Henry, Lenny 1958–
Lenny Henry 1958–
British comedian, actor, writer, and director
Lenny Henry, one of Britain’s best-known comedians, is one of the few black English performers to have successfully made the break into mainstream comedy. Henry began his career as a stand-up comedian 20 years ago, as a teenager living in the industrial West Midlands region of England. He went on to distinguish himself as a comic actor, particularly well known for his range of humorous characters.
In recent years Henry has moved into more serious acting roles, as well as narrating documentaries and launching his own television production company. As his career has developed, Henry has become more interested in the politics of race and gender, a tall order for a comedian: “You’ve got to be non-sexist, non-racist, aware of issues, and funny,” Henry told the London Times. Henry seems to be succeeding, however. He was chosen as the “top role model” in a Times survey of young people in 1993.
Lenny Henry was born on August 28, 1958, in Dudley, Great Britain. His mother, Winifred, had come to England from Jamaica in the early 1950s, at a time when the British government encouraged immigration as a source of cheap labor. Winifred worked as a cook until she had enough money to send for her husband and family; Lenny was their first child to be born in Britain.
From an early age, Henry distinguished himself more by his comic talents than his academic ability. At the time, students in Britain took an examination at age 11 that determined whether they would be admitted to grammar school—offering college-preparatory classes—or relegated to secondary school, which provided a technical education. Henry failed the second half of the exam, and found himself at Bluecoat Secondary Modern School. “I don’t know what my school reports were like,” he told the Times. “I didn’t read them…. I just remember being locked in my bedroom for a long time.” However, his science teacher, recognizing Henry’s gift for humor, encouraged him to record his jokes; the two made comic tapes together in the style of the popular British radio program The Goon Show.
Leaving school at age 15, with few qualifications, Henry began an engineering apprenticeship with British Steel, but he continued working on his comedy act. He first appeared onstage at the Queen Mary Ballroom in Dudley, impersonating Elvis Presley. “It pulled the place down, I couldn’t believe it,” Henry later told the Guardian. Henry’s big break came shortly after, in 1975, when he won the television talent show New Faces at the age of 16. Determined to become a comedy
Comedian, actor, writer, director. Television appearances include New Faces (live comedy show), 1975; The Fosters; Tiswas (children’s television show); O.T.T. (adult comedy show) 1981; Three of a Kind (with Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield); The Lenny Henry Show; Bernard and the Genie (Christmas special), 1991; Alive and Kicking (drama), 1991; In Dreams (Christmas special), 1992; Chef!, (situation comedy) 1993-94; Lenny Hunts the Funk (documentary on funk music); New Soul Nation (documentary on soul music); White Goods (comedy film), 1994. Films include The Suicide Club; Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed, 1989; True Identity, 1991. Established Crucial Films, an independent production company, 1988.
Addresses: Home —London, England. Agent —PBJ Management Ltd., 5 Soho Square, London W1V 5DE, England.
star, Henry quit his job and began working the variety club circuit. Performing in discos and working men’s clubs, Henry took his cue from an older generation of black comedians, building his act on self-deprecating humor aimed at a white audience.
Shortly after his television debut, Henry joined the Black and White Minstrel Show, performing with the group for five summer seasons. It was a fertile environment for humor based on race. Henry joked that he was the only performer who didn’t have to wear dark make-up. If hecklers shouted from the audience, he would threaten to move next door to them. Similarly, in his winning television performance, Henry delivered many of the well-known impressions of the time—ending with the line, “You may have seen these impressions before… but not in color!” Looking back on that time of his life in a piece for the Guardian, Henry explained how he felt forced into the stereotype of the black comedian, “making darkie jokes and rolling my eyes.”
In 1978, Henry landed a job on the children’s cult television program Tiswas. It was on this program that Henry created the comic persona Razzmatazz, short for Algernon Winston Spencer Churchill Gladstone Disraeli Palmerstone Pitt the Younger Razzmatazz—a name which incorporates many generations of British prime ministers. Razzmatazz, a Jamaican Rastafarian, was the first of what would become Henry’s large collection of imaginary characters.
Three years later, Tiswas led to an adult version of the program, O.T.T. (Over the Top ). In preparation for the new show, Henry went to see a group of performers that included the comedian Dawn French, who would later become Henry’s wife. The pair were married in 1984; later they adopted their daughter Billie—one of Henry’s biggest fans. “When she sees myself or Dawn on TV she gets up and kisses the telly,” he told the Edinburgh Evening News.
