You wait ages for one nostalgic 70s-set minor celebrity wallow about a boy called Danny to come along and then two arrive at once.
Actually, no one I know had expressed any particular interest in one, but for some reason this week on TV turned in to a flares-and-flock wallpaper retrospective binge, transporting us to the childhoods of Lenny Henry and Danny Baker, as if we’d asked to go there.
Danny and the Human Zoo was Lenny Henry, now Sir Lenny Henry, being granted an hour and a half of prime time to cement his own myth. I mean myth as in idealized conception – given his first gig as a TV writer, Henry chose to cloak the story of his life growing up in 1970s Dudley in a veil of fiction (“Almost every single event in this story is… kinda true. Honest,” read the opening caption).
Lenny thus became Danny and unsurprisingly Danny came out of the whole thing rather well. The black country in the 70s, the drama made clear, was a pretty horrible place, full of casual racism and terrible haircuts, but dear Danny was an irresistible talent. He only had to do his Frank Spencer and women fawned, the world laughed, and fame of the sort that would one day allow him to embellish his own story on BBC1 beckoned.
Loose autobiography is generally bad biography. A combination of selective memory and latent narcissism means that given the option to be loosely autobiographical few authors can resist the temptation to make themselves look better: call it rose-tinted hindsight. That’s not to say that loose autobiography can’t be fun, but if they’re going to be ‘kinda true’ stories, they had better be darned good ones. Danny and the Human Zoo was simply not that good a story, predictably told and unsure when to be serious, when to be funny. It trod similar socio-cultural turf to Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, both the novel and the subsequent Channel 4 adaptation, and it suffered by comparison.
Dare I say it, given that Sir Lenny wrote it, but I think the problem was in the script – it veered alarmingly from some quite brutal, prolonged fight scenes to a lot of plodding, sentimental schlock. The dialogue was workaday, and the supporting characters – Danny’s mates, essentially – were barely fleshed out at all. The young actor Kascion Franklin made a good fist of playing the young Lenny Henry, doing passable impressions of people like Muhammad Ali and Elvis whom he can only have seen on YouTube, yet he was being asked to play a character who, to all intents and purposes, was brilliant, unimpeachable, irrepressible and hilarious. That person doesn’t exist, or if he does he’s not a very interesting character to watch for 90 minutes. Then again, what did they expect by asking Lenny Henry to write a drama all about himself: a self-administered hatchet job?
Cradle to Grave was a similarly refractive concoction, a picaresque of the young life of the DJ and celebrity Danny Baker, written in part by Baker and based on his own memoir. Once again we were thrust in to the so-bad-they-were-good 70s, as the Chopper bike tootling past in the background made plain, but we’d shifted from Dudley to east London and from one wide-eyed Danny boy to another. Sensibly, Baker and his co-writer Jeff Pope used this young Danny as the window on the world, not a protagonist – he existed mainly as a voiceover setting the scene for the various travails of the Baker family. Instead, the main character was Danny’s father Fred, played by Peter Kay as part Arthur Daley, part Del Boy. Mostly though he was Peter Kay, barely bothering with a cockney accent but still blessed with the single funniest face on television, one of the few men who can make me laugh with the sound off.
Cradle to Grave was funnier than Danny and the Human Zoo, and it managed to achieve the crucial balance of being fond of its characters without ever worshipping them. Yet just as with Danny and the Human Zoo, and its association with Lenny Henry, I found the fact that Cradle to Grave was based on the life of Danny Baker a distraction. Essentially, both of these shows were self-congratulatory because they all came from the perspective of the viewer knowing that, ultimately, both of these Dannys have done pretty good. Self-congratulation is what humour should be mocking, not the stuff of humour itself.
Which was why I found An Evening with Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse by far the best of this week’s trips in to the past. This was a celebration of 25 years on the BBC for Enfield and Whitehouse of the sort that would usually have me reaching for the bucket – filled with an audience of backslapping fellow celebs all hoping that their ‘An Evening with’ will come around some day soon.
But Enfield and Whitehouse chose to celebrate their own wondrousness by turning on themselves – the gurning celebs in the stalls were all played by Enfield and Whitehouse, and rather than asking ‘real’ Harry and Paul the usual questions about how on earth did they ever get to be so funny or what’s their favourite yoghurt they asked questions like, ‘Who do you vote for?’ ‘Have you ever taken drugs?’ and ‘Are you scared of making jokes about Islam?’
In other words this was Enfield and Whitehouse using one of TV’s cosiest rituals to cause discomfort, yet at the same time it was interspersed with a greatest hits collection of their old sketches that made you wonder why sketch comedy has died a death. The upshot of it all was what could have been a wistful, pipe and slippers recollection ended up making Enfield and Whitehouse look current and fearless. In a week when everyone else was dawdling down memory lane, they seemed determined to blow it up.