big white woman – don’t care if she’s funny. The man who fronted Comic Relief the well intended, yet according to many a ‘patronising white saviour campaign to save those poor defenseless Africans’. The man who has been accused of not caring about diversity when he was Mr. Lenny Henry, British comedy darling during those glory years.
I grew up watching The Lenny Henry comedy sketch show, his Chef sitcom, Comic Relief, and Hollywood film ‘True Identity’ (1991) and thought he was amazing. But as a young African British girl my laugh didn’t all the way reach the eyes or the soul when he shouted the words ‘KATANGA MY FRIENDS’ whilst portraying his dodgy accented African DJ character. As a young black girl, I definitely rolled my eyes at his choice of wife as he joined the long line of black celebs with non-black partners.
When the debate and backlash about Henry’s new cape for diversity arose, I was surprised at first. I thought everybody loved him. I was also unaware of the minstrel show. So whilst I understood the irritation it was easier for me to have another perspective. I posed the question, how many of his critics could confidently say they’d be as prideful in the 70s, as the only black in the village, as a young teenage boy faced with the potential to be famous and rich, and a chance to get away from it all?
During the post-screening Q&A hosted by Boyd Hilton, Heat magazine’s TV & Reviews editor, Henry explained that some of the scenes in this film represented real-life situations. There’s a scene when a comic, played by Mark Benton, makes racist comments before introducing Danny to the stage, Henry said,
“A lot of the clubs that you went to, people said racist things when you were in the toilet, so you’re sitting on the loo and you hear them talking about you. I remember when I was doing O.T.T I went to a naval base in Portsmouth and in the front row there were five guys dressed as African natives with spears and make up. A lot of club comics didn’t really care, and I was  basically a child and they just said horrible things before I went on and you’d be on stage and people would be reading the newspaper, or talking or just glaring at you. Danny was able to turn it around. But sometimes I wasn’t able to turn it around, so it’s good to represent that and say this is what it was really like.”
‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ aired on the BBC from 1958 – 1978 and featured blacked-up white people singing minstrel songs for the titillation of the audience.
Destiny herself said,
“Somehow, my brain didn’t compute minstrels with here and television. I had imagined it as an underground club. So when we started talking about it, and I was saying, the way that I’d film the club… they were like ‘what are you talking about, it’s not an underground thing, it was on television!?’… I was like ‘I don’t understand’… So Lenny took out his laptop went onto YouTube and put up the videos of the black and white minstrels that were on television until 1978 – that’s only four years before I was born. I had thought the minstrels were 1920s/30s… I watched it and saw how happy they were, they were just so happy, it’s so jovial and so offensive at the same time. It really upset me.”
Danny, when faced with the opportunity to perform on this massive platformtook the bait. As did Lenny in the real world and even though he was only 16 years old at the time, this is what set his legacy of contention with his black audience. It’s a decision many a black artist will face, take one for the team in the name of progression, or bow out and keep their black self-respect and maybe an empty bank account? I was reminded of the resounding sighs of disappointment when we see our favourite male actors wearing a dress, or when our actresses decide to bare their breasts for an Oscar nomination. I was reminded of Dave Chappelle’s choice to not take the millions after poking fun at white supremacy and racism imploded on itself – are they laughing with me or at me!?
During my teenagehood, being African was seen as an uncool curse, the inter-culture rivalry between Africans and Caribbeans was real – with Caribbeans usually coming out on top. African-British kids living in 2015 just don’t know – Afrobeats!?! African music topping the charts!?! Caribbean’s dropping African slanguistics and culturalisms!?! A Nigerian British female director, directing a Lenny Henry project about a Caribbean family for BBC 1… stop the train I need to get off!!!
I couldn’t stop repeating to Ekaragha at the screening, that I was so proud of her. Because she is the embodiment of ‘less talk and more action’. Danny and the Human Zoo was intended to be a four part series, says Henry but the BBC wanted a 90-minute film instead. When they were looking for a director they couldn’t find the right person until Ekaragha’s name popped up. In an extremely hilarious and honest recant of what happened next, Ekaragha explained
“I got a phonecall from my agent saying ‘oh my god I just got a script from Lenny Henry’, I was like ‘daf*ck!?’ When we were children, my dad, only let us watch a few things and one of them was the Lenny Henry show. So when my agent called up I was like ‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’ So I read it, I really really enjoyed it. They were like great, they want to meet you on Monday and I was like, oh shit I’m in Nigeria on Monday. Then my agent went and came back and they said, they’ll phone you in Nigeria. But the thing is, I wasn’t in Lagos, I was in Calabar for a film festival.