Many critics have noted French’s influence in Henry’s comedy—even dating it as “Before Dawn” and “After Dawn”—a distinction that Henry himself admits. It was French who first caused Henry to re-examine his comedy act, to remove the stereotypical jokes and adopt a style of humor that addressed the issue of race in a more constructive way. “I realized I wasn’t doing the kind of comedy I wanted to do,” Henry told the Guardian. Remaining sensitive to any comments that his jokes are offensive, Henry explained: “My material goes through me, then it goes through Dawn, then the guys I write it with. I censor my own stuff. I don’t need anyone to tell me it’s racist or stereotypical.”
The effect of Henry’s change of tack was that black audiences finally, around 1985, became interested in his comedy. “Until that point I just wasn’t for them because I was doing a white comedian’s act,” he told the Times. Even as Henry’s comedy changed, his popularity continued to grow. Three of a Kind, a television program starring Henry along with comedienne Tracey Ullman and magician David Copperfield, ran for three years. This was followed by The Lenny Henry Show. The program began as a series of short sketches featuring many of Henry’s characters—such as Grandpa Deakus, who likes to reminisce about coming to England from the West Indies in the 1950s, and Theophilus P. Wildebeest, an American soul singer and self-professed “sex machine.”
By 1987, however, Henry’s show had come to center on the character of Delbert Wilkins, a loud-dressing, fast-talking hustler living in Brixton, south London. Wilkins first appeared around the time of the Brixton race riots, an overt signal that Henry’s comedy was becoming more topical and political. In addition to his various activities—legal and illegal—the fictional Wilkins was also a disc jockey on Crucial-FM, an unlicensed radio station.
While Delbert Wilkins may have been popular with viewers, the British government did not approve of the character. In January of 1989, it urged the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to “kill off” Delbert Wilkins, claiming the character helped to glamorize pirate radio stations, which could interfere with legal radio services or emergency communications. The BBC, however, pointed out that in one memorable show, the character Wilkins had already quit pirate radio, joining the ranks of legal broadcasters at the BBC headquarters in London.
In 1989, Henry published Lenny Henry’s Well-Hard Paperback, a spin-off of the Lenny Henry Show. The magazine-style book contained photographs, illustrations, fake advertisements, plenty of jokes, and even a quiz to judge your level of coolness—“How Crucial Are You?” The answer to the quiz, unfortunately, was “Bad luck, guy! True cruciality means not having to do dumb tests like this to find out whether you are or not—one instinctively knows when one is crucial! And now people are laughing and saying, ‘Look at that lemon reading a book upside down!’ You score zero points!” Once again, his stock guises made an appearance—Grandpa Deakus explained how not to freeze to death in the British winter, while Theophilus P. Wildebeest launched his new album exclaiming, “Yes, ladies, the man who put the STUD into STUDIO, the BALL into BALLAD, the MOAN into HARMONIOUS is back!”
The same year, Henry was the first British comedian to make a live stand-up comedy film, Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed, in the American tradition of films featuring stand-up comedians such as Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. The film featured Henry performing at the Hackney Empire, a well-known venue for stand-up comics. In 1991, Henry made the leap to Hollywood, appearing in the Disney film True Identity, about a Mafia-hunted black man who disguises himself as white and consequently experiences life differently. Unfortunately, the film did not do well at the box office, and Henry’s contract to perform in two more films was cancelled. Similarly, though he sometimes sings in his act, and has performed on the well-known talk show Jonathan Ross, Henry’s singing career has never really taken off ground.
In 1991, Henry published another book, The Quest for the Big Woof, an autobiographical graphic novel illustrated by Steve Parkhouse. The book begins with Henry suffering writer’s block as he attempts to develop new material that will provide lots of “woofs” —comedian’s slang for the biggest laughs possible. The book recalls some painful memories of his own past—such as his father’s death and racist comments that he endured as a child. At the end of the book, Henry decides that these events from his past, as well as events from black history that he finds inspirational, are waiting to be mined for jokes: “Remember, pain + inspiration = The Big Woof.” It is a theme that he has expressed often in interviews. “I think entertainment is a powerful force,” he told the Guardian. “Stand-up routines can be used to underscore a point or make people realize something. As I get older, more and more that’s what I want to do.”
