Lenny Henry interview: Anansi Boys, Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman, comics

With Anansi Boys coming to BBC Radio 4, we chatted to Sir Lenny Henry about Neil Gaiman, film, comics and a potential Neverwhere revival...

On Christmas Day, BBC Radio 4 will air the first episode of a new dramatisation of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys featuring Lenny Henry as the voice of Mr Nancy, aka spider god Anansi, the father of two very special sons.

We spoke to the actor-writer about his personal relationship with the West African and West Indian Anansi stories, his friendship with Gaiman and their collaboration on 1996 BBC Two series Neverwhere, making films, reading comics, the urgent need for more diversity on television, and more…

What are your first memories of hearing the Anansi stories? Were you told them as a child?

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The Anansi stories were in my life because they’re not just Br’er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby in the Briar Patch, they’re stories from Jamaica and Africa that my mum used to tell us when we were kids. So I learned about Anansi being not just a spider, but also a weird god-like figure since I was little. When I met Neil Gaiman and we were talking about how come you never saw black people in fantasy or horror stories—this is in the late eighties, early nineties—he thought a story about Anansi would be a good thing to do.

How did you originally meet Neil Gaiman? This must have been years before Neverwhere?

This is way before Neverwhere. I first met him when we were doing a Comic Relief comic. I was a huge fan of his and suddenly Neil was at this member’s club with Richard Curtis, who’s also my friend, and I introduced myself and told him I was a fan of things like Black Orchid and I think he’d done Violent Cases by then, anyway I was a massive fan, because I read comics all the time. I made myself known to Neil and said I’d checked out his namecheck in Watchmen and we were chatting away and planning this big Comic Relief book. Neil became the curator of that book and it sold over a million copies. We became friends because of that. We were always chatting.

Then I pitched Neverwhere to him as an idea and he ran with that and we made it with my production company Crucial Films at the time. Neil used to come to my house and my dog was poorly—we had an Airedale Terrier called Delilah and for some reason we had to do field surgery on her, this was about 1991—and Neil had to help me put that big lampshade thing on the dog while I did a bandage on the dog’s hindquarters and we were chatting about horror and fantasy and sci-fi and how come you don’t see more people of colour in those genres and it made Neil think. And the next thing you know, he’d written Anansi Boys!

With Anansi Boys, he then consulted with you on the dialect and some of the West Indian details?

Neil sent me the book chapter by chapter and then I would talk him through the dialect and the syntax of the sentences because in Caribbean dialect, the syntax can be all over the place, so I helped him with the voices and accent and stuff. He’s very quick study, he’s got a great ear, Neil.

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You just steered him through that stuff as he was writing?

I was just doing Mrs Higgler and Mrs Dunwiddy, I’d just do my versions of how those old ladies would be. I did all the Jamaican island stuff. I did all my voices for those things so he could get a sense of what it might sound like.

Going back to the Anansi stories that Neil included in the novel, he wrote at one point that they’re all about “the revenge of the weak”. Does that ring true for you too?

I think it’s about that. I think it’s also about cleverness. It’s the idea of brains trumping brawn every single time. Anansi is really, really clever and he may get himself into trouble, but he’s got the brains to get himself out of trouble. He’s quick-witted, and I think kids like the idea that you can outwit a bully by using your brains and wits. Sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it does work, but it’s fantastic when it does, it’s a victory. That character in the Anansi stories that Neil tells, Anansi gets into terrible trouble but he always manages to talk himself into a nice pair of shoes, or a suit or a girlfriend or whatever, by using his smart brain and his smart mouth.

And the power of storytelling?

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Yeah, yeah. Storytelling is key throughout. A lot of Neil’s stories, if you look at Sandman, The Sandman is a storytelling machine. It could have gone on for much longer than it did because it was just about Dream’s power of telling stories and I think Anansi has a similar thing. If you look at how they’ve adapted American Gods for television too, it’s clear that you can maintain it, because it’s stories being told. Anansi Boys and American Gods lend themselves to the portmanteau thing where you can have lots of little stories within stories. It’s a way of spinning a tale in different ways and Neil is very, very good at that.

I heard a podcast interview Neil did recently when he said he’d been asked by a fan from a country—I forget which, I’m sorry—whose mythology isn’t that well known around the world, who asked him if he’d write a story using their cultural mythology, and Neil said that he’d rather they wrote it themselves and told their stories in their own words. It’s the idea of cultural appropriation I suppose. Is it important that a range of stories are told by whomever, or is it also important who’s telling them?

