Lenny Henry biography

Ever since I was a kid, I have wanted to be a comedian. I always play acted. I always pretended to be The Man from UNCLE or Batman or Napoleon Solo or The Man in the Suitcase.

This play acting led to me doing lots of impressions at school. I did lots of silly characters and impressions of the teachers (all the same backsides again). I always ended up in the head teacher’s office with my hand out for the stick.

Strangely, though, getting the stick, the slipper or the pump also meant that as class clown I would end up on stage in the school show at the Queen Mary Ballroom, doing impersonations.

I did impersonations of Top Cat, Fred Flintstone, John Wayne, James Stewart, Stevie Wonder and Elvis, and I had a fan base when I was 15, which was surprising to my mum.

When we were doing the shopping at Dudley Town Hall, for the first time ever lots of people would come up to us and say, “Oh, hi, Len, how are you doing?”

Then they would say, “All right, Miss Winnie.” That was the first for her. I was eclipsing her fame!

I was spotted by a local DJ called Oscar Michael. He wrote off to New Faces and Opportunity Knocks and said, “I have got this 16-year-old black comedian here.” Opportunity Knocks did not reply (so much for the frigging clapometer!)

But New Faces wrote back and said, “A 16-year-old black comedian from Dudley? We’ll have some of that!”

New Faces

I went on to win New Faces twice and appear in the all winners’ final at the London Palladium. It’s still one of the best things I’ve ever done. The opening three minutes of my career on television was raw, shambolic, but strangely endearing, and with some good jokes. (There were some dodgy ones, but give me a break. I was 16).

Since then, I’ve done all sorts. I pretty much have no regrets about anything. I was in the Black and White Minstrel Show. Go figure, the only real black person within a 60-mile radius. But I made some good friends and I learned statecraft, so it was good for something.

My comedy impressions saw me through to appearances on children’s television on Tiswas (“today’s Saturday, watch and suffer!”), TV shows like Blankety Blank, The Ronnie Corbett Show, Crackerjack, Three of a Kind, The Lenny Henry Show (various incarnations) and Lenny Henry in Pieces.

I even made the transition into acting with dramas like Hope and Glory, Alive and Kicking, Coast to Coast and many more.

I was lucky enough to be chosen by Radio One to be a DJ. I did a show called The Sunday Hoot to fill in for Noel Edmonds when he was on a very long holiday during the summers. I introduced characters like Elfreda the Tea Lady and Gronk Zillman, private eye of the 21st century (my tribute to Blade Runner).

I loved working on Radio One between 1982 and 1985, and in the end moved from Sundays to Saturdays when I would play for an hour and do various characters. It was a joyous time.

I also sat in for David Rodigan when he got married, and did two weeks on Capital Radio playing reggae, which was also incredibly enjoyable. My favourite jingle was, “When Rodigan come back, he gonna kill you.”

I also starred in a couple of American movies (how weird to be in movies before you’ve actually done any proper acting): True Identity, my only Hollywood film, and The Suicide Club, my only independent US film. I’m proud of them, but they didn’t exactly set the world alight.

True Identity was in the corner shop bargain bin before the plane taking me home landed.

Nobody watched The Suicide Club. Although I remember when it debuted at the London Film Festival, myself and the director went out to answer questions and all we saw was the crossest group of film journalist you’ve ever seen. People were apoplectic with rage. They had “we will never get that 90 minutes back” tattooed on their foreheads.

Later, I developed a career as a stage actor. My West End theatre debut was in the role of Othello in the Northern Broadsides production directed by Barrie Rutter at the Trafalgar Studios. It was a life-changing role.

I won the London Evening Standard Milton Shuman Award for Outstanding Newcomer, which was mind-blowing, I never thought I’d win an award like that.

To win it for the first real stage performance I’d ever done was a testament to what Barrie Rutter’s direction and teaching and the Northern Broadsides company did for me.

They were very tight and they really walked me through the whole rehearsal process. I’d never really rehearsed in that “we’ve only got four weeks” kind of way.

But Barrie always said to me, “The thing about you is you’ve never had ‘corridor time’. You’ve never sat in a corridor with a script going, ‘Bloody hell, I’m never going to learn this bastard.'”

The great thing was, everybody wanted me to learn it and everybody wanted me to be good in the play. And so Conrad [Nelson], who played Iago, worked with me every day. We rehearsed every single lunchtime.

