Friday, July 04, 2008

What have we done to deserve this?

In one of their most puzzling programming decisions in a while, Radio Four have got Lenny Henry fronting a series that asks the question "What's So Great About?". They've already done Bob Dylan. Next they're doing Method Acting.

The minute I heard about this I was galvanised not to listen. This is, I'm afraid, because the person asking the question and presumably doing duty as the man on the Clapham Omnibus (or should that be the BBC town car?) is Lenny Henry. I've nothing against him but I can't hear him as the voice of stimulating scepticism. What are his credentials? Is he known as an original thinker? Is he a brilliant radio presenter? Has he suffered conspicuously at the hands of either Bob Dylan or Method Acting?

Then there's the subject matter. It's not as if people are leaving dinner parties in a huff having crossed swords with their hosts over Marlon Brando's performance in "On The Waterfront" or the value of Bob Dylan's Christian records. They should at least have the nerve to take on sacred cows of today like Amy Winehouse or The Apprentice or the pundits on Match Of The Day.

If, say, Clive James were to front the programme, I would expect the value to arise from an examination of the premises of greatness or not-greatness. What is good music? What do we mean when we say that acting is good? That's worth hearing. But I don't want the man-in-the-street's take on Bob Dylan because I heard it in 1963 and it was like water off a duck's back then as it is now. The only difference is now I'm bored with hearing it.

And surely in taking on this project the thought must have at some time occured to Lenny Henry that thousands of wags like me would briefly entertain the possibility of applying the show's premise to his own career?


  1. Anonymous12:02 pm

    Well, old Lenny has a recently obtained degree (English Lit, or something) from the OU. Clearly the brass at the BBC (or perhaps Lenny himself) see this as qualification enough. Perhaps this "project" will count as part of his Masters?

    And I DO have a problem with him: lack of talent.

  2. Anonymous12:06 pm

    The thought that occurred to me was what would be the reaction if a white comedian were to front a programme called What's So Great About Bob Marley? Would it even get past the commissioning desk?

  3. Anonymous12:06 pm

    Presumably they will also roll out a few minor and not very interesting celebs/media people for a quick soundbite and/or cheap jibe, rather as they do in all the interminable "100 greatest ..." TV programmes.

  4. I assumed they were short 3 minutes programmes. Lenny comes on says the title of the show there is the click of a record player or the chunk of a movie projector and "like a rolling stone" comes on or a section of "on the water front" a few minutes later Lenny says goodbye. They could be fun.
    ps Plaudits for Lenny getting a degree, it doesn't give him anymore weight but anyone taking the time to further their learning in later life is worthy of respect.

  5. Anonymous1:06 pm

    Yes, agreed all round. He's never been funny and is embarassingly desperate whenever he's wheeled out for Comic Relief. He's been around so long though, that I guess he has friends in very high places. Or maybe his production company made the show?

    Whatever the reason, I have no interest in anything he says. He seems like a perfectly nice guy - albeit annoying in a 'Colin Hunt' from The fast Show way.

    But he's not in the least bit funny or especially articulate or knowledgable. It just shows how lame and politically-correct the BBC are. The general public lost interest in Lenny Henry twenty years ago.

    Why can't he just spend time with his lovely (very funny and talented) wife and kids and enjoy his life. rather than inflicting his manic Freddie Starr personality on the rest of us.

    PS: David, what's happened to this week's Word podcast. It doesn't seem to have appeared on itunes yet? I need ma fix man.

