Words: Alison James Pic: Ray Tang, Rex Shutterstock
He’s been 40-odd-years in the public eye, with a recent mention in the Queen's Birthday Honours List to boot, but it’s doubtful that Lenny Henry has ever looked as good as he does now. Standing next to him at the launch of the third series of Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate, in which he plays one of the Lottery winners, we can’t get over quite how tall, slim and altogether handsome he is. “I’ve lost about three-and-a-half stone,” he says. “I get lots of compliments when I’m out and about these days. It’s very funny. The other day someone thought I was Idris Elba’s dad and said, ‘Where’s your son?’ But it is very nice.”
Lenny (56) laughs, but there’s a serious reason behind his weight loss. “I was put on a strict diet because people in my family have diabetes – in fact my mum died from it, having been a double amputee,” he reveals. “I was tipping into Type 2 and my doctor said, ‘This is it now’. Weight loss reverses the symptoms. I started watching what I ate around the time I was doing Comedy of Errors in the theatre, three years ago. It was hard going, but the doctor told me what to eat and I prepared it.
“I cut out sugar and had hardly any alcohol. I started the gym and all that, too. Yes it’s tedious but I’ve kept the weight off and have a very real reason to make sure I do. Plus I feel much better for it. Besides the diabetes risk, I was finding it difficult to get up from chairs and get out of the car. I’m living proof that if you really want to do it, you can.”
The lean, lithe body isn’t the only thing that’s different about Lenny. These days, he’d rather be known as an actor than a comedian. “It’s the direction I’d prefer to go in,” he says. “I still love comedy – I do corporate gigs and the odd stand-up – but it’s not what I want to do with the rest of my life. I suddenly realised that perhaps my ladder was up against the wrong building. Most comedians’ careers only last 30 years at most and mine was more like 40. I just thought it was time to do something else.
“Lee Evans, one of the most successful comedians, is packing it in because it’s exhausting. It’s lonely, too. “Theatre for me was huge – playing Othello in 2009 was massive. I first met Kay Mellor when I was doing that. She was running a play workshop and I went to see it and thought, I’d love to do something with her. I asked her and she said, ‘I’ll see, I’ll see’. And this – The Syndicate – is it! I’m playing Godfrey the gardener.”
Kay’s third dramatic incarnation of a group of people who win a fortune on the Lottery is proving to be just as gripping as her previous two. Set in a stately home it’s the story of a syndicate of ‘below stairs’ employees who win a fortune while their aristocratic boss and his family struggle to make ends meet.
“It’s so clever,” Lenny enthuses. “Suddenly the servants have money, the posh people are broke and we’re the wealthy ones. It flips the whole thing. My character Godfrey is a gentle soul and somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. He’s obsessed with plants, numbers, tractors… He’s very different to any character I’ve played before. He has to be kept calm by his workmates as he often goes off on one. Godfrey can be a bit dangerous when he’s riled or feels there’s been an injustice, but when he’s even-tempered he goes into an odd space. He’s a bit like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man.”
‘I was finding it difficult to get up from chairs and get out of the car’
How winning so much money affects Godfrey, his colleagues and their impoverished employers remains to be seen, but Lenny himself says suddenly coming into such a fortune must be something of a poisoned chalice. “I think it can be both a blessing and a curse,” he says. “The characters in this syndicate get about three or four million each, but what’s especially interesting is that, as time goes on, they realise it doesn’t go that far for very long. Once you’ve done this-and-this-and-this, it’s gone.
“You always think you’ll see your family alright, but that surely depends on the size of your family? It could go very quickly. My family is big so if I won it would be gone just like that! I have done the Lottery in the past – I won £200 and gave it to charity.”
We can’t help wondering if playing a gardener has turned Lenny into a budding Alan Titchmarsh? “I think gardening is a beautiful thing but I’m not a gardener at all,” he says. “While we were filming The Syndicate, the director would say to me, ‘Godfrey should be hoeing the soil now,’ and I’d reply, ‘What do you mean?’ I had to be told what to do before every gardening scene. I’m not at all green-fingered – I’m actually brown-fingered, as you can see! Jennifer Saunders took an interest in gardening at one point and Dawn and I were slightly jealous because she said it was very peaceful. It certainly looks it.”
The fact that Lenny happily mentions his ex-wife Dawn French in passing seems to prove that there’s no hard feelings between them, which must make life much easier for them and their 23 year-old daughter, Billie. Lenny doesn’t really like talking about his private life, but he’s more than happy to confirm that Billie is fine.
“Billie’s great and she has no desire to be in showbiz,” he says. “She’s with her boyfriend and does her own thing, and that’s fantastic. For quite a long time, when she was little, she thought her mum was a vicar and her dad was a chef. She’d come to film sets and go, ‘My dad’s a chef, my mum’s a vicar’ because I was in the sitcom, Chef, while her mum was the Vicar of Dibley. It must have been quite a strange childhood!”
- The Syndicate is on BBC 1 on Tuesdays at 9pm. Catch up on BBC iPlayer
There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday