Lenny Henry

Lenny Henry

Date of birth: 28-08-1958

Born in Dudley, West Midlands, to Jamaican immigrant parents, Lenny Henry has been a stand-up comedian since 1975, winning the ITV talent show New Faces when he was just 16.

It landed him a role on LWT's sitcom The Fosters – Britain's first comedy series with predominantly black performers – and gave him a jump-start on the circuit of working men's clubs and summer seasons, where he would perform impressions and joke-book gags.

He also signed up to be one of the comedians on tour with the controversial Black and White Minstrels Show – alongside white song-and-dance men who blacked-up to sing old songs from the days of slavery. He later said of the shows: ‘I didn't really know any better... It hurts thinking about it now. I think the term "ill advised" could be bandied about here.’

He eventually quit the show as he found a new outlet in the Saturday-morning kids' show Tiswas in 1978. Although his early appearances did not go down well, he began to create recurring characters such as David Bellamy and Trevor McDonut, which found favour with the young audience.

Throughout the early Eighties he continued to perform in summer seasons alongside the likes of Cannon and Ball, while also starting to tour his own show in colleges.

After Tiswas, he was signed up to the 1981 BBC sketch show Three of a Kind alongside Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield, which ran for three series. At about this time, he first visited the Comedy Store where he met his future wife, Dawn French, and realised there was a different form of comedy: 'I didn't have to rely on impersonations so much and that I could be funnier by being myself.’

Three of a Kind was followed by his first solo show, the Lenny Henry Show, featuring Delbert Wilkins. It has reappeared under various guises over the years, including Lenny Henry Goes To Town, a prime-time Saturday night show in 1998 in which he visited a different UK town every week, and Lenny Henry In Pieces , which won the Golden Rose Award at the 2001 Montreux Television Festival. In the summer of 2007 he returned to the idea of touring the UK, with Lenny's Britain, a comedy documentary made during his live tour.

Henry claims to be the first British comic to have made a live stand-up comedy film, with Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed going on general release back in 1989. His other live shows have included In Loud (1994), Larger Than Life in (1996), Large 99 (1999), Have You Seen This Man (2002).

Henry also set up his own production company, Crucial Films, whiche made the BBC Two comedy series The Real McCoy.

In 1991, Henry made his Hollywood debut in True Identity, in which he played a white man, but the film proved a flop. In 1993 he made the first series of Chef! for BBC One, playing a short-tempered chef, and was named BBC personality of the year by the Radio and Television Industry Club. A second and third series followed.

He has also appeared in a number of dramatic roles, playing a drug dealer in BBC One's Alive and Kicking in 1991 and as headteacher Ian George in the BBC One drama Hope and Glory, which ran for three series from 1999.

In 1997, Lenny travelled to the Amazon to film a survival documentary for BBC One; and he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for a two-part documentary, Lenny's Atlantic Adventure, in 2000.

In early 2008, he hosted internet clip show lennyhenry.tv for BBC One, and starred in the Radio 4 show Rudy's Rare Records.

Henry was made a CBE in 1999 and knighted in the 2015 Birthday Honours. He also gained a BA in English Literature from the Open University in 2007.

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Lenny Henry: How I turned to comedy to beat racist bullies

Memoirs reveal the bigotry he faced

Sir Lenny Henry has revealed how he first turned to comedy to beat the racist bullies who targeted him at school.

The comic said he realised humour was a ‘weapon’ he could use to fight back against one particular pupil who tormented him as a teenager.

Sir Lenny’s account of growing up in Dudley in the 1970s – when ‘the National Front was out there starting trouble if you had the nerve to walk down the street with black skin’ – comes in his autobiography Who Am I, Again?

In the first, extensive, extracts published in The Mail on Sunday’s Event magazine today – he reveals the events that led him to take part in the ITV talent show New Faces in 1975, which started his showbusiness career.

He recalls the abuse he received  from one boy in particular,  he called ‘Danny Waverly’.

‘He’d say hateful things like, "Hey, darky. Oi,  nig-nog." Every day, the same greeting… for the sole reason that I was black,’ Sir Lenny recalls. Each encounter would end in a fight, despite the young Lenny always coming out worse.

But one day he hit back with his wit, revealing: ‘I said something like, "Not this again Waverly. Ya must really fancy me, ‘cos you’re always tryin’ to get me to roll around on the ground with ya…. Why don’t we go and have dinner and a movie first? You could buy me a ring – mek it official?"’

A fight still started, but the crowd that gathered started to laugh. ’Waverly still gave me one or two pops to the head, but the laughter made me feel immune,’ Sir Lenny recalls. Eventually, someone in the crowd said, "Jesus, leave him alone man."  The rest of the crowd joined in, and soon he simply stopped and walked away. 

‘I had a handle on what to do now. I had a weapon – humour. Result.’

Absorbing himself in TV – especially cartoons and the shows of impressionist Mike Yarwood – he worked up enough of an act to perform in a local club –  and after just a couple of performances, he auditioned for New Faces, getting on to the ITV show when he was just 16.

He opened with an impression of Frank Spencer and after the first rehearsal, producer John Pullen suggested: ‘Instead of facing the cameras and the audience, why don’t you start with your back to them? That way you’ll have a "reveal" when you turn around.’ 

Lenny says that, although he had no idea what a ‘reveal’ was, he did as he was told. He adds that, when his act began, ‘the audience laughed a bit. I hadn’t done any gags yet… just babbling. Then I turned round. Talk about impact; corsets burst open, wigs flew off, eyeballs popped out. 

‘In an instant, my life had changed for ever… I wasn’t just another impressionist. I was a young Afro-Caribbean, British-born lad from Dudley. I was black. And they hadn’t known.’

His success led to a stint on the Black and White Minstrel Show, and Sir Lenny recalls his discomfort at being the only real black person in the room – yet being too inexperienced to know how to deal with it.

And he believes he was only employed so that producers of the show – which entirely comprised white entertainers blacking up – could demonstrate they weren’t racist.

‘The dislocation I felt as I walked out, looked at the audience and saw no one resembling me was palpable,’ he said.

 Read the full extracts from the memoirs here. The book, Who Am I, Again?, can be ordered here ahead of its publication on October 3.

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Published: 22 Sep 2019

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