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Lennie James

LENNIE JAMES

All actors are recognised, approached. They tend to attract a certain type of following: teenagers, students, housewives, OAPs. Lennie James – for the moment at least – attracts people who have been in prison.

His compelling performance as the lead in Channel 4’s brilliant, brutal prison series Buried, has made him the most popular British TV icon for prisoners since Norman Stanley Fletcher.

As someone who played Helen Baxendale’s husband in the first episode of Cold Feet, and was one of the dodgy geezers in Snatch, James has experienced this type of recognition before. But this particular type of following takes a bit more getting used to. He can be in a pub, at a Spurs match, or shopping with his partner Giselle and their three children and some ex-con will clock him and joke, “so they let you out then.”

Or they will greet him warmly, as if they’d done a job together, cross the room and cheerfully tell him how much stir they did (the years, the weeks, the precise number of days), and which prison. Even what they did to end up inside.

“Six years for ABH !”
“Really ?! Yeah well thanks for that…”

This unforeseen side-effect is surely the only questionable consequence that making Buried (the best British drama on television for years – a series that, for once merited comparison with American series like Oz or even The Sopranos) has had on Lennie’s life, and even this, you suspect, doesn’t bother him. In fact, he probably appreciates it; enjoys it even.

“Either they say, ‘I was inside and it wasn’t like that.’ Or they say ‘I was inside and it was exactly like that’,” he explains.

So far, only one person has actually fronted Lennie out, as if he were confronting his character, Lee Kingly’s ‘rep.’
“He just kept screwing me out the whole time I was in the room. Giving me a kind of look like, ‘who the fuck do you think you are ?’ This guy had spent 22 years in prison. He said, ‘I saw the first episode and I didn’t like it.’ I just said, ‘well I’m not gonna argue with you..”

James doesn’t laugh when he re-tells this story, or make it a funny anecdote.

His experiences making Buried, and even before that, mean he has too much respect for that.

EVEN MONTHS after Buried finished (the filming and the screening), Lennie James is still torn between buzzing about it, reeling from it, and railing about Channel 4’s decision not to re-commission it.

“It was easily the best role I have been offered in my life,” he gushes. “To be honest, I finally felt that I had been given a part that I deserved. And when I watched it all (all eight hour-long episodes – in one sitting), I thought it was a fantastic piece of work. I’ve got no modesty about it at all. I thought it was good fucking television.”

James has worked pretty much constantly as an actor since he left drama school. (He studied at London’s Guildhall.) In TV terms, as well as Cold Feet, he was also in Undercover Heart, meaning he spent one (presumably hellish) weekend shooting sex scenes with both Helen Baxendale and Danniella Nardini.

Roles in films such as Elephant Juice, Lucky Break, and 24-Hour Party People (as Factory Records’ co-founder Alan Erasmus) have followed.

But, of course, his journey to arrive at the lead in Buried was not straightforward or painless. He is black for a start and, despite the profession’s liberal credentials, that still makes a difference.

When he left drama school, he had vowed not to take a lot of the roles other black actors were taking.
“Once you make a two-dimensional character black, it becomes a stereotype,” he affirms with a conviction that is, typically, equal parts passion and affront.

Heeding the advice of a fellow actor who told him to have something else he could do, he started writing, quickly winning a BAFTA nomination for the largely autobiographical Storm Damage. But a spell working as a writer on The Bill ended acrimoniously when he saw that his publicity shot had been captioned with the assumption that (being black) he was playing a criminal.
“The PR girl said, ‘all I can say is sorry. I said, ‘all I can say is ‘fuck off’.”

He doesn’t see himself as a black actor. When he was young, he wanted to be an actor and still says he makes his decisions on what’s best for him as an actor rather than a black actor. But, he acknowledges, as a black actor “You live and work by the ignorance of others.”

A black actor in one well-established series on television for example was recently told him that his character could not have a black girlfriend on the grounds that the audience at home “wouldn’t be able identify with it.”

