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Lenny Henry: 'People thought I was an Uncle Tom'

BRITAIN’S GOT TALENT: Lenny Henry

LENNY HENRY'S successful stage debut in Othello back in 2009 was a surprise to many – not least to the man himself.

“The whole thing was a surprise,” Henry admits. “When I started Othello and got good feedback, I was like, ‘Wow – I can do this!’”

Having established himself as one of Britain’s best-known entertainers, with a career spanning over three decades, the famous funnyman shocked countless audiences when he turned his attention to theatre and proved himself to be a gifted actor.

Two years later, the comedian-turned-thespian undertook his second Shakespeare play, starring in The Comedy Of Errors – and again, received rave reviews for his performance.

Reflecting on his transition from comedy to theatre, Henry says he became hungry for a new challenge.

“I was a stand-up impressionist and character comedian for 36 years, and after a while, you think, ‘what else is there? What else do I like?’ I like so many films and theatre productions and I decided that acting was what I wanted to do.”

His latest theatre undertaking is Fences by the late US playwright August Wilson. His first non-Shakespeare play and his first time playing an American character, the production – directed by theatre don Paulette Randall – sees Henry playing Troy Maxson; a once gifted athlete denied his turn at the big time and now resentful of a world he believes has denied him chances at every turn. Can Henry relate to his character?

“As a black person growing up in Britain in a working class family, I get it,” says the 54-year-old star. “I didn’t go to university, I didn’t get tutored, I didn’t get piano lessons – I’ve got lots to be vex about! But I was very, very lucky to have been brought up by decent Jamaican parents who worked very hard and showed me what hard work was all about.

“Although we grew up in a house that had a hairline crack down the middle, no garden, a gate that fell off, and my dad’s vegetables growing everywhere, I was still very lucky.

“We had no money for school dinners – we were poor. I had 15, 16 years of that. And the first thing I was able to do [when I started making money], was buy my mum new carpet and a TV, and eventually I was able to buy her a house. I was proud to be able to do those things.

“So I understand Troy’s journey; I understand him talking about perceived failures and things that should have been.”

Despite many initial challenges in his quest for comedy success, Henry is now, undoubtedly, Britain’s best-known black entertainer. (I challenge you to name another current black performer who’s more of a household name than Henry. Fellow British comic Gina Yashere even famously joked that she’d have to “wait for Lenny Henry to die just so I can get a TV show.”)

From his early days as a comic on the 1970s TV talent show New Faces; to his appearances on children’s show Tiswas; starring alongside Norman Beaton in The Fosters; launching his own production company Crucial Films – which produced the revered BBC sitcom The Real McCoy – earning his own self-titled TV show; performing throughout the world with stand-up tours; co-founding Comic Relief; providing the voice of Elephant in the children’s animation Tinga Tinga Tales; and receiving the lifetime achievement performance award at the 2003 British Comedy Awards – to name just a few accomplishments – Henry has enjoyed a hugely successful and varied career.

But even with his fame and fortune, the comic hasn’t turned a blind eye to the issue of the lack of black representation on British television.

Last month, he hit the headlines when he criticised the BAFTA Awards, saying: "There weren't any black people at the BAFTAs; there was no black talent. There's just not enough programmes with black people in them.”

Standing by his comments, Henry said: “I said what I said about BAFTA and I was partly joking, but it was true. In order to be nominated, you’ve got to be in things! Lennie James was in Line Of Duty, Chiwetel [Ejiofor] was in Dancing On The Edge, but we need to be in many more things before we can be evaluated and considered for these ceremonies.

“I think the soaps do a very good job of trying to portray life in this country as it is, which is multi-ethnic. But with most of the other programmes, it’s a lottery – and the people making the decisions, for the most part, don’t look like me or you.”


LATEST ROLE: Henry and Ashley Zhangazha star in Fences

In his own bid to not be bogged down with race-related challenges in the entertainment business, Henry decided that education was the way forward.

“I did an MA in screenwriting to learn about script evaluation, narrative, characterization and all those things. And I’ve got a BA in English Literature, so I’ve read a lot of books. I’ve educated myself and I feel better about myself as a result.

“I spent a lot of time feeling like I was under the cosh; everybody was from Oxford or Cambridge and life wasn’t fair.

“I felt like that for a while and I think that’s natural when you’re in an industry where you’re pretty much the only black person in a room.

“I had 36 years in showbusiness and I rarely had a meeting where there was someone who looked like me on the other side of the table. I’m not bitter about that but I just want us to have a level playing field when it comes to making films and television programmes.”

Henry’s feelings are all the more understandable when one considers his career journey. Making his foray into the entertainment industry at the age of 16 as part of the hugely controversial Black and White Minstrel Show – which saw several of the entertainers perform in blackface – it’s perhaps no wonder the issue of black representation is one very close to Henry’s heart.

Refreshingly honest about his time in the show – which ran from 1958 to 1978 and was widely perceived as racist – Henry admits that his stint in the programme earned him huge criticism from the black community – including members of his own family.

“Between the ages of 16 and 19, I was in The Black & White Minstrel Show so I couldn’t have been any more uncool [to black people]! I might as well have been laying on someone’s lawn wearing a jockey outfit. I might as well have walked up and down in a t-shirt that said ‘I am an Uncle Tom’ – that’s how uncool I was. People in my own family weren’t talking to me!

“It was only after I left the Minstrel Show that I learned that you could have a career where you didn’t make jokes against yourself all the time or against where you’re from.

“You could tell jokes about other things. I felt like, ‘Oh, thank God.’ So I spent much of the ‘80s almost making up for what I did in the ‘70s and from then on, I thought a lot about what I wanted to do.

He adds: “Now, I try to think about things and take advice from others, whereas when I was 16 or 17, I didn’t listen to anybody… and look where I ended up!”

Looking forward, the celebrated star and father-of-one (he has a 22-year-old adopted daughter with his ex-wife, comedian Dawn French) considers what else he’d like to achieve.

“That’s a good question,” he says thoughtfully. “At the moment, I’m doing a PhD about ethnicity and diversity in sports films and the discrepancy between the representation of ethnic minorities in the real world – like when you watch the Olympics or Premier League football – and when you watch sports movies.

“There’s a very uneven thing going on. I’m doing a PhD on that and I hope to complete it in the next two years. It’s very hard, but I’m doing a lot of reading and watching a lot of sports films, and as long as I do that, I should get there. I also want to do more drama. I’d like to do something modern and contemporary – something by a living writer!

“I’d also love to direct something. I’ve written a film for the BFI, which they’ve commissioned. I’ve handed in a draft and I’m waiting for their notes. I’m also writing a memoir about my teen years; my first years two years in showbusiness.

“It would be nice to get to the end of my career and say ‘I directed a film and I was in a really good TV drama.’ I’d like that… I don’t want much!”

Lenny Henry is in Fences at the Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine Street, London WC2 from June 19-September 14. For tickets visit www.nimaxtheatres.com

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