And after the show, we drank together, we ate together. They did everything possible to elevate me to make sure that I didn’t fail.

Those teachings carried me through Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre, Fences, Arturo Ui, and beyond.

I’ve done all these plays and won a Best Actor award for Fences. But Northern Broadsides was the beginning, and the training I got there was basically my acting school. And I’ll always be grateful for that.

Comedy of Errors at the Olivier with Dominic Cooke as director was wonderful, exhilarating. It was a huge company in the Olivier, running around that massive set and sustaining injuries almost every other day. I mean, it’s terrific to be at the Olivier. It’s great being on stage at that level and working to that audience.
But it’s knackering. That show was exhausting to do, but I loved working with the cast and crew. It was a huge honour to be at the National Theatre.

Then I did Fences, which is the August Wilson play, directed by Paulette Randall. We did a tour of Britain and ended up at the Duchess Theatre in London in 2014.

I remember one of the great stories from the tour. It was an all-black cast, of course. We were in digs, and we came out of the theatre in Clywd. We were all standing there waiting for the bus to come and get us.

Then somebody came out and said, “All right, lovely. What are you people doing out here at this time of night?” He had never seen four or five black people just standing around in Clywd in the middle of the night like that.

Peter Bankole, who played my son, said to me afterwards when we were having a cup of coffee and decompressing, “You should have said, ‘we’re coming for your wallet!'”

But I’m glad we didn’t say that.

I also enjoyed the experience of Educating Rita at the Chichester Festival Theatre. It was a good twist on it, too, because I don’t think there’s ever been a black cast of that. I really enjoyed the challenge of it.

I was just sad that more black people didn’t come to see it. Chichester is a lovely venue. But literally, Lashana [Lynch, who played Rita] and I were the only black people within 100-mile radius.

King Hedley II at the Theatre Royal Stratford East was a massive experience, too. It was a really, really long play to do. I think there are people in the audience still watching it now. Bloody hell, it was long. I have dreams sometimes when I’m in the middle of a scene still doing it.

But it was August Wilson writing about Black Lives Matter before that movement was formed. It’s about the painful poverty of black lives in the ghetto and what people feel they have to do to survive. It’s about the legacy of gun crime. It’s about how you get through that and about the adventure or tragedy of it all. And it was a real trip.

I adore acting. It’s a real full circle since pretending to be James Bond as I walked to school. To embody another human being and to do that on stage in front of people seems like the ultimate in play acting. I love that.

I’ve done lots of other random things. I’ve done TV shows like The Magicians and Lenny Goes to Town (thanks, Mark Steel, for keeping the flag flying).

And I’ve done lots of sell-out tours of Australia, New Zealand and the UK, with Phil McIntyre, and various others. My tours are always called things like “Stand Up, Get Down” or “Cradle to Grave or “Rock the House”. I don’t know why.

Touring is great, but exhausting, and it takes you away from home. I enjoy it, but I don’t enjoy the travelling and being away from home. So I’ll probably do less touring in the future.

But I do love doing stand-up and I do love being on stage. So maybe there’ll be another incarnation of touring, which might be me doing the show, but in the same place for a while.

I was always envious of Rowan Atkinson, being somewhere for five weeks, and I always thought how great to be able to do your set and then go home. So maybe that’s what I’ll do in the future.

I write more than I used to – and I thank having a computer for that. I used to make lots of lists all the time. When I was starting out, I was a compulsive list-maker. I wrote lots of lists and had lots of ideas, but I never really finished anything.

I think it’s because my handwriting was appalling. It still is, so if anybody knows of a calligraphy teacher, please let me know.

My friend Carlton Dixon has the most perfect handwriting, and so did Don McLean from Crackerjack. But my handwriting looks like some ants crawled through some spilled ink and just made a squiggle across the page. My handwriting is literally the worst you’ve ever seen.

At the behest of a book called The Artist’s Way, I’ve spent years writing a journal every day for half an hour – but can I read it? No!

I’ve written radio plays, too. The first few were done with a brilliant Radio 4 producer called Claire Grove, who sadly is no longer with us. Claire did this fantastic thing where she encouraged me, she had empathy for the things I wanted to write about, and she absolutely gave me permission to write. She said, “Go ahead and write.” And so I did.

My first radio play, which I think is still the best one, is called Corrinne Come Back and Gone. It’s about a woman called Corrinne who leaves an abusive relationship in Jamaica. She’s been having lessons in obeah, which is like witchcraft or voodoo, from the local witchy woman to protect herself and her children from her husband.