  6. Anonymous1:31 pm

    I actually listened to the Bob Dylan episode, thinking it was just a one off. As a one off I don't think that Henry was a bad choice - he's from a background that wouldn't make him a natural Dylan fan. He has a not dissimilar taste in music to me (also someone who doesn't 'get' Dylan, which why I listened). He spoke to Al Kooper, Andrew Motion and several others none of whom were able to actually say why Dylan is revered to the level he is. Someone (sadly I forget who) put forward the theory that it's because Dylan elevated the art of songwriting to something other than boy meets girl, moon June pap. I find it hard to believe that until Bob came along no one was writing anything else but there you go. There was also the theory that he's a great songwriter because his songs can stand being covered by a wide range of people. They illustrated this with a short sequence of about 8 clips of covers from the same song, none of which sounded particularly brilliant to me. Henry wasn't convinced but did end the programme by saying that perhaps he needs to check out some more of Dylan's work as there might be something in it. I remain resolutely unconvinced by Dylan's total brilliance but at least I now know that Al Kooper was responsible for one of the few bits of a Dylan song I actually like - that organ line in the one he played organ on (Like a Rolling Stone?).

    As for a series, with him doing the lot I'm not convinced at all.

  7. Heaven forbid anyone other than an intellectual should give an opinion on St. Bob Dylan.
    Total media snobbery.
    Here's a 'man on the street' opinion on Dylan for you: he's nowhere near as good as the music press make out. He'll be fine when he learns how to sing.

    And why is it fashionable to knock Lenny Henry all of a sudden? For years his was the only black face to regularly appear on television.

  8. Anonymous5:45 pm

    BA, forgive me, but I have ALWAYS found LH about as funny as toothache. And don't get me started on French & Saunders...

  9. Anonymous5:47 pm

    To BA: ps. and I was basing my assessment on the talent angle, not the black one.

  10. Have to say I agree wholeheartedly with BA. This is utter snobbery. As a non music Journalist and somebody not caught up in the over blown hype about Dylan I think he is ideal. He did not slag off Bob Dylan he just asked what is it all about. A question I have struggled to answer myself about Dylan.

    As for the hopelessly smug what is the point of his career what is your great contribution to the world ?

    He was instrumental in setting up Comic Relief (another event smart arses love to mock) which has raised millions.

    I think he has a better claim to be George Bailey than you do.

  11. I think dear old Lenny WAS alright for a while, somewhere between the end of the Black & White Minstrels and the advent of the hip young turks like 'Sir' Ben Elton et al.

    Now he's just a national treasure. Nobody particularly cares for his work, but he's too likeable to be put out to grass with Mike & Bernie Winters. So the BBC keep trying to find formats for him to work with, e.g that fuck-awful 'middle-aged man shows you what he's found on YouTube' effort.

    Unfortunately, it's only his ethnicity that separates him from Duncan Norvelle, Freddie Parrot Face Davies & the other denizens of the end-of-the-pier club, & the BBC isn't squandering vast amounts of budget devising televisual vehicles for them.

    Is it perhaps because if Lenny were to be ditched by the Beeb there would be no other black performers to replace him? And if not, why not?

  12. While I share some of the Dylan-scepticism her, I think the point David is making is that the “Dylan isn’t as great as he’s made out to be” stance is as commonplace and respectable as the “Dylan is a profound genius” one. And that if you’re going to make a series that sets out to challenge sacred cows, pick on some real ones.

  13. I didn't think it was a sacred cow killing exercise; to me it sounded like a fairly honest attempt to open the door to a world that many people (myself included) enjoy.
    Some things in life come so highly recommended by so many people that it's worth making an effort to get into them yourself. This seems to be Lenny Henry's new approach to life (he's recently got into Shakespeare finally), and good luck to him.

    I didn't find it a particularly great programme though.

  14. Anonymous11:10 am

    Lenny's recent live shows, made in collaboration with the great unsung Simon McBurney of Complicite, were actually very good and worlds away from his TV shows. They seamlessly mixed his popular appeal with his genuine personality, mixed up origins and politics.

    The Radio 4 series, however, does sound somewhat well trod and unimaginative. I applied my rule that 'if the trailer gets boring, don't seek out the show in the schedules'.

    As has been said, Lenny's done a lot of good in the world. Fro the live shows there's a strong sense he'd like to be something different but as performer he's limited by what the wider public know and expect of him. I've a feeling he'll come into his own as he ages.

    And, indeed, another thing: Al Kooper's definitely dined out on his Like A Rolling Stone story enough now.