Lenny Henry

October thoughts...

19 October 2020

Welcome back, people! Happy Black History Month! 

How did you spend Black History Month eve? (Basically the rest of the year...)

All the joy and hilarity and jollity is so edifying when we celebrate black history – I could just frolic with happiness.

It's fascinating to me how the dominant culture repeatedly attempt to cram all of black history into a month. My problem is, I'm black all year round, every single day of my life, not just for those thirty days. Do people think we're all like mayflies? Born on 1 October and then dead on 31 October? It’s a reductive perspective certainly – ‘Yeah, they’ve had a month of their history, turn that off now… lets get back to normal history…’

I'd appreciate some thought going into these things. We deserve attention all year round, not just this one, measly month. 

Obviously we should be on school curriculums and featured on TV and radio schedules year round because we're here all year round. Our history isn’t just black history - we are an integral part of world history and should be viewed as such.

How great, though, that Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ wasn't shown in Black History Month. It was just seen as a magnificent TV event for a mass audience, and that's absolutely right. 

I think that the more you get people engaging with black creatives in that way, the more you'll see things appearing just in normal time when everybody else gets to watch telly. 

And I don’t want to seem churlish about the whole Black History shebang. I guess I’m jealous. When I was at school in the sixties and seventies, we weren’t taught anything about black history – at one school I was one of two black kids in the entire place, they probably didn’t want to spend the money on the extra books. “There’s what? Two of ‘em? Let ‘em learn the English Kings and Queens like everybody else.” 

I discovered Black History late – when I was a young teenager I found a book about Clive of India, and I found out about the triangular trade. I also started to read about the human trafficking of black people from all over the third world. If I hadn't taken that personal interest in it, I would have remained terribly uninformed about our past. 

I remember watching ‘Roots’ on BBC television when it was first aired in the seventies, and what a huge effect it had on young people of colour throughout the country. I’m sure it triggered feelings of shame, pain and also (oddly) pride. Kunta Kinte was the hero of Alex Haley’s epic retelling of the slave trade and its effect on the world as told through the eyes of slave owners and their victims. I also remember buying Staying Power by Peter Fryer – this hugely influential book is at least six inches thick. If you threw it at a burglar you could absolutely stun that Mickey Fickey - but it’s a cracking read and covers the history of black Britons going all the way back to Roman times, and includes the black trumpeter John Blanke in the court of Henry VIII, Mary Seacole (Florence Nightingale’s often ignored contemporary) and the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. Fryer’s book works its way through approximately two thousand years of the Black presence in Britain. 

I highly recommend it as a key text in discovering why Black and British is an important concept. We’re here because you were there. 

In the present day, Fryer’s book is still key, but for something perhaps more reader friendly,  David Olusoga’s comprehensive romp through our journey here in the United Kingdom challenges preconceptions of the black presence in Britain (‘You guys came over on the Windrush, innit? I’ve seen the photographs - some geezer singing a calypso about London and that - nice suits…’) Olusoga (says the London review of books), traces the triangulated connections between Britain, America and Africa in global terms (…) His subjects, even those who barely figure in the historical record, appear as individuals who matter, both in their own right and as individual exemplars. Amen to that. 

I was very chuffed to see the response to Douglas Road Production’s ‘Black Classical Music: The Forgotten History’. 

You can watch the programme here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000n18w/black-classical-music-the-forgotten-history 

This programme, presented by myself and the glorious Suzy Klein, with special performances from Chineke! Orchestra – sought to reveal the untold stories of black composers and musicians. People who have been marginalised by the classical music canon’s curators. We know and adore the standard bearers - Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Mahler and so on, but have no real knowledge of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), who was regarded by many at the time as a worthy musical rival of Mozart. Yet he is only sometimes featured in the repertoire today – and that is only thanks to Chineke’s! campaign to bring his music back into the centre space. de Saint-Georges was a consummate musician, dubbed ‘The Voltaire fo the violin’ – he helped to popularise string music in France. He was a gifted composer – dozens of his scores survive: string quartets, operas and even a symphony. 

There are many stories about de Saint George , he was an expert fencer and took on the best in Europe and won. 