If you’re good, you can tell a story about anything. Nobody tells Stephen King what to do, do they? Stephen King can have anybody he wants in a story, and so can Paddy Chayefsky or Ken Kesey or whoever, it’s to do with the execution. The fact of the matter is in publishing, if you’re from a BAME culture, often what’s demanded of you is to tell the story that is in you, and quite a lot of people end up telling a story about their childhood or their upbringing or folk stories from their culture, and that’s one story you can tell. There’s a gazillion other stories to be told by people of culture, they just rarely have a chance to tell them. I was in Jamaica recently and there’s a whole thing there of writers writing noir, detective noir and police procedurals. Marlon James wrote an historical period novel called A Brief History Of Seven Killings

…which won the Booker.

…yeah, about the attempts on Bob Marley’s life by the CIA. I think it’s possible for anybody to write what they want to write—superheroes, historical, period drama, Game Of Thrones—it’s just how you chuck yourself into it that counts. And do your research.

I remember sci-fi and fantasy author Ursula Le Guin, who started publishing in the sixties and seventies and many of whose characters were BAME, saying how frustrated she was that whenever the cover art for her books would come back from the publishers, they’d all been transformed into Nordic blondes.

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Yeah, well that happens. Unless you really specify. I was talking to a writer on a big soap the other day who said he wrote a character called Ama into a scene, she was an estate agent. And he hoped by using the name ‘Ama’ that they would cast an African actress and when he watched the soap go out, the character was blonde and white. So that problem does persist.

In the sixties and seventies I think it was probably wilful whitewashing. Is the situation better now, in your experience?

There are certainly more books by people of colour being published now. The majority of them seem to be cross! They’re all called things like ‘Why I don’t talk to white people anymore’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Hell Yes!’, you know. But I think there are other books being written, gentler books, kinder books, stories about fantasy, sci-fi, horror… that’s the way I like it, really. There was a wilful whitewashing which is going away slowly, but publishing needs to catch up.

Going back to working on the Neverwhere series in the nineties. Is it right that it originated as a story about London’s homeless population?

No, it wasn’t homeless people. My idea was tribes living under London, the people who fell through the cracks. Maybe they were runaways or maybe they were people who simply disappeared or wanted to disappear from any time period, and Neil said ‘yeah, that’s not a bad idea’, and then he went away and he did Neverwhere, which was genius. We worked on it with him throughout the whole series. His invention and his knowledge of other similar stories was paramount to the story’s success. Then he wrote the book and the book expanded it even more. My thing was tribes under London, that was my pitch.

Looking back, it felt very ahead of its time, in that the BBC didn’t really know what to do with fantasy or sci-fi around then. Doctor Who had gone away. Was that your feeling, looking back at it now?

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Well, we’ve both got problems with the show. It was a bit wobbly sets, it was shot on video and we would, of course, have liked it to look like a Bond film. What we were given to make it, I think we did really well. I remember showing the trailer to the guy who was running BBC Two at the time, and it blew him away! But you’re right, I think now with things like Netflix and Black Mirror and the reboot of Doctor Who, they’d have a better sense of it now. Maybe its time has come?

Would you consider reviving or rebooting it? Neil’s doing Good Omens at the moment with Amazon and the BBC.

Yeah, sure. Sure. Why, you want to do it? You got a GoPro?

Absolutely. I’ll just wire you a few million and we’ll go.

[Laughs]

There was a proposed film adaptation that didn’t happen. What was the story there?

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You’ll have to ask Neil about that.

Okay. But I think you saw a stage version performed?

Yeah, he flew me out to wherever it was, Baltimore or Chicago or something, I went to see it. They were slightly ragamuffins, the people who did the adaptation for stage. They didn’t have permission really, but Neil and I went to see it and actually what it showed us was that it works. The story works on stage. I’m sure there are possibilities there.

If it were to be revived, would you do it as another six-part series or as a feature film?

I don’t know. I think with the advent of Netflix and HBO and Hulu and Starz, the sky is your oyster, you know. Good stories can be spun out and weaved to last for a very long time, so I think something like Neverwhere, which is basically a quest story, could be extrapolated over many series because there are so many different pockets of London Below to discover and Neil’s imagination is endless.

Well we’d love to see that. I’m a fan of the original. The casting was great—Paterson Joseph [who played the Marquis de Carabas] was quite unknown at that point…

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Oh wow, he was brilliant! He should have been Doctor Who.

He was going to be. Well, he was approached about it apparently?

He was one of the people in the hat, but he didn’t get it. Such a shame. But now they’ve got Jodie [Whittaker], which is a brilliant thing.

Are you looking forward to the Christmas special?

I don’t know. I’m not really a… I’ve been in a Doctor Who sketch, which Whovians tell me is like being my own Doctor Who.

