Sir Lenny Henry brings moving adoption story to screen

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Sir Lenny Henry is executive producer of My Name Is Leon, which stars Cole Martin

When Sir Lenny Henry was narrating the audio version of Kit de Waal’s novel My Name Is Leon, he had decided at lunchtime on the first day of recording that he wanted to make a television version of it.

Six years later, the result is a unique 90-minute drama airing on BBC Two on Friday. It’s the heartbreaking story of a nine-year-old boy who is at the mercy of the foster care and adoption system with his beloved little brother.

“A lot of times when you do an audiobook it’s like a deep dive because you’re playing all the characters and also doing the narration,” Sir Lenny said ahead of a preview in Birmingham, where the story is set. unfolds.

“I just found myself swept up in this child’s world. And I found myself really moved by his predicament, being a mixed-race child who has a younger brother who is white with blue eyes, and the threat of being separated from his brother causing him to take certain measures.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-X64PDrrlfQ

Prior to becoming an author, de Waal had worked in family law, served on adoption committees, and served as a magistrate. Leon’s character was “kind of an amalgamation of a lot of boys I’ve worked with in the care system,” she says.

She went to meet Sir Lenny at lunchtime on the first day of the audiobook recording, and they hit it off.

The couple grew up in the West Midlands – Sir Lenny in Dudley and de Waal in Moseley. “She was a judge, I was on New Faces,” the actor and comedian jokes, referring to the talent show that gave him his big break in 1975.

She gave her production company approval to do the TV adaptation, and he was determined that it would be shot in Birmingham.

In the past, shows set in the Midlands have often been filmed elsewhere, says Sir Lenny. But “it had to happen and be filmed” in the city where it takes place.

Malachi Kirby and Cole Martin in My Name Is Leon

Malachi Kirby plays Tufty, who becomes a role model for Leon

Both the book and film are set in the early 1980s, and the drama has an impressive cast including Monica Dolan, Olivia Williams, Christopher Eccleston, Malachi Kirby, and Sir Lenny himself. At its heart is young Cole Martin, playing Leon.

The main character befriends some men from the Caribbean community on a housing estate and they take him under their wing. But he also learns hard lessons about racial prejudice and police brutality.

Sir Lenny grew up 15 years before the fictional Leon but could relate to parts of his story. He often faced day-to-day racism at school, but says he wished he had found such strong male mentors.

“Yes, it moved me,” he says of Leon’s story. “And I found that there were things that suited me.”

Young Lenny also went through a different kind of family upheaval when he discovered at age 11 that his father was not his biological father.

Sir Lenny Henry in My Name Is Leon

Sir Lenny Henry as Mr Johnson, one of the award holders

Leon’s biological father is in prison, but the boy eventually finds a father figure in Tufty, played by Kirby, who won a Bafta in 2021 for Sir Steve McQueen’s Small Axe.

“The great thing about Leon is that he ends up finding people who are his people,” Sir Lenny continues.

“Being of Caribbean descent, I grew up in a house with reggae music and soul music and stuff, whereas Leon was raised in a predominantly white house. So when he hears music reggae for the first time, it takes her breath away.

“And I love that in this story you see a boy becoming culturally aware, and you finally see him standing up for himself.”

So far, reviews for the drama have been mixed, with The Financial Times calls it “an uplifting story of foster care”, but with political and national strands that “sometimes seem awkwardly stitched together”.

The New Statesman said it is full of “ostensibly heartwarming” performances, and that it “can’t bear, one way or another, to deal with the consequences of the issues it is determined to raise”.

Left to right: director Lynette Linton, Cole Martin, Sir Lenny Henry and author Kit de Waal

Left-Right: Director Lynette Linton, Cole Martin, Sir Lenny Henry and Kit de Waal

De Waal says she didn’t go for the first book to have an explicit message. “But if people get anything out of it, it’s that there are a lot of kids in the care system who aren’t adopted, and siblings should stay together whenever possible,” says -she.

“I worked on the adoption panel and out of necessity siblings are separated all the time. It still happens today. It’s a phenomenon of children coming into the care system. charge.

“It’s not always the wrong thing. But sometimes it’s the wrong thing. And that’s certainly an important facet of adoption, that separated siblings get lost and feel that loss, like Leon does. .”

The suggestion in the story is that Leon cannot find an adoptive family because he is not white like his brother.

Does De Waal still think about Leon and what he would do now? “All the time,” she replies. “He’s a real character for me.”

Olivia Williams (left) and Monica Dolan in My Name Is Leon

Olivia Williams (left) and Monica Dolan play the sisters who take Leon away

In fact, she first wrote Leon as an adult character and then filled in his backstory. This backstory eventually took over and her novel became pretty much her childhood – making it a sort of prequel to the novel she had originally planned.

It worked, being nominated for the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Costa First Book Award and the British Books Awards after it was published in 2016.

She is now planning to publish the adult Leon’s story in a new book, which will be set when he is 43, she reveals.

In the meantime, Sir Lenny hopes the TV drama will have the same effect on viewers as the audiobook narration had on him. “I want it to be something that moves people,” he says.

“And if you can put yourself in Leon’s shoes you’ll think this shouldn’t have happened, it’s still happening now, what can we do about it?”

My Name Is Leon is on BBC Two at 9 p.m. on Fridays, and on BBC iPlayer.

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