Then she leaves Jamaica to live in Britain, but she leaves her kids with him. Then when she goes back 20 years later, she has to cope with the fact that she left and she has to explain herself to her daughters. I think it’s the most complete radio play I’ve written.

But I’ve enjoyed doing all of them. I have a really fond memory of doing Miss You Still and working with Frances Barber on Amsterdam. But more than anything else, I really liked doing Corrinne Come Back and Gone.

I actually remember I cried at the read-through. It wasn’t just because of the money you get paid on the radio, which is not really very good, but because I’d written something that was going to go out on the radio and I was really chuffed. I want to write more for the radio.

I’ve been really supported by Radio 4 drama and comedy. Rudy’s Rare Records was my idea, but it was written by Danny Robbins. I was an associate on that.

It was great. We had lots of fun. They had more black people in the BBC Radio Theatre than there’s ever been. Every single recording was like a party. I really wish we’d done a TV version because the audience would have loved it.

I also wrote my first ever proper drama for BBC One, Danny and the Human Zoo, which is a kind of alternate-universe version of my life up until the age of 17 or 18. It was produced by Red Productions, who did The Stranger, Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax.

Nicola Schindler and Caroline Hollick from Red were the premier development and production team in the UK at the time. They absolutely steered me through the development and the production process.

It was brilliantly directed by Destiny Ekaragha as well. A big shout out to the cast and crew who did it. We managed to get a diverse cast and crew, including Cecilia Noble and Peter Bankole. It was a wonderful experience, and once again I cried at the read-through! It was joyous to do.

In addition, I did Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate for BBC One. I loved playing Godfrey and I miss him.

I also did The Long Song, the television adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel. This was a really, really powerful experience for me. I played another Godfrey. He was the head slave in a plantation house, and he never thought he’d leave.

At first, I didn’t know whether it was in my wheelhouse because when you’re a black actor, you know at some point somebody’s going to ask you to play a slave. But actually, before she passed away, Andrea asked me to read the part. And of course, the minute the producers asked me, I said yes.

It was a triumphant experience for everybody involved. I thought Mahalia Belo’s direction and Tamara Lawrance’s performance in particular were award-worthy.

I’ve done a lot of other stuff. I made Lenny Henry’s Got the Blues for Sky. It made me realise that I can sing, but I’m probably not Robert Johnson the way I thought I was – maybe only in the bath or the shower when I’m showing off!

Leading up to the live performance of Lenny’s Got the Blues, I did a lot of work on the voice. I sang nonstop, but when I got to the last bit of the performance, I suddenly realised that I sounded like Columbo.

I had one more song to do. It had been going pretty well up to that point. But suddenly I had this “Columbo gargling with pebbles” effect. I sounded like Tom Waits and Colombo combined. I said to myself, “This is going to be terrible”, and it was.

So I thought, “Maybe only do one song on television in the future. Don’t try and do a set.”

But I adored doing that show. It coincided with an album that I made called New Millennium Blues, which I loved doing. Making an album is really good fun. I highly recommend it. And if it’s your money, then they have to do what you say.

I worked with Jakko Jakszyk from King Crimson, who’s been a friend of mine for years, and I co-wrote songs with him. I’m really proud of “The Cops Don’t Know”, and I’m also very proud of New Millennium Blues.

Here’s a link to the album, if you want to buy it. https://www.amazon.co.uk/NEW-MILLENNIUM-BLUES-Lenny-Henry/dp/B014GLTRGQ

Oh my God, I got a knighthood from the Queen, and I made a joke about it. I said I had been assaulted by an old age pensioner with a sword! But it was a big day. My family was there. We had a party, and we ate and drank far too much.

It was almost like a cap to quite a long career. I mean, I’ve been doing this since I was 16.

But all these Lifetime Achievement Awards are weird. I can’t quite cope with them!

In the midst of all of this, of course, is Comic Relief, which started in 1985. Richard Curtis was the impetus behind it. He and I drove the first few, but it’s become this big corporate machine now, which is brilliant.

It’s a huge, respected, established charity for generating millions and millions of pounds for people in the UK and in the developing world. I think it’s great.

I miss the days when it was just three people and a dog in a room arguing about where the money should go and why. But I love the fact that Richard is still at the helm, and that people still care and put their hands in their pocket for it.

