Lenny McLean is a name synonymous with the East End of London.
Born in 1949, Lenny suffered at the hands of an abusive step-father growing up, before emerging as arguably the most notorious bareknuckle boxer in all of Britain and a man more commonly known as the Guv’nor.
Already well-established as the hardest man in Britain, Lenny blossomed into an actor and author in his later years, penning a best-selling tell-all autobiography and appearing in Guy Ritchie’s debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrells.
But just when Lenny looked to have the world at his feet, tragedy struck, with cancer taking Lenny’s life at the age of just 49.
Now, some 18 years since his passing, the story of Lenny and those infamous bareknuckle boxing encounters, has been brought to the screen by director Ron Scalpello in My Name Is Lenny, with Austrailian actor Josh Helman stepping into the Guv’nor’s sizeable shoes.
Jamie McClean knows Lenny more than most. The son of the East End legend, he served as producer on the film having already lifted the lid on his dad’s incredible story in the powerful documentary The Guv’nor.
Here, he speaks to loaded about resurrecting the legend one more time.
loaded: There’s been talk of someone making a film chronicling Lenny’s life since Lock Stock first came out – how did it finally end up happening?
Jamie: Well, when the production company behind the film first came to me five or six years ago about wanting to make a film, I actually turned them down. I had been happy with the reaction to my dad’s book at the time and thought that’s that, but they kept coming back so eventually I agreed to it, under the condition that I be involved in the making of it. I also got my cousin, Martin Askew, on board as a writer. He’d written for Guy Ritchie on RocknRolla and thought he would help make it authentically east end.
loaded: Is it true that Jason Statham was originally attached to star as Lenny?
Jamie: Yes, Jason was going to do the movie, when we had a budget of about £10 million but the production company that was involved in that version of the project ran out of money so that was the end of that. Eventually, Salon Pictures got involved. They had done the recent Paul Gascoigne documentary and the one I did about my dad (The Guv’nor). Although it would have been great to see Jason in the role, it proved to be a blessing in disguise because Josh Helman is incredible.
loaded: What did Josh Helman bring to the role of Lenny? Did he surprise you?
Jamie: Josh is just a very complex character, with a lot of layers to him, which kind of helped with this kind of character. He can be funny, scary and even somber and he really morphed into the role of Lenny, which was incredible to see. I suppose it was kind of exciting but upsetting at the same time, seeing him transform like that on set and he really did look a lot like my dad when he was younger. I still remember when they did they camera test. They got him in costume for the first time and it was incredible. He came in the room, in front of 40 or 50 people, with the sideburns and everything and you could hear a pin drop. It was quite an emotional experience for me. Just surreal. I will never forget it.
loaded: In the film and in real life, Lenny was very attached to the idea of being the Guv’nor, the hardest man on the street, what do you think that title meant to him?
Jamie: Being the Guvnor wasn’t about winning one boxing match. Lenny came from poverty and everything he got in life, he fought for with his own bare hands. To have that reputation was everything. There was the abuse too. When he was a kid, his step-dad used to smash him about the place and tell him he would never be the Guv’nor and that he was the Guv’nor. Lenny almost got this idea in his head that he had to beat these demons away and fight to prove himself.
loaded: The film obviously chronicles a lot of difficult episodes involving Lenny in his childhood and growing up – was that difficult to revisit?
Jamie: There’s a lot of mixed emotions. When you see the young Lenny in the film, being physically abused by his step-father like that, you are upset for him. I saw my uncle the other day and he remembers how terrifying that bloke was. He said the only good times they had was when their stepfather went to prison for 18 months. Honestly, they used to be scared to come home from school. Then there’s the extreme violence of Lenny himself. I would watch it and just could imagine the kind of anger and hatred he must have felt to do some of things he did to people. To bite someone’s neck, for example. To go through all these emotions during filming was incredible. It was so up and down. It was just an unforgettable experience but I feel we ultimately made the film we wanted to make.
loaded: Do you think it captures both sides of Lenny? Some of the softer side his family saw, for example?
Jamie: I think so. It’s not often that you see that sort of abuse on film. No matter what he’s done you will have sympathy for him. In the end, he transcended all that violence and chaos and made a better life for himself though. That’s why he wrote the book and wanted to become an actor. He had so much to look forward to but unfortunately, his life was cut short. Mind you, I know he died at 49 but what he went though… he had more than nine lives.
loaded: Lenny was a scary bloke but he was also this huge, larger than life character, what is it that makes him so popular with the public?
Jamie: Because he was a working class bloke with a working class story. He didn’t win the heavyweight championship of the world or an Oscar. He was just a working class bloke and that’s what a lot of people relate to. That’s why he’s got this massive fan base. You go anywhere and you’ll find people that know the story. If you grew up in a certain place, at a certain time, there’s also a lot to relate to in the film. His alcoholism, the fact he suffered abuse and the story of him and my mum. They were childhood sweethearts and that’s an element some people might not expect. The film is not what people will expect. There are a lot of layers to it. If you are expecting a cockney slug-fest, you might be disappointed. Yes, there’s violence but that’s only half of it.
loaded: Can you clear up a rumour: was Sylvester Stallone ever in line to play Lenny?
Jamie: Yeah, years ago these Hollywood producers came over with this big idea. It was going to have Gene Hackman in it with Stallone. There’s been talk of this movie being made for about 30 years. It was emotional to finally see it up on the big screen though. My dad was quite a shrewd man in a lot of respects but when it came to this dream of one day having his own film, he was a bit blinkered about it. He couldn’t see past it. There were so many crooks and false promises. I think, ultimately, that if he had been alive he would have made it with Guy Ritchie. Guy and Matthew Vaughn did come to me about maybe making the film but they wanted me to wait 18 months until they had finished Snatch to do it. Then someone else wanted to do it and I just had to move forward.
loaded: Do you think there are any Guv’nors still out there?
Jamie: No, Lenny was the last. A lot of it’s down to the way the world is now. If he was in the life now, he’s probably be in prison. There’s also a lot of kids going round carrying guns now. They are fighting over postcodes, not to put food on the table. Lenny is the last of his kind. There’s no one like him around now. There are UFC guys like Conor McGregor about but to actually have someone known as the hardest man in Britain, I think he took that title with him.
loaded: Settle a debate for us – Who would have won in a fight between Lenny, in his prime, and McGregor?
Jamie: In his prime, in the streets, with no gloves, I think Lenny would have had him. He’s obviously a lot bigger and obviously he’s my dad and I’ve got to say that. But I’m a huge McGregor fan too. I think he’s fantastic. Got to go with my old man though.
loaded: This film is extra poignant for the fact it features John Hurt’s last film performance. What was it like to have him onboard?
Jamie: It meant a lot to me that he did the film in the first place because one of my favourite films is Midnight Express. To see him on set, working, was such a privilege. He was old school, almost like royalty. He was class and everything he did on set was lovely. Some of his scenes with Josh are very powerful and extra special given what happened. We paid tribute to him in the final credits too. He’s British acting royalty and to have him involved was a real credit to the film.
loaded: What’s the one thing you hope people take away from My Name Is Lenny?
Jamie: I just hope people empathise with what he went through as a kid to help explain what he did as a man. He wasn’t just this one-dimensional hard man. He was a loving father and husband. He adored my mum. Not everyone is going to like the film but I think it shows that.
My Name Is Lenny is available to download and own on DVD & Blu-ray now.