When I wrote my recent post about Bonnie Langford, I said I felt as though I’d grown up with her. I feel the same about Lenny Henry: he’s been famous for as long as I can remember and shows like Tiswas and Comic Strip Presents are engrained in our national psyche, as is Comic Relief.
Unbelievably, Lenny Henry has just turned 61. He has also just published the first volume of his biography, ‘Who am I, again?’. “Faber & Faber sat me down and asked me what kind of book I’d like to write – but said they thought people wanted an honest book. For my part, I thought it would be doing my mum and me a disservice if I wasn’t honest”.
Henry’s mother, Winifred, is central to the book and cropped up again and again in tonight’s conversation with Romesh Ranganathan at the Southbank Centre. This formidable lady “grew up in poverty” and paid £28 to come to Britain, leaving Lenny’s older brother, Seymour, behind so that she could forge a better life for her family. “My mother came to the mother country and kind of found a new life”, mused Henry, “but it wasn’t what she expected”.
No wonder. The level of racial abuse that Lenny and his family experienced growing up in Dudley was horrific. Painfully, it sometimes came from the most unexpected sources, “Like my mate Stephen. He lived next door to me and he had everything: all the toys you could possibly think of. He was an only child, whose parents spared no expense in keeping him amused – and we were great friends”.
And yet, one day, when Lenny went next door to see if Stephen was free to come out to play: “He spat at me, through the front door, and told me not to come round again.”
Smiling at an aghast audience, Henry told us, “It broke my heart, but I carried on with my life. But it wasn’t his fault; it was his parents’ influence. I’d love to meet him again, as adults. I would hug him, and tell him it’s OK.”
Would that I could be so forgiving. And would that I shared some of his formidable mother’s characteristics: “She wore a mask of granite…don’t mess with me. Yet, she’s always been a gifted storyteller: charming, funny and outrageous. She’s great, my mum”.
And yet, “The most significant person in my life” terrorised her children. “She hit me so many times with a pan, it retained the shape of my face”, Henry joked. “Once, she threw a chair at me”. This, remember, was the 1960s, whose attitudes towards child-rearing differed greatly. How have Henry’s family reacted to the book? “I sent copies to all my family members, who gave me lots of encouragement – but also asked whether I should say these things about Mum, particularly the beatings. But I reserve the right to write my truth.”
Interestingly, Henry was criticised by a black journalist for writing such an honest account of his childhood. I wonder why? He’s been brutally honest about the racial abuse he experienced as a child: “I had to deal with people on the street abusing me. And then, as an adult and a comedian, people criticised my Caribbean accent. I’m from Dudley, that’s why it wasn’t perfect! It is hard, though, being criticised by your black peers.”
What was the young Lenny like? “Even though I became famous when I was young, I was terrible with girls. I was growing up, and spotty! I tried to have an afro, but it didn’t work”. Sensing the audience’s amusement, Henry continued, “I was eight foot tall in my platforms – and girls didn’t want to go out with me. The church girls, in particular, were always interested in the bad boys. Life, in general, was tough, with ‘Keep Britain White’ written on people’s walls.”
Race continued to play a predominant role in Henry’s life. “When I started performing, coming from an ethnic minority you had to get the white audience on your side. You went to places where you were the only black person within a 50-mile radius. Your heart would be in your mouth”.
Nonetheless, Henry persevered and believes to this day that it’s important to break down barriers with humour. “Men, in particular, slowly start to soften and listen”. More than once, Henry had to follow the “hardcore” Jim Davidson, who “…made people laugh, and then I had to figure out how to make those same people laugh”.
Was he aware of the impact winning New Faces at such a young age would have? “I look back and think: Wow – you were only 16. I wouldn’t want my daughter to go through that.” Elaborating, Henry shared that he “…signed contracts I shouldn’t have signed. My mum knew nothing about that world”.
At that time, he was influenced by Morecambe & Wise, and by Mike Yarwood (“I was fascinated by his impressions”). Perhaps more surprisingly, he watched The Benny Hill Show and Love Thy Neighbour. Henry admired Tommy Cooper and Freddie Starr – but black role models would present themselves later: “There were none on telly during the 1960s”. In the meantime, Henry lusted after Michelle Nichols, from Star Trek: “That’s when I became a man!”
And then, Lenny Henry discovered Richard Pryor. “He had such a great sense of humour. I couldn’t work out how he was so honest and in your face. Pryor fascinated me – and taught me about writing. I also listened to Woody Allen and Steve Martin, but when I saw Richard Pryor live, it was a revelation. The sheer bravado of the man; the poetry of his movement. He was fantastic, as was his unflinching commitment to telling the story”.
The lack of black role models must have been tough, suggested Ranganathan. Did Lenny have people of colour helping him when he came through? “I did a TV series called The Fosters. They were the first black family depicted on British TV, and there were things wrong with the show…but the cast were amazing. Away from work, they made me go to the theatre – which I loved.” More than that: “Norman shepherded me through being on TV, and Isabelle Lucas told me to learn to sing, and to take dance classes, because it’s what you need to do. I didn’t listen – and I wish I had.”
How does Henry feel about being a role model himself, now? As Ranganathan pointed out, Henry and Trevor McDonald are the most famous black men on TV – and with that comes the pressure of being a “representative”. “How did you cope? Especially when you went off to do The Black & White Minstrel Show?”
It’s difficult, Henry replied, because you’re representing every black and brown person in the country. That’s why he’s so passionate about diversity: there needs to be more choice. As for The Black & White Minstrel Show, it was a “weird archaic show business anomaly. People didn’t black up; they did impressions.” But: “It was like wearing a blanket of sadness for a long time”.
You can’t interview Lenny Henry and not mention Comic Relief – and Ranganathan duly obliged, asking Henry how it feels to look back on what the charity has achieved. “We thought it important post-Live Aid. Who wasn’t moved by Michael Buerk’s film? Watching it was like being hit by a truck.”
The first charity show Richard Curtis organised raised £3 million – “And afterwards, everyone was partying at Richard’s house and saying how the whole event should’ve been shown on TV with money being raised throughout the night.” That was the trigger, following which Henry and co. wrote lots of letters – “and lots of the people that we sent them to said no. But a few said yes, and that led to the first official Comic Relief event and we raised £5 million. It was the most significant thing we have done as a generation.”
Inspiring – as is the way in which Henry’s career has progressed. Having been on the road on his own for nearly 40 years, Lenny wanted another challenge. Having appeared on a radio show called Lenny and Will theatre beckoned, in the shape of the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Othello: “I was desperately nervous, but all of the cast supported me.”
‘Who am I, again?’ concludes when Henry turns 22: “There’s more to come!” he cracked. Having thoroughly enjoyed this engaging and entertaining interview, I cannot wait.