Mozart borrowed musical motifs from his work and the huge tragedy of his life was when Queen Marie Antoinette proposed him as director of the Paris Royal Opera – three of the opera’s leading ladies protested that they “would not wish to take orders from a mulatto” and so the offer was withdrawn. 

There are many forgotten black heroes of classical music, and you can see just a few of them in Black Classical if you follow the link to the iPlayer above. I think one of the most stunning and tear inducing moments for me watching it back was hearing George Walker’s Lyrics for strings played by Chineke!. I was visibly moved to hear this beautiful music played by a live, ethnically diverse orchestra. It was awesome. Also, to learn that Walker won the Pulitzer prize in 1996, wrote nearly 100 classical works over a 70 year composing career, but had been largely ignored by the cognoscenti was heart breaking. Only when he won the Pulitzer prize did the inner circle deem him important enough to give him a few crumbs from the table. 

Walker’s short film, almost a self film of him talking about how he’d always wanted to hear his music played at the Albert Hall during the Proms, is heart breaking - especially when the viewer discovers that he died shortly after. Recognition at last for George Walker, but at a great cost. 

Recognition is important for everyone, whether you’re a labourer or a doctor or lawyer -definitely if you’re a slave ancestor. Our stories deserved to be heard repeatedly year in and year out. Until everybody gets it. 

So, here's to the next Black History Month. Maybe they'll give us a Black History Quarter next: Black History Spring! “Hey kids - you won’t believe what we’ve got lined up for you in this years Black History Autumn!“


I'm watching lots of other things on the telly at the moment, too. I watchedLife’ with my friend Adrian Lester the other day, and I really enjoyed it, although I kept wanting Alison Steadman to punch her boorish husband - played by Peter Davison - in the nuts!

Just kiddin'! The only reason I can say that is because I was so involved with the unfolding events. I was doing that thing I do, where when I'm watching compelling TV - I get on the floor and start creeping towards the television, so that by the time it ends, I'm face to face with the television, an inch away from the screen… so close, I can see my breath reflected. 

I also - and this is really embarrassing - I talk to the TV screen just like my mum used to: "Don't do that! Don't have the third drink! Oh, God, don't sleep on the park bench, the birds will poo on you!” I'm literally yelling at the television screen, like a crazy Jamaican person. 

I loved ‘Schitt's Creek’, too. It was an utter joy and I was so pleased for them when they swept the boards at the recent Emmy Awards. Brilliant.

Regarding the whole ‘yelling at the TV like a crazy Jamaican person’ thing, imagine how I’m going to be when Steve McQueen's ‘Small Axe’ comes on the telly! Steve McQueen is clearly a genius. He's premiering all his TV shows at various film festivals around the world and getting these extraordinary reviews.

I think one day everybody will make television like this. The next series of Emmerdale is going to premiere at Cannes and EastEnders will launch at Sundance. Reviews will praise Steve McFadden’s portrayal of Phil Mitchell as ‘haunting’ and akin to Kirk Douglas’s assaying of the lead role in Paths of Glory but, ’perhaps with more beard stubble.’ 


I should also mention a new book that’s just come out called100 Great Black Britons.  I’m included because of the work we’ve been doing in the last few years on diversity and inclusion in the TV and Film industry. More info on the book can be found here: https://www.100greatblackbritons.co.uk/   

The movement was founded by Patrick Vernon and Angela Osborne as an attempt to honour black Britons who have made an impact on our nation’s consciousness. They wanted to create a campaign that celebrated people who’d contributed to Britain via their work and actions. The public were asked to vote for the Black Briton they most admired. 

Patrick and Angela were swamped with nominations and, having gone through the sifting process, the book is the result of that. 

It’s an honour to be featured in such an important work. 

I have to say though that the diversity and inclusion work is the result of a collaboration between myself, Marcus Ryder MBE, Pat Younge, Angela Ferreira, Aaqil Ahmed, Karon Monaghan and many more.  

It’s a team effort and should be celebrated as such. My massive respect to everyone involved.

There’s a whole heap of good news coming about future Lenny Henry type projects, but they’re all embargoed. Rest assured I’ll let you know what the heck they are once the embargo, like the bass line in a Craig David record, is dropped.



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