A Tribute to Andrea Levy, by Sir Lenny Henry

Andrea Levy came into my life via her wonderful book Small Island. I was incredibly annoyed because my friend and colleague Vicky Licorish had secured the rights for broadcast TV and the resulting two-parter was fantastic.

I wanted it to go on forever. That’s the thing about Andrea Levy’s work – when you’re dug deep, reading, experiencing the story with her characters – no matter how grim the tale – you don’t want it to stop.

Andrea’s a piece of work. We were collaborating on a contemporary piece due to my persistent  bothering on the phone:

Me: Andrea – are we gonna work together?

Me: Andrea – when are we gonna work together?

Me: Andrea – I know you’re there, I can hear you breathing…

Eventually we met up and started tossing ideas around, however any notions of mine that this would be a rock and roll, quick down and dirty experience were dashed in that first meeting. Andrea had rules. We were to do our research diligently. When she works on a novel, her research might take six years. She doubted whether we’d be able to get where we needed to be. There was a time issue.

At the time, I didn’t know what she was talking about; I loved hanging out with this pugnacious woman. She was funny, had attitude and was immensely smart. Smarter than many people I’d sat in a room with. She cuts to the bone of story and is incredibly strict when it comes to structure, truth and characterization; all the good stuff.

She kept saying she didn’t want to present characters in a binary way – no black/white portrayals allowed.

She also wants a diverse cast of characters, all sorts of people – not just black and white and brown but: young/old, gay/straight, able bodied/disabled etc – she is principally interested in the hodge podge, higgledy piggledy nature of us. The Why of us.

When I was working with her she kept asking me if I’d read her epic novel about slave rebellion in Jamaica, The Long Song. I told her I had read it and that I’d really enjoyed it. “Should be a movie or telly or something”, I said out the corner of my mouth whilst devouring some kind of chicken noodle soup. Andrea told me that David Heyman’s (Harry Potter/Paddington etc.) company Heydays had bought the rights to The Long Song and were carefully nurturing it into on-screen life. It was set to film soon and they were looking for a Godfrey. She grinned at me. I read the book again and noted that Godfrey, the head house slave was a cantankerous, strict, impotent and angry man who had produced many children but now couldn’t even pee straight. I had no idea why she was encouraging me to go up for this role – when I pee, I’m right on the money.

So a few months later and The Long Song TV show is a going concern and I’m asked to read for the part of Godfrey, I go through what every actor goes through these days – I put myself on video, performing bits of the script in the hope that I’ve filmed properly – my thumb wasn’t over the camera, etc.

Something must’ve worked because soon after that, I got to meet the prodigiously talented Mahalia Belo, a BAFTA award winning director who reassured me with her air of confidence and ability to smoke roll ups. She talked me through her vision of Godfrey and made me feel that it was within reach. I wanted to be a part of the project even more now. I reread the book and was struck by Andrea’s ability to interweave humour throughout – her lead character July is an unreliable narrator; funny, devious, combative yet caring, loving, sexy and the rest. Godfrey’s journey is from passivity to rebellion. July finds herself embroiled in a tumultuous love affair that can only end one way.

Andrea’s writing is on point, she finds the nub of a character and explores it fully, mapping out emotions, motivation and passion like a dramaturge/ordinance surveyor. She’s that good. Her work is her legacy of course, six stories and an essay; Uriah’s War, The Long Song, Small Island, Fruit of the Lemon, Never Far from Nowhere, Every Light in the House Burnin’ – all of them deserve to be adapted for TV, Film or Stage.

Andrea’s a don – long may her legacy reign.

Find out more about our production of Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island.