Over the years, Lenny Henry has grown from being a supporting performer on children's TV into one of the UK's top comedians. He has appeared in a number of television shows and films, helped to establish Red Nose Day, married Dawn French and adopted a child. He is acknowledged with playing a pivotal role in bringing a black perspective into the mainstream of British comedy yet remaining appealing to all people whatever their background, race or age.
I'd stay away from Ecstasy. This is a drug so strong it makes white people think they can dance.
Early Life and the Big Break
Lenworth George Henry was born in Dudley in the West Midlands, on 29 August, 1958. The son of Winnie and Winston Henry, he was one of seven children and the first of his family to be born in the UK after the family moved there from Jamaica in the 1950s. Lenny's parents were a huge influence on his career. His mother was - like many other comedians' mothers - very strong willed and forceful, and she instilled in her children a feeling of being accepted and a strong desire to achieve in life through a strong work ethic; her motto in life was 'Keep your feet on the ground and work hard.' Lenny's father worked long hours at a car plant, leaving at 5am to come home just before the children went to bed, meaning his children didn't really get to know him. Lenny's father died in 1977, and his mother died in 1998 having lost both her legs to diabetes, suffered from asthma, heart disease, glaucoma and a stroke that deprived her of the ability to speak:
That was the worst thing of all. She had been very verbal, so that was very sad indeed. She used her face to communicate instead. She had great expressions. When in hospital in the latter stages, people would talk to her for hours and hours and sometimes she would look over me and raise her eyebrows, as if to say, 'Won't they shut up already?1'
Lenny has often recalled with affection the stories he used to tell about growing up in Dudley, when he had pretensions towards fashion. During a visit to the barber, he began to describe how he wanted his hair in intricate detail only for his illusions to be shattered when one of his parents told the barber to 'Skin 'im!'
Lenny attended Bluecoat Secondary Modern School, WR Tewson School and Preston College in Birmingham. At the time, there where still only a few black people in the UK outside of London; Lenny was only one of three black children in his school. This was to work to his advantage, however, as Lenny became a local legend - a natural performer in both the playground and the parks of Dudley. Though he began an apprenticeship as an electrician, this was destined to remain incomplete.
Lenny graced British TV screens for the first time in 1975, aged 17, appearing as a comic and impressionist on the talent show New Faces. He did a Frank Spencer2 impersonation, and although he lost the competition in the final round, he had made his mark, and was about to embark on a non-stop career.
He left his apprenticeship, and began touring the clubs, usually with his mother Winnie waiting in the wings. As with all comedians on the clubs, he had good nights and bad nights (one performance was watched by a massive audience of three). He then began touring the British variety circuit, with The Black And White Minstrel Show3 and Cannon and Ball4; he was the first genuine black member of the Minstrels. Of his first performance he later said, 'They picked me because they thought they could save on make-up.'. His original stand-up comedy material often included jokes and impressions that would nowadays be considered racist5. He was managed by Robert Luff, but unfortunately for Lenny, more focus was placed in the press on his novelty rather than his talent. However, he recognised that this period gave him valuable experience and training, which would prove invaluable for the sudden success that would follow.
In 1976, he was offered a part in The Fosters, which was the first British TV sitcom to feature a predominantly black cast. Shown on London Weekend Television in 1976-77, it was a British version of the American sitcom Good Times. Here, Lenny was given the opportunity to work alongside established black actors, including Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe and Isabelle Lucas. Through this programme, Lenny was able to further his acting skills and increase his understanding of TV dynamics. However, it was his comedic contributions to a Saturday-morning kiddies programme - TISWAS6, with Chris Tarrant - and the later adult version OTT7, that really gained him popularity.
TISWAS represented an anarchic, irreverent style of comedy and Chris Tarrant made a big impression on me. It was then that I began to develop my work - I did Three of a Kind straight afterwards and started looking at what other comedians were doing. I remember going to the Comedy Store and realising that I didn't have to rely on impersonations so much and that I could be funnier by being myself!8
From TISWAS, Lenny was recruited by BBC Producer Paul Jackson for Three Of A Kind, a prime-time, fast-paced sketch show that co-starred Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield9. Writers for the project were also to include a young Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, of Red Dwarf fame. Three Of A Kind ran for three series and was an indication that Lenny could produce great results. In turn it led to Lenny getting his own series in 1984 - imaginatively entitled The Lenny Henry Show - which combined his impressions with his characters.
