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's Race Through Comedy

TV review by Steve Bennett

Despite a small handful of high-profile exceptions, black and Asian characters tend to be under-represented in TV comedy. But this fascinating new series demonstrates just how far we’ve come in a generation, while also giving an insight into Britain’s social history as reflected through the screen.

One moment sums it up perfectly when Chewing Gum actress Roxy Sternberg is shown a clip from the 1970s sitcom Love Thy Neighbour, based entirely around a bigoted white homeowner trading insults with the black guy next door. ‘I heard "Sambo,"’ she says, horrified but uncertain why. ‘What is "Sambo?"’

Love Thy Neighbour was not exceptional for a time that also gave us a browned-up Spike Milligan playing a Pakistani in Curry And Chips, and Mind Your Language, which was based only on foreigners’ accents and broken  English.

Yet there was also Rising Damp, where Don Warrington’s sharp, sardonic and well-spoken Philip brings out all of Rigsby’s worst prejudices without playing to any stereotypes. And The Fosters, the first British sitcom to have an entirely black cast, including one Lenworth Henry.

Ironically, that was commissioned by Michael Grade – who also ordered Mind Your Language, even if he did later have the good sense to regret it. Ditching prejudices proved hard for broadcasters.

Sir Lenny takes us through the likes of Mixed Blessings, about an inter-racial couple which was probably considered progressive in the way it was sympathetic to the lead characters. But as Lord Grade says: ‘The show never outgrew its premise that the couple are "a problem" because he’s white and she’s black.’

American imports like Diff'rent Strokes and, yes, The Cosby Show, helped normalise the representation of black families, as did Channel 4 with its remit to push the envelope. Desmond’s, of course, is fondly remembered; less so is its first ever sitcom, No Problem!  created by the Black Theatre Co-operative.

More than a typical talking-head clip show, by including some lesser-known programmes Race Through Comedy gives an illuminating picture of how comedy has been evolving into an ever-better place right up to the likes of Phoneshop, People Just Do Nothing and Chewing Gum (but not Man Like Mobeen, a rare omission).

Sir Lenny’s a perfect host for this, and not just because of his always-affable presence. His campaigning for better representation on and off screen is well known, yet he doesn’t need to be polemical, as so often the old programmes speak for themselves.

Plus he’s able to pull in some top interviewees to add commentary, either because of their involvement or their insight. Professor Robert Beckford describing a ‘trilogy of disasters’ with sitcoms suggesting black people were a problem to work with, to live next door to, and to marry – which seems on the nose.

And finally, Sir Lenny has solid credentials in all the subjects covered across the three episodes, not just tonight’s episode on sitcom, but also stand-up tomorrow and sketch comedy on Thursday.

Lenny Henry's Race Through Comedy is on Gold at 9pm tonight, tomorrow and Thursday.

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Published: 15 Oct 2019

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