“Calabar is beautiful but it’s country. I’m in the middle of nowhere [when I got the call] It’s a three way conversation, and it’s like ‘This is Lenny Henry’, I’m trying to do my white voice… ‘yes and the vision I see…’ and then I hear ‘Oya Oya everyone has to get on the bus’ and I’m like shit, I’m on one of the most important phone calls of my life whilst on this small bus, and it’s just loud… at one point I had to say ‘I’m really sorry I’m in the middle of Nigeria’… After that phone call, I was like ‘I ain’t getting this job’…”
But after the call to Nigeria, Lenny said he just looked at executive producer Nicola Shindler and said: “it’s her isn’t it”.
Those in the know, know that Ekaragha didn’t just get lucky with this BBC project. She’s put in the hard work with a CV that lists innovative short films, and notably her wonderful union with writer and friend Bola Agbaje who together with Ekaragha adapted Agbaje’s acclaimed play ‘Gone Too Far’ for the big screen; successfully bringing the film to national cinema release in 2013, to it recently airing on Film 4. The attention to detail, the slick professional cinematic quality look and feel of Danny and the Human Zoo, the character performances and the paired back yet fulfilling storytelling and performances is credit to Ekaragha’s directing skills. The beautiful irony that this is an African telling a Caribbean story with such understanding and familiarity, renders the inter-cultural wars of back in the day oh so irrelevant. Katanga my friends indeed.
A national newspaper recently ran a story about Henry revealing through Danny and the Human Zoo, that the man he grew up to know as his father actually wasn’t and that he was the result of his mother’s affair. This has raised critiques about reinforcing stereotypes, casting black families in a negative light and the unnecessary exposing of family business. Lenny said of the storyline,
“I didn’t want to write it in a way that’s pedantic. I talk about my mum and my dad a lot in every interview I’ve ever done and the person I talk about is the person who raised me but I wanted something that was truthful at the core of this, and I wanted to write about the way we grew up and I’m not alone in this.
“We talked about this in the rehearsal room and there were a lot of black people in the room talking about the person that raised them, and the person that was their birth father, so it wasn’t like a big deal or anything. I’m glad I’ve written about it. It was about time.”
So that’s that.
There’s so much to say about Danny and the Human Zoo, mostly positives, but I wish the BBC turned this into a four-part series because there are areas which I feel needed more exploration. I wanted to understand the family set up a bit more. Danny lives with multiple family members from siblings, to in-laws, to cousins – a common set up in a lot of families across race and culture, but where certain situations arose which affected Danny’s world, there’s little time spent on the backstory which does come across as insensitive, and definitely plays into the grey area of negative stereotypes and how black families, people, characters are portrayed on screen. With that, there’s a tiny feeling that in order to cram it all in, some storylines were rushed, some characters overlooked or maybe underdeveloped…
But overall, Danny and The Human Zoo deserves a standing ovay to all involved. Destiny Ekaragha has certainly further proven herself as a talented director. This being Kascion Franklin’s first major role, with his genuine portrayal of Danny and his ability to master impressions of famous British comedians he’d never heard of prior to this project, he’s also proven his ability to handle big roles in major productions. Cecilia Noble, I’d like to see a lot more of on our TV screens. I’d generally like to see more of our stories given the same treatment (and budget) – shout out to the ‘pale, male and stale’ crew, I hope you’ll be watching. I’m sure Henry’s aware of what some people think of him, he’s said before that even his family members questioned some of his decisions.
I’ve sometimes wondered if he cared what ‘we’ thought, finally getting his chance to show what he was dealing with as a young black comedian growing up in a time when racism was casual, Danny and the Human zoo seems to be Henry’s explanation, reason, defence.
Danny and the Human Zoo will air on BBC this Autumn.