If Lenny was a lesser man he’d have quit show business 20 years ago, citing nervous prostration. Some entertainers have had to weather cutting reviews in The Independent; few have endured fictionalised career disparaging swipes in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ ‘Extras’. Is it the thickest skin or the thickest skull that has thankfully kept him resilient despite the critics’ body blows? This man has survived Mega Death Gouges from the big boss and jumped back up to simper “Oooh Betty. I’m having a bit o’trouble with my wife”.
In 1991, Lenny was courted by Disney to crack the lucrative US market and follow in the footsteps of Cleese and Hill (Benny, that is). The movie plotline of ‘True Identity’ had our Len swapping an African-American identity for that of a Caucasian, in order to hide from the ‘mob’. Young LH’s formative background in 1960’s Dudley was fraught with real life profiling difficulties. The two other black children in his school were not enough to reinforce a black enough identity for some of those with Caribbean backgrounds, who took issue with him. Ambition and lack of other available roles resulted in his taking a role in a touring stage version of The Black and White Minstrel Show; a decision he regrets. The racially conscious plot of ‘True Identity’, and use of an actor with real-life racial awkwardness perhaps labelled Lenny in a world that
was trying to dispose of its labels. In a country that already had hugely successful, perhaps dominant, African-American comedy scene, it was perhaps a little dated. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby had paved the way for
comedic actors’ success; colour irrelevant. The movie grossed less than $5m and Disney cancelled the remaining pictures in the three picture deal.
Prior to this failure were many UK TV successes. ‘Tiswas’ and two own shows were extremely popular amongst young and old. Lenny’s appeal wasbecoming broader; a quality not always celebrated by critics. The ‘alternative’ comedy set had done to Lenny what the Sex Pistols did to Queen, but the UK was a broad church, allowing both to survive. ‘Chef’ had us, and our grans, laughing loudly and then gradually less loudly between 1993-96. He has worked solidly on television ever since. Honestly. If nothing springs to mind (you won’t be alone) check on IMDB. [thinks] Red Nose Day… he’s always on that
If (comedy) history has taught us anything, Lenny will be rediscovered. I suspect it will be in a way that surprises us all. I can’t see him doing a dry satirical piece on ‘The Ten O’Clock Show’ with a bit of ‘Kattanga, My Friend’ thrown in. Frankie
Howerd pulled that trick off (with a different catchphrase). I can’t even see a nostalgic love-in like Bruce Forsythe’s appearance on ‘Have I Got News For You’. LH is still too close to his old material to lampoon it. Comedians’ popularity is tied to rather lengthy cycles. When adults are settled enough to procrastinate, they reprioritise their memories with a natural bias for those carefree times when we were unable to choose what we wanted or critically assess the content; it was the next step along in development from marvelling at Uncle Frank’s cot-side performance of Peek-a-boo. Students in particular turn to these safe childhood TV memories and bond using such shared references, sometimes with pretence of irony, but there is nothing of the sort. Unlike most people my age, it was Lenny’s second own show and not Tiswas that made a big impression on me (preferred the more composed Swap Shop). It was the first time I saw what I thought was modern street culture. His character, Delbert Wilkins, was a Brixton based pirate DJ who wore sharp zoot-suits or garish designer tracksuits, topped off with laser-cut flat top hair. In my own compromised memory this was really good. Was it really? I don’t know and would rather not find out. I just know that I am intrinsically drawn to the man and can’t wait to catch him live sometime on his tour, or bump into him in a budget hotel.
Why is Lenny still a household name when others, I forget, are forgotten? Having survived the critics poison on so many occasions, Lenny is now a modern day vishkanya; completely immune and possibly able to return harm on anyone who disparages him. We all know how hard this man has worked and how many people he has made laugh. Kudos to Lenny the Loved.