‘Lenny McLean had been talking about this film for 40 years’

PUBLISHED: 08:00 25 May 2017

Josh Helman in My Name is Lenny. Picture: Rob Youngson

Josh Helman in My Name is Lenny. Picture: Rob Youngson

Rob Youngson

Zoe Paskett talks to Jamie McLean and director Ron Scalpello about bringing Lenny back to life in a new and long awaited biopic

My Name is Lenny starring Josh Helman and Michael Bisping. Picture: Rob Youngson/Lionsgate UKMy Name is Lenny starring Josh Helman and Michael Bisping. Picture: Rob Youngson/Lionsgate UK

Lenny McLean’s autobiography caught the country’s imagination when it sped to the top of the bestseller list in 1995. Even before that, the idea of a film biopic had been in the air.

But he never saw it happen. Now, nearly 20 years after his death, he’s got two films in a matter of months – The Guv’nor, a documentary lead by his son Jamie, was released in November. The feature My Name is Lenny is due to premiere next week.

“This film wasn’t just talked about 5 years ago,” says Jamie. “My dad had been talking about it for 40 years.

“When the book came out, he wanted to become an actor. A lot of people from the east end have a bit of a hard lot and then they do turn their life around at the end. He detested everything about violence and then he wanted to be an actor, that’s what his goal was.”

It wasn’t to be, as he died of lung cancer soon after, but he lives again on screen in the character played by Josh Helman, who was so convincing even Lenny’s own son was shocked.

“He had the hair right, the accent, the mannerisms, We had a camera test, and they got Josh ready and walked him up and you could hear a pin drop. The hair on my arms stood up. It was like looking at him again.”

Director Ron Scalpello had some doubts about Josh Helman’s ability to take on all the facets of Lenny’s complex personality, but these doubts were soon scuppered.

“I thought was going to be a bit of a struggle but he absolutely pulled it off,” Ron says. “They’re very expressive people, the McLeans, and Jamie’s a bit like his father – he’s very passionate and ambitious but he has a sense of legacy and when Josh turned up on the costume fitting on the test shoot, you could see him well up.

“I think there are a number of things going on: the actualisation of what his father couldn’t achieve when he was alive and seeing a version of him who looked very close to how his dad looked in the 70s.”

Lenny McLeanLenny McLean

Ron and Jamie worked closely together on the film, and having Lenny’s son in the picture put pressure on Ron to approach the film in a sensitive way.

“You have a tremendous sense of responsibility. For us we’re telling stories and we want to communicate with an audience and understand the character, make the story three dimensional and probably get underneath the mythology a little bit. But for Jamie, it’s life and it’s his father and it’s his family and, to be fair to him, he’s been very honest about the things that were virtuous about Lenny and the things that were destructive and borderline nihilistic.”

Growing up in east London , Ron was aware of the McLean family but says that he didn’t realise the extent of passion there was for their story and the impact the film would have on the audience. Having Jamie involved added another layer of connection

“We didn’t have the biggest budget in the world to get thousands of extras so Jamie said ‘let me deal with that’ and put something on Facebook - hundreds of people turned up.

“Sometimes you get extras and it’s just another day in the life and you don’t get any energy or enthusiasm out of them and it can sometimes be a struggle. But all those guys who came were absolutely committed to it and created an atmosphere that we all fed off as actors and directors and writers.”

Filming in Stoke Newington, Newington Green, Columbia Road, Bethnal Green and other locations around east London, they “were never more than four miles away from Hoxton” where Lenny grew up.

The film premieres June 9 at the East End Film Festival in York Hall.

“I wish my mum and dad were there,” says Jamie. “I’m over the moon with what we achieved.”

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