That wasn’t the Comic Relief one, Curse of the Fatal Death, though?

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No, no, no, I wasn’t in that one. I did a sketch on my TV show in about 1985 and Whovians remind me of it whenever I’m in a place where there are Whovians. ‘You’re the black Doctor!’ [Laughs] It’s mental. I was in a three-minute sketch. ‘You were the black Doctor! The TARDIS played reggae music!’ [laughs] so it’s odd.

I loved David Tennant’s run and I loved Chris Eccleston’s run on Doctor Who, so I’m really looking forward to Jodie, because I was on Broadchurch with her and she’s such a lovely lady. I hope she smashes it.

I’m sure she will. I have to ask about Broadchurch [spoiler warning]. I was a huge fan of series three and what Chris did with it. Was it discussed between the two of you that if your character Ed Burnett turned out to have been the attacker, that it would have ruined this year’s Comic Relief?

My family weren’t talking to me for weeks and weeks and weeks, it was really funny. There was a massive collective sigh of relief breathed in Dudley at the end. He didn’t tell anybody who’d done anything. What was good about it was, the acting was sort of in the moment, nobody was playing the end, they were just playing where they were at the time, so it helped us actually.

Did you do a lot of press around it at the time? What sort of response did you have?

Yeah, it was fantastic. Ed was sort of a normal guy with secrets and it all played out, which was great. And really good to work with David [Tennant] and Olivia [Colman], that was wonderful.

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Broadchurch always gets such good performances from really funny comic actors too. There was Charlie Higson, Jim Howick…

It was good. The table read was very good, very funny. Lots of good jokes. Roy Hudd was in it! Roy Hudd was great.

Talking about the table read, there’s a photo on the BBC website of the group of actors pulled together for Anansi Boys, which is an amazing group. How did it feel to go and record that with that group of actors?

Well, I’ve been in things with black actors before so it was probably a bigger deal for some of the other people there [laughs]. I’ve done a lot of things where there have been mainly black casts, so for me to go to work and see Donna Kroll and Joe Marcell and Cecilia Noble and people like that, it was a wonderful day, but actually it was apposite for that day. I also did the previous version of Anansi Boys on the radio for BBC World Service, so I’d sort of been in that situation before.

You know, it’s only an unusual situation if you’re not a person of colour, to do that, most other things that an all-black cast would do, there would obviously be a load of black people there. So it wasn’t a big deal for me. It was great, it was a wonderful day. We had a lovely time. It was work. We’re all actors and we all want to work and be in things and we loved being there, but nobody was going ‘hurray, kumbaya, look at us, we’re all a bunch of black people’, everybody just got on with the job.

Are you a Game Of Thrones fan?

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Oh HUGE! Yes, I’m in the same room as Grey Worm [Anansi Boys’ Jacob Anderson], I can die happy! I wasn’t prepared to do the full Unsullied thing… we were blown away when he sang his song though. It was fantastic. He’s a great singer.

In honour of your character Mr Nancy then, what’s your karaoke choice?

I sang a big song at the beginning, because in the book, I think it’s I Will Survive?

It’s I Am What I Am.

I Am What I Am! Yeah, we couldn’t clear that, so I do another song and it was fantastic. I think it was Fly Me To The Moon and I loved it. My daughter loves Fly Me To The Moon, so I’d do that one really.

We talked briefly about the potential of making Neverwhere a feature, back when you were in Hollywood in the early nineties, how do you look back on your time over there making True Identity?

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There was lots of it that was great. There was quite a lot of it that was horrible. It wasn’t the best experience. I was really inexperienced as an actor and also I was very shy so I wasn’t really good at putting my foot down about certain things and I absolutely should have done and was within my rights to, but because I didn’t want to upset the apple cart, I kept schtum about lots of things and as a result, made the film that we made. It wasn’t my fault, and I did the best that I could, but it wasn’t a good experience, but [American mobster accent] whaddya gonna do?

Did that put you off doing more work in America?

It clearly didn’t put me off working because I’m still here. What you do is go home and form a production company and make Chef, which is brilliant, and make my own television work and be in control of my own work, so I’ve done that ever since really.

Would you say you have unfinished business in feature films?

I’d like to be given the opportunity to show what I can do. Having done Othello and Fences and Comedy Of Errors at the National [Theatre], I feel like I can do stuff now that I couldn’t do before. I guess what you need to do if you’re a movie actor is have a process. And at the time I was a kid who’d never really acted on stage or anything. I was just going over there hoping they liked me and hoping I was going to be funny, but you need a process to be able to do that in a feature film.

One of the films you’ve done that always gets a massively warm reception from our readers whenever it’s mentioned on our site is Bernard And The Genie.