Impressions, Comedic Characters and Influences
Lenny's characters have evolved hugely over the years, much - as will be seen later - due to the influence of a certain Dawn French. However, his style of comedy has evolved all the way from straight jokes and impressions through subtle parody into chaotic, often farcical comedy, as well as every point in between. Characters first seen in The Lenny Henry Show were developed further in other television series and performances, which enabled Lenny to devote episodes to individual characters.
David Bellamy - In the 1970s and '80s, Bellamy was one of the most loved faces on British TV. The botanist and academic could be found peering between enormous plants, with his eyes bulging and becoming most enthusiastic about some sort of creature. However, Lenny got it down to a T with his impersonation on TISWAS's 'Compost Corner'. Gwapple me gwape nuts became the most famous impersonation of the friendly botanist. However, for an explanation as to what it means, even Bellamy doesn't know. He never said it!
Sir Trevor McDonald - TISWAS saw the creation of Trevor McDonut, a newscaster, obviously taken from Trevor McDonald. McDonald became the first black news reader on British TV in 1973, and was an easy target for Lenny's talent. However, good sport that McDonald is, he actually came on the show and performed a sketch with Lenny.
Others - Other impersonations that Lenny has done include Muhammad Ali, George Formby, Max Bygraves and a fabulous send up of Michael Jackson.
Have you got any African in you? Would you like some?
- Theophilus P Wildebeeste's favourite chat up line.
Delbert Wilkins - Created at the same time as the Brixton Riots of 1980, this character was a Brixton wide-boy, and became so popular that it earned Lenny his own TV series, The Lenny Henry Show, which ran on BBC TV between 1984 and 1988. It was set in a pirate radio station, broadcasting from the character's bedroom.
Theophilus P Wildebeeste and Grandpa Deakus - These characters are the most popular from his live stand-up comic film, Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed (1989), filmed before a live audience at the Hackney Empire, and released throughout the UK on video. This film was the first of its kind to be produced by a UK comedian, and was made in the same tradition as similar films made by American comedians such as Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Bill Cosby. Theophilus P Wildebeeste is a infamous extravagant soul singer and one man 'sex machine' (inspired in part by singers Barry White, Tom Jones and Alexander O'Neill), while Grandpa Deakus is an old West-Indian Guinness-supping man dispensing world views from the comfort of his porch.
As said above, Lenny's mother has been a huge influence on Lenny's characters. However, he also turned to a number of young comedians when he was refining his comedic style, including Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall and Dawn French. This led to a number of other 'larger than life' characters that depended more on personality and less on reworking broad racial stereotypes as many of his early characters had been.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the comedian began to broaden his horizons. He starred in a BBC production, Coast To Coast, and achieved one of his dreams in 1990 by signing a three-film deal with Disney's Touchstone Pictures subsidiary. The first of these was True Identity (1991), a comedy about mistaken identity. Lenny played the character of Miles Pope, a black actor who is forced to hide from the Mob and disguise himself as a white man. It was directed by Charles Lane, and made on location in LA and New York. Unfortunately, True Identity was a huge flop10, and despite a number of excellent reviews for Lenny's acting, it brought in less than $5 million at the box office. His contract was terminated, and he only received about half of what he would earned had all three films been made.
In 1991, he starred in the BBC drama Alive and Kicking, in which he portrayed a drug dealer opposite Robbie Coltrane, a drugs councillor. It was awarded the Monaco Red Cross and The Golden Nymph Award at The Monte Carlo Television Festival in February 1992.
Lenny also starred in two BBC1 Christmas specials - Bernard and the Genie by Richard Curtis, and In Dreams by Jon Canter.
Crucial Films - named after Delbert Wilkins' 'Cru-shal!' catchphrase - is the production company established in 1991 by Lenny, not only to launch film and comedy projects, but also to encourage other black performers and film practitioners. Helped by the BBC, he set up the 'Step Forward' workshop for new writers, which resulted in a new BBC2 comedy series The Real McCoy. This was a series of six 30-minute shows, which presented a black perspective through a number of comedy sketches, stand-up and songs. Crucial Films has also produced a number of 10-minute dramas, Funky Black Shorts and a London-based fantasy TV series - Neverwhere, which was inspired by an idea that Lenny had. It was written by Neil Gaiman, and the music was written by Brian Eno.
