BBC One’s ‘kinda true’ biographical comedy drama based on the young life of Lenny Henry opens with cute nostalgia.
A young Danny Fearon (Kascion Franklin) dancing in gold heels to ‘My Boy Lollipop’ cuts to an older Danny having the shit kicked out of him by Dudley’s cohort of oddly baby-faced teenage fascists.
What’s expected of a ‘70s-set coming-of-age piece can be ticked off within the first 15 minutes: luxuriant hair, moral confusion and a swirling preponderance of Overlook Hotel orange.
We’ve also got the tried and true(ish) narrative of an ordinary boy’s rise and fall (see everything from Walk the Line to Boogie Nights, by way of Beyond the Sea). Here, Danny’s an innocent with a talent for entertaining his sweet, silly mates, despite marinating in a stew of whisky, fag-ash and rampant exploitation. He’s staggered by the notion that anyone might want to leave Dudley, or that gay men exist. Or that it might be a sensible plan to get legal advice before signing a 10-year contract.
Against this backdrop, young Danny hones his celebrity impressions, attracting the notice of shiny-shirted sleaze, manager and DJ, Jonesey, played by Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill, having a little Carry On fun, showbiz biopic clichés notwithstanding.
As a result, Danny finds himself winning a Britain’s-New–Faces-Got-The-X-Factor type contest (complete with dancing dog), which leads to the bright lights of Blackpool. Crammed into a slightly sinister light-entertainment box that drives him to drink, Danny’s very public breaking free is an exorcism of sorts for writer and star, Henry. Danny’s literal dick-swinging final appearance on an awful minstrel show expressing Henry’s professed regret about his own early appearances.
Danny and the Human Zoo might justly be subtitled The Harry Potter Residuals Club Does The ‘70s: featuring the former Weasley twins (James and Oliver Phelps) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), as owners of the venue where Danny plays his first gig and Danny’s first love interest respectively.
They acquit themselves well enough, but the beating heart of the drama is Danny’s mother Myrtle (Cecilia Noble): she’s a formidable raconteuse, lethal with a frying pan, set in direct contrast to his dour father (a grizzled, underplaying Lenny Henry).
Kascion Franklin as Danny gives great energy and charm, even if the impressions featured are more embarrassing than amusing, the humour gentle to the point of torpor.
Despite tackling Big Dark Stuff like misogyny and paternity crises, or even the liberal use of ‘dickhead’, the darkest performance comes from Mark Benton, as an outwardly cheery emcee, who doesn’t need to make overt reference to his prejudices, in the guise of ‘giving (Danny) a chance’, or hideous spray-tan jokes. Just watch the way his expression hardens on handing Danny a microphone.
There’s danger in the suggestion that racism’s only ever something easy to see and name, perpetrated by sneering old men and thuggish boys. Though heartfelt, with a fine cast, Danny and the Human Zoo ultimately never risks offending or challenging anyone.
Aired at 9pm on Monday 31 August 2015 on BBC One.
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