“My answer to that is: how do I (italics) watch television then ? I don’t watch Grant and Tiffany and go, ‘well I can’t identify with those two because they’re white.’ What does that mean – that I’m a superior television watcher to most white folks ?!”

If at first his brand of agitation and outrage seems somewhat incendiary, it’s probably because of, rather than despite, the fact that a sense of struggle is something that Lennie James is used to.

He (commendably) disparages the idea of “playing that card of ‘Look at the terrible life I had and how I won through’” as being “trite” but it’s indubitably his anyway.

His mother Phyllis came over from Trinidad 36 years ago, working and saving to pay for his father to come over too, only for him to walk out when Lennie was two.

When he was ten, she died of bronchial pneumonia, leaving Lennie and his elder brother Kester choosing to go into care rather than go and the chance to live in America with an uncle on the grounds that “it was near where mum was.”

“I grew up when my mum died,” he says bluntly. “After 9 or 10, I don’t think I was ever a kid anymore.”

It’s easy to see how growing up in a children’s home in a rough part of South London between the ages of 9 and 16 could contribute to the authenticity or authority of James’ performance in Buried. And in a way it did – only not in the way you might think.

The first episode saw Lee Kingly (James) arriving at HMP Mandrake for the start of a ten-year sentence for shooting a man who’d raped his sister.

Kingly then assumes control of the wing – over-seeing the distribution of drugs, bestowing favours and meting out punishments, most notably when he murdered his lieutenant “Kappa”, cold-bloodedly caving his head in with his bare hands.

Produced by Tony Garnett (whose credentials run from TV classics like Cathy Comes Home, Kes, and Up The Junction through to Law & Order, This Life and The Cops), Buried was rightly acclaimed for its compelling, chilling evocation of the intimidation, nihilism, and the sheer fear pervading prison life.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was really only the last of these that the years in the children’s home prepared him for.

Rather than the generic thug or bully, at the start of Buried, Kingly is (like Lennie) streetwise but, essentially, a decent, law-abiding citizen who, until shooting his sister’s rapist, has eschewed the life of crime adopted by his brother, Troy.

Like Lennie, Lee is fiercely idealistic and moral to the point of being slightly self-righteous; a proud, passionate family man (hence the shooting to avenge his sister).

His role is as a kind of Everyman, with James’ performance making the anxiety of being in prison instantly, horribly palpable. Radio 5 presenter Simon Mayo said that, having watched Buried the night before, he found himself driving home in a state of paranoia in case he hit someone and ended up inside.

“Like all parents,” James acknowledges, “I used to sit at dinner parties and say, ‘if anybody fucked with my kids, I’d do time for them’. But after doing Buried, no fucking way. I wouldn’t do anything that would give me a long stretch in prison.”

Rather than an understanding of bullying or loneliness, growing up in a children’s home gave James not only his drive and determination but his sense of responsibility and community.

“I grew up in a house which was almost like its own mini community. We fought like cats and dogs, but if anybody fucked with one of us, they were fucking with 18 kids.”

“There ARE good homes, you just don’t hear about them,” he explains fervently. “It was tough and it wasn’t. Being in a kids’ home was the first time I had my own bike. Being in a kids’ home was the first time I’d really been on holiday.”

The home he grew up in was a Grade Two listed Georgian mansion.
“We had a huge garden – the size of a football pitch. There were 17 other kids. The good thing about it – and the thing that’s important when you’re looking at childcare – is there was a very low turnover of staff. There were good people there, watching me grow up and watching over me as I grew up… I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but we did alright.”

In such circumstances, the need for self-belief is understandable. Whatever you seem to talk about, he is rarely less than effusive, idealistic, evangelical. Any of my more flippant comments are just swept past.