Marriage and Child
My marriage is a very, very wonderful thing. She makes me laugh a lot, intentionally. She's a very funny woman, on and off stage. She's good at listening too, and tells me off when I tell corny jokes.11
Lenny met Dawn French in 1982 and invited her to write for OTT. She turned him down, insisting that it takes her at least six months to write a sketch and that she didn't have the time12. She also did not appreciate the racial side of his comedy; she was quite candid in telling him that he offended her politically correct 'alternative comedy' allegiances. Through her influence, Lenny redirected his material, and was able to work on projects that pushed his talent. Often, Dawn made notes at the side of the stage, then later they would go through what material worked and what didn't. In essence, Dawn gave Lenny the confidence to search his soul for experiences to make comedic, rather than to rely on old stereotypes and impressions.
Lenny and Dawn became engaged in 1983. They married a year later, on 20 October, 1984, at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London. 350 people attended, including a number of celebrities, including Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Chris Tarrant, Tracey Ullman and Robbie Coltrane.
In 1992, Lenny and Dawn adopted Billie13 as their daughter. With both of them having strong careers, they 'try very hard to make sure that when one of us is working the other is home, so one of us can put Billie to bed and tell her a story'. Lenny holds family life extremely close to his heart. However, he still feels that being a parent is the most difficult and demanding 'role' he's ever had.
Neither Lenny nor Dawn have ever spoken publicly about a number of events that are believed to have occurred during 1999. Allegations were made in the tabloid press that Lenny had spent an evening with an Australian woman in a hotel after a performance, and that he pestered lap dancers at a club in Tenerife. It is thought that when Dawn threatened to leave him, he suffered a breakdown, and attended the Priory Clinic for depression. However, on a positive note, the episode is said to have given their marriage a much-needed 'kick up the backside'.
Lenny has been involved in a number of charity events, including working for Amnesty International and the Ethiopian Famine Appeal. In 1989, he opened the Lenny Henry Sickle Cell Clinic at King's College Hospital in London. However, he is most renowned for his work with Comic Relief.
Comic Relief was established in 1985 after the success of Band Aid and Live Aid. It was set up by comedians, including Lenny, to use comedy as a medium to raise money for a number of extremely worthy causes in the UK and overseas. Lenny has become a key member of their fundraising team, co-hosting the programme, and participating in a variety of ways, including being the voice of the Speaking Clock for a period in 2003.
Throughout the history of Red Nose Day - the biannual Comic Relief event - Lenny has thrown himself into the spirit of the campaign, and some of his more memorable stunts have included the following:
2003 - Lenny donned a red-coloured Afro wig to launch Red Nose Day
1997 - The snogging debacle with the Spice Girls, Lenny, Jonathan Ross and Griff Rhys Jones.
1993 - Lenny reported from war-torn Somalia.
1991 - Battle of the Sex Gods between Theophilus P Wildebeeste and Tom Jones, singing the Barry White classic 'Can't Get Enough of your Love' and wearing some extremely tasteful, large glowing red noses (the kind designed to be fitted on the front of cars) as cod pieces. Unfortunately, the love-machine couldn't quite top the Welsh singer.
Lenny's live tours have a reputation for being noisy, chaotic and daring events. He has performed a number of tours across the UK and throughout Australia and New Zealand.
White Goods was a comedy-drama shown on ITV in 1994, starring Lenny and Ian McShane. The premise of the programme was that the characters are next-door neighbours who win a TV snooker quiz. They then fall out over the winnings - a fortune of 'white goods'. It was directed by Robert Young.
Chef! has now run into its third series, and was originally broadcast on the BBC between January 1993 and December 1996. It was created by Lenny, and he also stars in the programme.
The concept for Chef! actually came while Lenny and Dawn were in America filming True Identity. His family mailed him magazines from home that were filled with the up-and-coming British chefs that were becoming massive celebrities, and living the rock star lifestyle, with a side order of obnoxiousness. Out of this mixture, we find one Gareth Blackstock - possibly Lenny's strongest role in his career thus far. The writer, Peter Tilbury, was able to spend a large amount of time with a real chef Jon Burton-Race, owner and chef of a two-star restaurant near Reading. A number of Burton-Race's personal experiences were used to create the scripts and plots. Lenny also undertook a large amount of research, and was prodded into place by Burton-Race, who was apparently as hard a taskmaster as Blackstock.
The premise of the programme is that Gareth Blackstock is the head chef at the Chateau Anglais restaurant. He is an extremely good cook, yet he is also an egomaniacal monster, who makes like a little hard if you have to work with him. He is married to Janice Blackstock, and together they run the restaurant14. The show revolves around them running the restaurant, and Gareth's loud personnel management of the kitchen. Although Gareth is the best cook in England, he is extremely tense and constantly loses his temper, especially in the direction of sous-chef Everton (played by Roger Griffiths), who takes a similar role to Manuel in Fawlty Towers.
