Lenny Henry on his Chichester Festival Theatre debut

Funny man Lenny Henry - reportedly Sir Lenny as of next weekend - is university lecturer Frank in Willie Russell’s Educating Rita in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.

Lenny Henry SUS-150806-072607003
Lenny Henry SUS-150806-072607003

“Rita is me. Just as Willie Russell himself is Rita.”

In other words, they are all people who’ve felt the transformative power of education.

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Not for Lenny that easy passage from sixth-form to university. It was only when he turned 40 that he began his own university career – one so empowering he’s now working towards submitting his PhD thesis, ideally next year should other commitments permit.

“I never had that at school,” says Lenny, who is reportedly set for a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday honours. “I was never encouraged to do O levels or A levels. I left school at the age of 16 and went straight into show business. I didn’t do O levels until I was doing a summer season with Cannon & Ball. I got a tutor, and I took my exams. All the other students were looking around and saying ‘Isn’t that the bloke who says Katanga off TV!’

“But I then had to put it all on hold for a while. But then my mum passed away. I was doing a programme called Hope and Glory which was about a super-headteacher, and my mum had always said ‘Make sure you have got your education’. At the age of 40, I was doing this programme, and I thought ‘Why don’t I do something about it!’ All the make-up girls were saying ‘You can do it!’ I enrolled, and three or four days later, I got all the details on my doorstep. I wanted to do English.”

It was absolutely the right decision: “I think doing something like that makes you more confident. It gives you the ability to argue things better. I wouldn’t have been able to do all the diversity stuff I have done without it, I don’t think. It teaches you how to shape an argument. You get the certificate at the end, and it’s like ‘If I only had a heart!’ but it goes deeper than that.”

It called for huge self-discipline.

There’s a great moment in the play where the newly-learning Rita gets fired up by a summer school. Lenny had a similar experience at the University of Bath with his OU contemporaries: “It was great. It was like we were suddenly 18 or 19 again. But really for the rest of the year, you are pretty much on your own. You lock yourself in an office, and that’s it for four hours.”

But he got there and added an MA: “And then I went straight into the PhD. I am still struggling through that. I am four years in. It is difficult when you are doing it part-time. There are moments when you think ‘Should I be doing this?’ with everything else that is going on, but I am very, very fortunate that I can self-fund and that I have got the discipline.”

But above all, the point is that education is something Lenny absolutely believes in: “It really is transformative. It’s terrible that they are trying to close down libraries. Libraries give you power. You can educate yourself, and it is a transformative process. Like Rita, you can be the caterpillar that becomes the butterfly. It has given me the confidence to write. I have written two radio plays. I have written a feature film. You get that new confidence.”

All of which equips Lenny perfectly to step into Willie Russell’s tale of when Frank meets Rita. World-weary lecturer Frank has never met anyone like plain-speaking hairdresser Rita –until the Open University brings them together.

Frank knows plenty. He can tell Rita that Yeats isn’t only a wine lodge, and that there’s a difference between Jane Austen and Ethel Austin. He can explain in detail why Chekhov is a comic genius. But he doesn’t know that learning can be dangerous and addictive.

But as Rita grows in confidence and ability, Frank begins to fear that her desire for academic knowledge might bury the fascinating, fresh woman who has brought him back to life.

“We were talking to (Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director) Jonathan (Church) about what I might do at Chichester, and there were several possibilities that were floating around. Educating Rita jumped out as a modern-day classic. I was doing some work with Michael Buffong (artistic director of the black Talawa Theatre Company), and I mentioned Educating Rita to him. He said ‘That’s my play!’ So when it came to talking about who should direct, Michael was obvious. I had admired his work.”

And so it emerged, the first all-black Educating Rita: “A black director and two black protagonists (Lashana Lynch playing Rita).”

Not that Lenny believes there is any particular relevance in the distinction: “I don’t think there is any great significance to that. It is a classic play.

“Frank is a guy who is stuck. He was a poet back in the day, but his wife left him, and he has kind of lost his way. But this firework bursts into his office, Rita, this woman with huge energy and excitement.”

While Frank takes his education for granted, Rita lusts after education: “And so Frank gets the sense that life is probably worth living.”

But what education does to her is cause for concern: “She wants it so much she goes too far the other way, accepting all the authorities rather than making up her own mind. Frank wants her to retain all the things that make Rita Rita.”

For Lenny, the play comes, remarkably, 40 years after the New Faces appearance which launched his career and gave him, as he says, ten years unbroken work in the business.

“I was 16 at the time, and I suppose I had started entertaining in 1974. But I went on TV with New Faces, and I was watched by 16 million people. I had to learn a lot, though, after that. It was pretty much learning on the job. I had three minutes of material that I kept repeating on TV, but my career took off.”

Things weren’t necessarily kinder in those days. You think how harsh the likes of Simon Cowell can be on today’s contestants; but as Lenny points out, on New Faces, the X-Factor of its day, he had to impress judges as notoriously tough as Tony Hatch and Mickie Most.

But it all set him up nicely for the comedy explosion which followed in the 80s – a period which forced Lenny to rethink his act completely in the light of the non-sexist, non-racist comedy which came in: “I realised that was the best way to go. It changed everything. There were some amazing people. Rik Mayall was one of the funniest people in the world. You think of comedians who can make people laugh just with their faces or just the way they breathe. There were fantastic people around, Alexei Sayle, French & Saunders, some really funny people.

“It was a reaction against Thatcherism, but it was also time for a new bunch of people. And I think we need another one now. We are going to get over this arena thing. With the Tories winning another term, it might mean we get back to basics again in comedy. It’s time for another punk rock of comedy!”

Educating Rita is in Chichester’s Minerva Theatre from June 18-July 25. Tickets on www.cft.org.uk. Limited availability.