The legacy that being in care left him, is he says (typically) unhesitatingly, was “the responsibility that I take for myself. In relationships, in the job that I do, in the way that I live my life… I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t think I’m owed anything. Everything I’ve got I earned, and I take a great pride in earning it.”

You might assume that such an upbringing might have heightened a child’s sense of individuality or isolation – and perhaps it did – but, more obviously, Lennie’s desire, his need to belong, to have a place in a family and community, is palpable. His colour, the colleagues in his profession, his partner’s family, his circle of mates from football…all inspire warm, impassioned tributes.

Having supported Liverpool throughout his childhood – partly because of black icon, John Barnes and partly because Liverpool won everything at that time – when Lennie met Giselle, he converted to Spurs, such was his determination to be accepted by her brothers whose family allegiance to the club goes back generations.

He enjoys telling the tale of how, when ‘a certain defender” left the club to join rivals Arsenal (“the shit” as he calls them), he vowed never to say the England defender’s name again. You’ll see why I haven’t named him in a second.

“I used to say I was doing it cos he broke my heart,” he explains, “though I knew, of course, he didn’t really break my heart. Then one day, I was reading a newspaper and I could see his name was coming up in the story. And I thought, ‘I can’t read this article anymore because I’ll have to say is name IN MY HEAD and I can’t do that.’ Then I knew my conversion is complete.”

Again, Lennie tells it with such vigour and detail, it’s as if he’s not telling you because it’s a funny anecdote but because he really wants you to understand the importance of the issues/the ideals at hand.

Ask him about his heroes, and he declares domatically, almost provocatively, that he had/has only one: Muhammed Ali.

Then the barrage of reasons border on stream-of-conscious.
“When Muhammed Ali was on television, the whole of my street came to my house,” he begins. “When Muhammed Ali was there, my mum – my real mum – a very pious woman and church-goer – was a completely different woman. He really turned her on. He was there in my politicisation.. Not going to Vietnam. He led me to Malcolm X. Malcolm X led me to Martin Luther King…Ali was beautiful and he was black and he stood above the sport. I used to read Marvel comics – I remember having a huge argument with my mate about whether Muhammed Ali could beat Spiderman. I think I once went into school and saying Muhammed Ali was my dad – cos I didn’t know who my dad was.”

HE KNEW straight away that the role in Buried was a once in a lifetime opportunity and is realistic enough to recognise that it still might be.

Driving from London to Manchester and back for a five minute meeting with the producers clinched it for him and convinced hi to turn down a more lucrative role in a film in Hollywood.

James’ character, Lee Kingly is very much the conscience of the series and is the axis through which everything that happens in the prison goes through. Over the 8 episodes, Lee goes through not one but two ‘arcs’, effectively doubling the intensity of the role – going through phases of being aggrieved, angry, paranoid and lethal by turn.

(Hardened by jail and pushed by circumstance, Kingly takes up the mantle of ‘don’ on the wing, but tormented his own morality and haunted by the murder of Kappa, is seeking some sort of redemption when he is killed.)

Life in a British prison has never been conveyed with such convincing claustrophobia or dread.

Not surprisingly, the intensity of the shoot and the performance took its toll.

He would dream of prison, dream of filming.

For most of the three-month shoot, Lennie stayed away from his beloved family – going back to the relative isolation of the flat he had rented, to prepare for the next day’s filming instead.

“I don’t think it would have been fair. The journey I had to go on didn’t leave much room. My family’s quite well-geared up to slight changes in me depending on the job I’m doing but I’m glad I didn’t have to put them through Buried to be honest. If I had been at home, I would have not been at home. Even on the phone speaking to the kids and stuff was tricky.”

On the set, he kept himself to himself (“I had to shut off”) to such an extent that at the wrap party, several people who had worked on the series throughout – extras, technicians, and so on – told him how nice it was to see him smile.