The series has been highly acclaimed in many aspects, including scripting, production and performance.
Lenny's Big Amazon Adventure and Lenny's Big Atlantic Adventure
In Lenny's Amazon Adventure, he was left in the Amazon, miles from civilisation, and had to fend for himself for two weeks with an SAS survival kit, a rifle and a telephone for emergencies. His recording with a personal video camera documented his encounters with snakes, spiders, pumas and piranhas. It was shown on BBC1 in May 1997, and yes, he did go hungry, but surprisingly also managed to remain very funny!.
The Atlantic Adventure saw Lenny undertake the journey to cross the Atlantic from Plymouth to Montego Bay in Jamaica in a tri-maran, Nootka. With him was Tony Bullimore, professional sailor, who has made 30 Atlantic crossings. Throughout the expedition, Tony experienced high winds, storms and a leak and underwent delays, all 'aided' by Lenny's complete lack of sea-faring experience. The journey was captured on camera by both Lenny and a support vessel, and shown over two programmes in August 2000.
Hope and Glory
This was Lenny's first 'straight' BBC Drama, in which he acted alongside Amanda Redman and Clive Russell. The concept was that as headmaster Ian George he faced the challenge of turning Hope Park Comprehensive from being one of the worst schools in Britain into a success. Initially broadcast in the summer of 1999, it has since run for a further two more series. However, after the second series, a number of the main actors left, and with the death of George in the final series, it seems unlikely that it will be continued. It was written by Lucy Gannon.
Lenny Henry Goes to Town
This was broadcast on Saturday Prime Time on BBC1, from September till October of 1998. There were six episodes, each in a difference town in the UK. It was a family show, and also starred Hattie Hayridge and Vince Williams. They visited Stoke-on-Trent, Port Talbot, Cambridge, Brighton, Northampton and Dundee.
Famous Fred is a musical, animated, short 30-minute film, about a 'recently deceased' cat. The children who owned him are pleased to learn that at night Fred was a legendary rock star, managed by Kenneth the guinea-pig. Lenny provided the voice of Fred. It was shown on Channel 4 over Christmas 1997.
It was based on the book written by Posy Simmons and was directed by Joanna Quinn and produced by John Coates15. It received an Oscar nomination, and was awarded the Grand Prize for Best Animated TV Programme (Series or Special) at the 1997 Annecy International Animated Film Festival.
In March 2000, EMI Classics released a new version of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, which featured Lenny as the narrator. This is his first venture into the Classics, and he was able to breathe new life into the popular story. It was recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
Lenny has received a number of awards over his career, including a CBE16 in 1999, The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Entertainment Comedy Awards in 2003 and the Golden Rose of Montreux in 2001 with Lenny Henry In Pieces. He was the BBC British Personality of 1993, and Alive and Kicking was awarded the Monaco Red Cross and The Golden Nymph Award at the Monte Carlo Television Festival in 1992.
Lenny, never one to cease amazing us, is currently studying for a English Literature degree with the Open University, and hopes to make his mark on the stage in the future.
1 Interview with The Herald
2 Genial buffoon played by Michael Crawford in the popular sit-com Some Mothers Do 'ave 'em. Part of Henry's impact on this occasion was that, as with many of the characters he would impersonate, Frank Spencer was white, yet significantly this didn't seem to matter.
3 A song-and-dance troupe consisting largely of white men 'blacked up' to look like the minstrel singers of the American Deep South. A TV institution for decades, they were gradually phased out during the politically-correct '80s due to concerns over racism.
4 A comedy double act with serious crooner Tommy Cannon playing straight-man to 'naughty show-off' Bobby Ball.
5 On the Minstrel show, Lenny would wipe sweat from his forehead and say that it was chocolate. He also rebuffed hecklers by threatening to move next door to them.
6 Believed to stand for 'Today Is Saturday, Wear A Smile'.
7 'Over The Top'.
8 Interviewed by Blackpresence.co.uk.
9 No, not the magician. Though it's an amusing thought.
10 Rik Mayall suffered a similar fate with his movie Drop Dead Fred.
11 The Insider
12 She has said that at the time, she found Lenny to be 'loud and revolting' and 'showbizzy'.
13 She is named Billie because they knew she would be tall, and didn't want to tie her down to an inappropriate flowery name.
14 Although in the third series, it's a little more complex.
15 Better known for his work on The Snowman.
16 Commander of the British Empire.