I’m also incredibly proud of the British public who have raised over a billion pounds for charities in the developing world and the UK. It started off as two thirds in Africa, one third in the UK, but now it’s half and half.

I think that’s right. Because there are many things happening in the UK in terms of poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, and other issues that Comic Relief addresses all over the country, and that should be celebrated as much as the work they do in the developing world.

So God bless Richard Curtis. I’m part of the co-founding team. I’ve been a Comic Relief trustee, and I’ve been involved in nearly every Comic Relief Red Nose Day since 1988. But actually Richard has driven it since 1985, and he is our inspiration and our leader.

One of the things I’m proudest of is the studying. I didn’t know I was going to do the studying, but from 2000 onwards I have. I did a BA honours in English Literature with the Open University (rock on the OU, studying from home – Oh my God, that’s going to catch on!)

I had a year off, and then I did an MA in screenwriting at the Royal Holloway College. (God bless everybody in my group and big respect to Professor Sue Clayton and all the lecturers involved.)

Sue then encouraged me to do a PhD in screenwriting, and diversity and inclusion in the British film and TV industry. And I did.

I had a special interest in sports films. People joke and say, “Lenny did a PhD in sports films.”

But it started with what you think it’s going to be about – mine, like all PhDs, started with Rocky – and then grew and mutated into this massive document about pretty much everything to do with black, brown and ethnic minority people in the movies. In the films we watch every day, why aren’t there more black people in positions of power behind the camera? And so the thesis became a meditation on that.

I’m really proud to have walked down and got my scroll because doing a PhD puts a huge stress on your nervous system. I remember when I became an Honorary Fellow at Goldsmith’s University, two people got up to accept their PhDs. This one woman burst into tears when she came and got hers. She was in bits.

Afterwards, I went to her and asked, “Why were you so upset?”

She said, “Because this has been the most stressful six years of my life. I thought it would never come to an end. I couldn’t really cope with the constant appraisal, the constant criticism, the constant rewriting, and it’s really affected me. Now I’m in two minds as to whether I want to go into the business that I thought I wanted to go into.”

She wanted to be an author, and she was in two minds about going through all of that again.

But I said to her, “You have got to keep going because it’ll never be like that again. You’ll never have the intense scrutiny of having tutors poring over every single sentence you write. If you become an author, you’ll be in charge of your own work.”

That’s not strictly true because you have editors and script editors. But actually, I do think there’s a freedom in being your own boss when you do work apart from your PhD. So my PhD is one of the things I’m proudest of.

In recent years, I’ve been campaigning for diversity, and you’ll read more about that elsewhere. But just to say diversity isn’t really what we’re talking about in the end.

In the end, what we’re looking for is inclusion. We’re looking for representation. We’re looking to walk into a room, whether it’s to do with broadcast media or not, and see ourselves reflected in the people that are there. The people that make decisions, the gatekeepers.

There’s a paucity of representation in these areas. In every boardroom, every production space, every edit suite, every script editor’s office, every place where things get greenlit, there’s a lack of BAME representation.

We are campaigning to change that, but it’s a massive Sisyphean journey. It is like pushing water uphill. There has been progress, but at times it feels like three steps forward, two and a half steps back.

It would be great if there was more government support. There has been some government support. But because the government keeps changing – and oh boy, we are on Toad’s wild ride at the moment! – we won’t get anywhere until there is a sense of stability around the things that we’re trying to do.

We also need a realisation that the only way forward, the only way that we can make good on all those well-meaning statements about Black Lives mattering, is if the Establishment goes out of its way to empower those black lives and all those other minorities I’ve mentioned.

Empower us and we will show you what true diversity is. Diversity of thought isn’t just an echo chamber of people who went to the same college as you and have the same headquarters as you and have the same degrees as you.

True diversity is diversity of colour, diversity of experience, diversity of being. True diversity is all of those things and more. And when you get all those people at the table, there will be arguments, there will be banging of the table with fists, there will be walkouts, but oh my God, the brilliance that will come out of those conversations will blow you away.

Nothing good comes without conflict. The best decision-making comes from proper debate, proper discussion. It doesn’t come from people just agreeing with you. I do wish us luck. It’s an uphill struggle. But there are victories to be had. We already celebrate the small ones.

And I assure you, when we get a big win, I will do a naked streak down Pall Mall!

Watch this space.