Thursday, 11 July 2013

I Was Lenny Henry's 40th Birthday Present

a true-life Dave Sim adventure

It really started with a phone call from Neil Gaiman. Did I remember the English comedian that he told me about who was a huge CEREBUS fan? Um, yeah. The one with the Cerebus rug. (There was this English outfit that used to do tapestries and rugs of comics characters. Didn't ask permission or pay royalties but just did these really, you know, nice rugs and tapestries). That's the one, says Neil. I had a call from his wife Dawn and she wants to get him something Cerebus-related for his 40th birthday which is coming up and she wanted to know how to contact you. Is it okay if I give her your number?  Uh, sure!

So Dawn calls and she's very nice.  And right away, I wanted to turn it into a photorealism thing (as I did just about everything from the mid-90s on). Can you tell him you need a picture of him looking REALLY SURPRISED? Don't tell him what it's for, just tell him you need him looking REALLY SURPRISED. And then send me the pictures.

(Wow. You know how long ago this was? they were POLAROIDS! I know! Back when the earth was still cooling!)

So, she did.  No problem.  Life with a comedian, I figured. "Lenny! Look Really Surprised!"  He probably didn't give it a second thought let alone ask what it was for.

So my idea was that I would do this portrait of him looking surprised and give Dawn a good price on the two-page spread in MINDS pages 188-189 and then she could get them framed together so he's looking at this multi-levelled story point of everyone being surprised -- at the ancient aardvark's suicide -- and LENNY would be surprised and there would be a PICTURE of him looking surprised looking back at him.

Well, Dawn thought it was a good idea, so like I said, I gave her a good price and got the address from her to ship it to.  I figured if Lenny was as famous as Neil said he was, he would be the one paying for it, so let's not put too big a dent in his wallet, right?  He's a Cerebus fan.  So, I'm talking about this to...someone.  In Kitchener. I forget who. Oh, wait. It was Lynn, Chris's wife.  Chris is the guy who looks like Lionel Richie on the cover of CHURCH & STATE I pointing.  That was his nickname: Richie. Lynn's English. That's why I thought, hey, she's probably heard of Lenny. So I said, "Have you ever heard of Lenny Henry, the English comedian?"  And she says, Oh, yeah, he's good.  And I said, "Well, guess what? His wife is getting me to do a picture of him for his birthday and matting it with a two-page Cerebus spread."  And Lynn goes, "DAWN FRENCH?"  And I go [blink blink] Yeah. How did you know Lenny's wife's name? Well, I got an SW1 earful for that one. Vicar of Dibley, French & Saunders, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.  And slunk home.  Where the next thing I had to do was to type a cover letter to go with the two pieces of, um, art and send them to Lenny's, uh, you know...wife.  Who -- as it turns out -- from what Lynn said, uh, and it seemed to me as well that...uh, she was ... well, it was pretty much sure that she would be um, paying for the, uh, birthday present, you know...

....her. self.  
Hoo boy. Well, I made a clean breast of it. EXACTLY how wrong I had gotten it. Picturing her as some leggy supermodel trophy wife.  Hoo boy.  I mean, it's one of those things that you CAN pretend it didn't happen, but... you could never really see yourself as an honest person again.  How do you make amends for that? Well, what I thought was: tell you what.  Instead of just giving Lenny the pictures as a birthday present, how about if I fly over there and you can surprise Lenny with ME?  I'll pay half my airfare and -- even if you don't go for it -- you'll always have this letter to show anyone who wants a good laugh at my expense anytime Lenny mentions me (which, if he was a Cerebus fan, was likely to be WAY too often).

Well, she decided to go for it. So over I flew. Conveniently they had a flat in Soho they used for guests so I got to stay there and I met Dawn at the Groucho Club where they were both members.  I had still never seen any of her work but she was definitely funny.  So, the plan was: she would take Lenny to a really nice restaurant with the present and I'd be in the back hiding. By the way, she says, what kind of food do you like? French, oddly enough. Umm. French. That would take a little research.
So anyway, she finds this, like 5-Star French restaurant called L'Ortolan.  And arranged for a driver to pick me up and drive me over there for brunch.  So I get dropped by this lounge and everyone is (this was funny) LOOKING at me.  The staff.  Um. Is it okay if I smoke? (it was my last year of smoking) Boom ashtray. Boom matches. More LOOKING.  It's just by association. So this is LENNY HENRY's birthday present!!  I'm thinking, oh, right. They don't actually come here.  She's had to rustle up a French restaurant for ME. So I sat there and smoked and...was looked at.  And finally someone says, "Mr. Sim? It's time."  So I get up and walk around the corner into the dining room a few feet from the table where Lenny has just opened the package.  And he stands up in the middle of this incredibly POSH restaurant, knocking over his chair in the process and goes "Oh My God! It's DAVE SIM!"

So it was a very funny moment and a very funny brunch.  Because the place was reasonably crowded, right?  But it's all these incredibly POSH English people.  And I can FEEL them in the room, going "THAT's Lenny Henry.  THAT's Dawn French.  But WHO IN THE HELL IS DAVE SIM?"  And because they're incredibly posh English people, NO ONE CAN ask or so much as look over at us.

I'd have to say that was one of the major highlights of my life: being WHO THE HELL IS DAVE SIM? In an incredibly POSH -- and suitably 5-star rated -- French restaurant.

Well, I've seen a great deal of both of their work since (obviously). They're both brilliant, funny people.
Lenny Henry is a British actor, writer and comedian. He is currently receiving rave reviews for his role in Fences at The Duchess Theatre in London's West End. His 40th birthday was in 1998.

Dawn French is an British actress, writer, and comedian best known for starring in French & Saunders and The Vicar of Dibley. Dawn was married to Lenny Henry between 1984 and 2010.


Adam Ell said...

Great story! I never knew they were married.

Gabriel McCann said...

"Who stared wearing black trousers and black shirts first? Neil Gaiman or Dave?
At leasts Dave keeps his hair neat and tidy

Gabe or
Gabriel McCann

Gabriel McCann said...

Whoops should have been "started" not "stared" in last comment

Lee Thacker said...

What a great story! I had no idea! I knew Lenny was into comic books (as well as that 'other' British celebrity Jonathan Ross) but I didn't know he was such a big Cerebus fan. Fair play to Dawn for sorting it all out. They're divorced now, of course...