“The wrap party felt like Lee’s release party. A couple of day’s later I went away, to New Zealand. I stopped off to see a mate in Australia. While I was there I had a massage and the woman said “I massage people every day and I have NEVER massaged anybody as tense as you.”

A few months on, sitting in the restaurant of the Royal Court theatre, where is about to star in Roy Williams’ Fallout, a play loosely based on the Damilola Taylor case, Lennie is relaxed but then instantly intense – categoric about why the dilemma of any intrusion upon Damilola’s family was over-ridden by the issues it raises.

“There’s a huge conversation in this country to be had that is being shirked which, across all communities, is how we bring up young men in this community, specifically to me how we bring up black boys because boys across the board are failing…I get annoyed that we keep on looking at America and say ‘that’s going to be us’. And we do nothing about it. We’re an island. Why is there crack here ? I’m tired of the effect it’s having on my community.”

James plays Joe, a jaded (post-Stephen Lawrence) D.I. investigating a case of a decent, diligent young African student bullied and then murdered by a gang of youths on a South London estate. Joe’s determination to clinch a conviction hinges on his (ultimately improper) efforts to seal a young girl’s eye-witness testimony.

“The police in the Damilola case should’ve known that she was a shit witness and never put her up. They should’ve done their job better. I completely understand the pressure that was put on them, post-Stephen Lawrence, but again, you kind of go, I suppose it’s a question for white folks – what is it about black skin that clouds the issue so much considering how long we’ve been here ?!”

He goes on.
“The thing that sticks in my craw the most about Stephen Lawrence case, outside of the fact that no-one’s ever been charged with his killing – outside of the disgrace of those five boys, and outside of the Macpherson report… What bugs me most was the 15 minutes that Stephen was left lying on the floor.”

You don’t think a white boy in that area, lying there would have had exactly the same wait, I feel obliged to suggest.
“ I’m sorry but I don’t think so, no.”

At one point Joe says, “it’s the uniforms I feel sorry for. Now they’re asking them to provide written records for every stop and search.”

Lennie: “I have no sympathy for policemen who find their job is harder after McPherson. That’s what they should have been doing anyway.”

The bigger dilemma that the play raises for James personally though is Joe’s use of what “the n-word” to dismiss a young black thug he suspects of the murder.

“Personally,” James declares, “I don’t buy that American /Spike Lee/hip-hop thing of owning that word. I don’t wanna re-claim it. It never described me. It never described anybody who looks like me and it never described anybody that I care about. I’m not a nigga. It’s not who my people are, and it’s not who I’m aiming to be.”

Frustrated by his progress on the case, in one speech Joe asks why he can’t be allowed to forget that he’s black, prompting the question, why should he ?

“That is the journey of non-white people in this country,” Lennie agrees. “My life has everything and nothing to do with being black. I’m exceptionally proud of who I’m trying to be and the people that I came from, but on one level, sometimes, I just want to be an actor – not a ‘black’ actor. When Storm Damage was nominated for a BAFTA, one writer who had won BAFTAs in the past said ‘you’re only nominated cos you’re black.’ That’s one of the by-products of people being PC – that on some level, nothing you do is achieved, it’s just given to you.”

James, of all people, knows that does not happen.

These are all issues for him, to be wrestled with: what it means to be a man, to be a black man, to be an actor and a black actor, to be a father – this last with no experience of his own to use.

With three daughters (one 13 year-old and two 9 year-old twins) to debate with, I doubt if meal-times round at his house are ever quiet. The other day, he says, his daughter asked him who Nelson Mandela was. Then what apartheid means, and then why the whites in South Africa did that.

He says another legacy of being brought up in care is that he can be “a bit hard on my kids – for them to be prepared and be responsible. I know how quickly things can change. I’ve tried not to use that line, that they’re more fortunate than they realise because they just say, ‘that was you’.”

The worst thing that could happen to him – that, as a parent, would really drive him, I suggest – would be if they were apathetic.

“Trust me,” he states, “in my house I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

ends