Danny and the Human Zoo

It’s been a good week for fans of semi-fictionalised accounts of the Seventies childhoods of national treasures (SFAOTSCONT). Stealing a march on Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave (reviewed next issue), Sir Lenworth Henry’s loosely autobiographical Danny and the Human Zoo followed black Dudley teenager Danny Fearon’s rise through the sticky-carpeted gladiatorial arena of the working men’s clubs, all the way to the pinnacle of 1970s light entertainment success: a place in the final of TV talent contest New Faces.

Saturated in that unique shade of Seventies brown (if it was a paint, it would be called something like Sportsnight With Coleman), Henry’s film was a simplistic but good-hearted morality tale – Rocky with Frank Spencer impressions, basically – anchored by a terrific lead performance from newcomer Kascion Franklin as the sweet, gauche Danny.

As Samson, Henry effectively played his own father – a remote, taciturn presence, jealous of his son’s ability to earn more in 20 minutes than he did in an entire week at the British Leyland car plant. His mother Myrtle (Cecilia Noble), meanwhile, was a hurricane force of nature who ‘knew every black person in Dudley’ and fancied herself a bit of a dancer in her day. According to Danny, they were less like parents than ‘two drill sergeants lampin’ you round the ’ouse’ – but they both came good for their boy in the end, even when it turned out Danny wasn’t Samson’s boy at all.

What adds an extra dimension to Henry’s story is the way he initially acquiesced to the appalling racism of the era – often making his colour the butt of the joke, and turning himself into a bit of an Uncle Tom in the process.

By the time he’d been cast in a rotten Blackpool production called the Musical Minstrel Cavalcade, Danny knew he’d paid too high a price. Giving the eulogy at his father’s funeral proved something of an epiphany for the teenager, pointing the way to a more dignified style of comedy that would earn the respect of his family, his friends and, most importantly, himself.

Call it a hunch, but something tells me Danny probably went on to do okay. In another universe, he’s doubtless advertising a budget hotel chain as we speak.


TV extra:


An Evening with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse

This celebration of 25 years of messrs Enfield and Whitehouse offered a novel twist on the standard ‘Audience With…’ format – by having Harry and Paul play all the celebrity inquisitors, including ‘Porridge’ Johnson, a sweary Stephen Hawking and Lenny Henry, complete with his Premier Inn bed.

Archive clips proved that, if anything, the duo’s recent material is even better than their more celebrated ‘Loadsamoney’ and Kevin and Perry heyday – while Whitehouse’s impression of Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell was literally the funniest thing I’ve seen on TV this year.


Comedy Connections: The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

I wouldn’t normally trouble you with a repeat, but this 2004 behind-the-scenes look at David Nobbs’ peerless sitcom was shown in tribute to its creator, who died earlier this month following a cock-up on the immortality front. Nobbs was my favourite writer – I’d recommend any of his 20 wonderful novels – and Perrin, a comedy about a man having a nervous breakdown, his most unlikely hit. I was sad to hear of Nobbs’ passing but, as Reggie the frustrated wage slave once said, time and motion wait for no man.


Published in Waitrose Weekend, September 3, 2015

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