Lenny Henry's Got the Blues: Sky Arts
Behind the Scenes
Lenny Henry wanted to know why there are so few black British blues singers. The story we uncovered was far more colourful and complex than we ever imagined, says Chris Wilson.
Lenny Henry meets Van Morrison (pre-knighthoods)
Lenny “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m a huge fan of your music, but I’ve never heard you say more than six words before.”
Van “Well I’ve given lots of interviews over the years.”
Lenny “Yes, but you always seem to be so grumpy…”
When interviewing the (allegedly) grumpiest man in the music business, Lenny Henry’s opening gambit was pretty high risk, but he judged it perfectly.
Over the next few months, Lenny revealed himself to be a brilliant interviewer: generous, enthusiastic, daring, ferociously intelligent and deliciously mischievous.
‘Van the Man’ turned out to be the most delightfully obliging contributor you could ever hope to meet, and when, about an hour into a free-flowing conversation, he spontaneously picked up a guitar for a little songwriting ‘show and tell’, it became obvious why. He’d been invited to talk on a subject he was genuinely passionate about: the blues.
I had been introduced to Lenny a couple of months earlier by a mutual friend, documentary director Elizabeth Dobson, to talk about a project Lenny had become fascinated by.
In his own words: “I went to see these mates of mine playing the blues in a pub in Greenwich and I said ‘can I sing a couple?’ They said ‘yeah’, so I got up and sang these two songs, and it made me feel better. It was fantastic, and I just thought ‘maybe this is what
I should sing?’ And then it got me thinking: why aren’t there any black British blues singers? Plenty of white ones – you’ve got Mick Jagger, Long John Baldry and Alexis Korner, all of those people. But no black British guys singing the blues. Why is that?”
Lenny had been bitten by the blues bug. He had even put his own band together, with the help of his good friend, virtuoso guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, and music producer Chris Porter. And he seemed to have stumbled across what was, in terms of music documentaries, a kind of Holy Grail: a genuinely new angle on a well-worn tale.
Sure enough, when I later put ‘British blues’ into Wikipedia, up popped a list of 50 or so famous musicians, with not a black face among them.
Granted, it’s not the most scientific survey, but it’s a pretty good litmus test, and reveals a curious cultural anomaly: how come a bunch of predominantly middle-class white British kids became captivated by the blues – an art form born from the experience of black Americans – while their black British contemporaries seemed to have had a kind of musical blind spot?
And so we pitched a three-part series to Sky Arts, comprising a two-part documentary in which Lenny would explore the story behind this peculiar enigma, meeting blues legends and unsung heroes alike, and preparing himself for a one-off live gig. This would become programme three, in which Lenny, his band and some special guest artists would celebrate their love of the blues.
Leaving the practicalities aside, probably the biggest challenge was editorial. We wanted to deliver a coherent thesis while capturing the spirit of the blues – to demonstrate how and why our various British blues lovers found this musical form so enthralling.
Elizabeth had to make some bold directorial choices. Rather than intercutting lots of talking heads, we decided that the documentaries would comprise self-contained scenes as Lenny visited our contributors one by one, hearing their stories and, at every opportunity, asking them to sing or play.
That meant committing to a fairly rigid structure from the outset, which in turn necessitated a huge amount of research. We had to ensure that we knew the shape of the story before shooting began, and that Lenny was so well-briefed that once the camera was turning over we could leave him and his guests to do their stuff.
What we managed to capture was, I think, an astonishingly intimate set of musical encounters: Georgie Fame demonstrating how he fused blues licks, Caribbean rhythms and the Hammond organ stylings of Booker T; Jools Holland and Ruby Turner performing intensely moving, off-the-cuff renditions of a bunch of timeless blues classics; and Wilko Johnson recreating the moment when he wrote his first song, twisting John Lee Hooker riffs into the proto-punk Canvey Island vernacular of Dr Feelgood.
In the end, we assembled a pretty impressive cast – adding the likes of Sir Tom Jones, Geno Washington, Paul Jones, Lulu, Tinie Tempah, Laura Mvula and Mica Paris to those already mentioned.
But just as importantly, the series unearths some surprising new stories from some unsung heroes: the woman from Stockport who sang with Muddy Waters; London’s very own Rastafarian blues singer; Birmingham’s answer to Howlin’ Wolf; and the sitcom star who produced the first and only black British blues concept album.
It turns out that the real story of British blues is a much more complex and colourful tale than you might have imagined.
Head of Production
The most challenging and the most enjoyable part of this series was the planning and shooting of the climactic concert. The first thing to get my head around was that the gig didn’t yet exist. We weren’t just filming it, we were creating it from scratch.
The gig was initially planned for the end of the schedule, in late July, but due to diary clashes we had to move it to mid-April, with only five weeks notice. We quickly had to pull together a list of guest performers, an audience and a creative team to pull it off.
At the heart of the project, and a priority for Lenny and ourselves, was ensuring the audience had a good time. It was paramount that the atmosphere felt like a gig and not a television studio show. Working with multi-camera director Matthew Amos, I was able to work with Lenny, the band and the technical team to decide on the best way to capture the event.
Everyone understood how important it was that Lenny and the band felt comfortable and that the gig felt intimate but impressive.
Rather than go down the conventional studio camera route, we decided to look at a smaller, multi-camera solution that used seven individual
Canon C300s (pictured) with EF lenses recording to SSD drives. We set up a viewing gallery outside the main studio but did not create a fully mixed line cut. All individual cameras were put into post.
This way, filming was non-invasive, kit was less intrusive and we were able to preserve the aesthetic while keeping the look of the other films in the series.
Everything for this gig was pulled together very quickly and in hindsight it was a really creative and productive way to work. As we didn’t have a huge amount of time to debate things, we needed to make decisions fast.
Like all audience shows, our final worry was getting enough ‘bums on seats’, but thanks to Lenny’s popularity, we had the opposite problem and ended up turning people away. It was an electric atmosphere on the night and I hope it’s as enjoyable to watch at home as it was to film.