Premièred by BBC One HD Danny and the Human Zoo Written by Lenny Henry
Biopics are difficult to get right. “Life stories” tell not so much a life story but a specific event in someone’s life. Henry seems to realise this, as he has instead written Danny and the Human Zoo as a story based on his life, rather than telling it exactly. And in Danny and the Human Zoo, “Danny” takes a similar destiny to Henry – the son of Jamaican immigrants living in the United Kingdom, who uses comedy, specifically imitations – as a defence against racial abuse.
There are multiple plot threads developing over the course of several years, and this is the weakness of Danny and the Human Zoo. Because just as one thread is really beginning, it’s side-lined as the story cuts forward to some time later. Over the course of ninety minutes, this happens too many times for me to feel that there’s anything there. It’s like watching a mini-series re-edited for an omnibus rerun. Just as you begin to feel as if what’s just been set-up is about to come together in some way, that situation immediately ends in favour of something else. A much better structure would’ve been to single-out a specific event and write around that.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end – because there is. You do feel it, and you can tell when it’s happening. It’s just that, with each scene that develops it, there’s another scene that’s derivative. Henry clearly wanted to show what his life was like during this time, but the weakness of his style is that it feels more like a montage of set-pieces. And the set-pieces definitely work on their own. Henry works in theatre, he knows how to stage a group of characters and use them for dramatic purposes. It’s just that when some of them are trying to develop an arc, you wonder how you got there, and by the time it’s over, you also wonder how it’s supposed to be an ending, as opposed to the film just stopping. Any of the previous scenes could have been an equally legitimate final act. But that’s compared to the ending that’s there, not in the sense of the story going forward with any sense of intent with every scene.
It could have worked well as a multi-part series or a shorter piece that knows what story it wants to tell. Instead, we get some great parts, but a greatly weak sum.