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Hooraaaaaay!

People love that film.

You can get it on eBay apparently!

Can you? Do you have fond memories of making that with Richard Curtis and Alan Cumming?

It was great. It was fantastic. I don’t know why they don’t show it. They should show it every Christmas! It was one of the best experiences of my life, working with Richard and Rowan Atkinson and people like that, it was great.

What made it such a good experience?

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Just the way it happened. You know all the genies that you saw on the television weren’t very hip, I just thought there should be a hip genie and I told Richard this idea. He went away and wrote fifty pages and I just thought it was brilliant. So we got Peter Fincham [producer] and Paul Weiland [director] involved and then suddenly it was happening. It happened very quickly and it was very funny.

Richard had back problems at the time and he was at an osteopath and he gave me the first seventy pages to read while he was having his back cracked, and I sat in the waiting room reading the script and all you could hear was ‘crack!’ and then me laughing my head off, then Richard going ‘aaaaaaahhhh’. That was when I met Alan Cumming, who I still know. That was the first time I’d ever worked properly with Rowan Atkinson. I’ve worked with him several times since. It was a wonderful experience. To see it come out the way it did, it came out incredibly well I thought.

The other thing of course, is TISWAS, whenever anyone mentions that on our site, there’s such a rush of love for that show. And whenever we’ve talked to anyone involved in making it, they say there was not a health and safety regulation that these days it would have passed. Would you say the same?

Yeah. People came very near to losing their lives several times by inhaling shaving foam. It was a brave programme to do, but it was just very good fun and nobody seemed to mind, really.

Is there one single moment in your head that really cements the TISWAS experience?

It’s a toss between my mum walking on to live Saturday morning television or Trevor Macdonald walking on. When my mum walked on, I literally thought ‘what, what? WHAT?’ I just couldn’t believe my mother was on TISWAS on a Saturday morning. She had just been cooking ackee and saltfish and bacon at our house and then literally ninety minutes later, she was walking onto the floor, running in with a sketch, then there’s Chris Tarrant double-laughing at my face. Trevor Macdonald was genius too.

I know you’re a huge comics fan, and you’ve done some recommendations for BBC Radio 4 listeners. Could you recommend our readers a couple of good ones?

I’m reading The Wild Storm (2017) at the moment, which is the Warren Ellis thing that’s a kind of reimagining of the old WildStorm universe, which is very good. I’m reading Warren Ellis’ Injection, I’m just reading a lot of Warren Ellis at the moment, he’s brilliant.

I love Brian Michael Bendis, Jessica Jones, Defenders, but he’s left Marvel now and gone to DC, so it’s a real shame because Brian Michael Bendis is responsible for the new Spider-Man, who’s a young black kid called Miles Morales and also for Riri Williams, who is Tony Stark’s apprentice Iron Woman, she’s called Ironheart, and they’re such joyful stories. Huge props to Brian Michael Bendis for sort of shaking up the Marvel universe and just saying ‘there need to be people of colour in these comics otherwise it’s not representing the true world the way it should be’.

There are other really good writers, Rick Remender’s good, I’m loving Greg Rucka, who does Lazarus, which is about AIs that fight for these particular families in a dystopian universe, that’s very, very good writing.

There’s lots of stuff to read at the moment. I’m getting old, I’m 59 now, and what’s interesting is, if you want to read comics you’ve got to really look, because DC and Marvel have to keep rehashing their old stuff all the time because they’re the iconographic heroes people buy DC comics for—Batman, Superman, The Flash, Green Lantern—and Marvel are the same, so you have to search out writers who are doing either new things, reinventing the genre, or creating new stories. There’s some great things out there if you care to look. It’s certainly not just kids’ stuff.

How did you first get into comics? What were you reading as a kid or teenager?

What you’d expect really, my aunty bought me X-Men and The Fantastic Four to shut me up on a long car journey, and that was me finished, for the rest of my life!

Finally then, I saw your MIPCOM key note address on diversity in television, which is a conversation people have been having for a while now. What would you say is the next concrete step to actually make it happen, rather than just talking about it?

I think tax breaks for diversity is a good thing. In film now, what happens is you get huge tax breaks if you can prove via your hiring practices and via casting, that the film is British, you get a tax break. Wouldn’t it be great if you got a tax break because the film was properly diverse? There’s a lot of money that’s been given in tax breaks to the film industry, British tax breaks. If there was a similar thing for diversity, that would solve a lot of problems with regard to employment practices in this country.

Lenny Henry, thank you very much!

Anansi Boys episode one airs on BBC Radio 4 on Monday the 25th of December at 11.30am.