Henry had decided to move to the other side of the camera in 1988, launching Crucial Films, an independent production company. While Henry has stressed that the company was not set up to showcase black writers and performers exclusively, it does make a point of encouraging minority artists. In January of 1994, the company released its first drama series, Funky Black Shorts, six ten-minute films mainly by black filmmakers. The series, which included Henry’s play The Godsend, focuses on serious issues, such as racism at school and the desire of traditional Asian families to have a male heir.
In keeping with his more serious image, Henry has become involved in making documentaries about black culture. In Lenny Hunts the Funk, Henry narrated an exploration of funk music, while New Soul Nation was a similar program about soul music. In February of 1994, Crucial Films produced a documentary of its own, Darker Than Me, a film about the roots of black American comedy—which it locates in white racism. Speaking to the Independent, the managing director of Crucial Films described Darker Than Me as “a painful and disturbing film” that touches on Henry’s own involvement in the Black and White Minstrel Show.
Although most of Crucial Films’ productions deal with black or multicultural themes, Henry has denied that the films all have a deliberate anti-racist message. “I wanted to make entertaining films, that was all….I wanted them to reflect an aspect of the black community in Britain today,” Henry told the Independent. “It’s a diverse community, and it’s good to see middle-class blacks on British television.” In Lenny Henry’s Well-Hard Paperback, Henry had joked that the top five roles for black people on television included “1) suspect in Crime Stoppers, 2) suspect in Miami Vice, 3) pimp in Miami Vice, 4) suspect in Antiques Roadshow, and 5) limbo dancer in commercials for low fat spreads for anxious, white coronary cases.”
Henry’s Chef!, a television series produced by Crucial Films, is an attempt to acknowledge the existence of a middle-class black community. In the program, Henry plays Gareth Blackstock, the arrogant, temperamental head chef of an expensive French restaurant. Similar to The Cosby Show in the United States, Chef! depicts an apolitical, bourgeois lifestyle in which the blackness of the characters is not an issue. Henry has denied any criticisms of selling out, however. “I just wanted to play a character who was capable of being quite obnoxious, who was a human being first and a black guy second,” Henry told the Independent.
In addition to his television and film work, Henry continues to tour Britain and the United States, performing his stand-up routines. In contrast to the apolitical slant of his recent television programs, Henry explains that in his live performances, he is striving for a harder, more radical edge. “I was brought up without a chip on my shoulder,” Henry told the Independent. “The American Blacks have a direct line to slavery, whereas… in this country, we’re like, ‘Oh great, we were invited here in the fifties to do your menial work. Marvelous, thank you.’ So we don’t have the same kind of anger.”
Lenny Henry’s Well-Hard Paperback, Virgin Books, 1989.
The Quest for the Big Woof, illustrated by Steve Parkhouse, Penguin Books, 1991.
Edinburgh Evening News, September 13, 1993.
Guardian, October 24, 1987, p. 17; February 20, 1988, p. x; August 31, 1988.
Independent, October 10, 1993; January 19, 1994, p. 23.
Times (London), January 13, 1989, p. 3; July 22, 1989; April 29, 1990, p. 13; December 30, 1993, p. 6; January 24, 1994, p. 46.
Henry, Lenny 1958–
HENRY, Lenny 1958–
Full name, Lenworth George Henry; born August 29 (some sources cite August 28), 1958, in Dudley, West Midlands, England; parents, Jamaican; married Dawn French (an actress and comedian), October 20, 1984; children: (adopted) Billie.
Addresses: Contact —–PBJ Management, Ltd., 5 Soho Square, London W1V 5DE, England.
Career: Comedian, actor, and writer. Crucial Films, founder, 1985.
Awards, Honors: The Golden Nymph Award, 1992, for Alive and Kicking; BBC Personality of the Year Award, Radio and Television Industry Club, 1993; Monaco Red Cross Award; named commander, Order of the British Empire, 1998.
Cam, The Suicide Club, 1988.
Work Experience, 1989.
Lenny Live and Unleashed (also known as Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed ), 1989.
Miles Pope, True Identity, 1991.
Robo Vampire (also known as Counter Destroyer ), 1993.
Fred the cat, Famous Fred, 1996.
The doctor in Lenny Henry show sketch, Comic Relief: Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death (also known as Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death ), 1999.
(Uncredited) Voice of Dimco announcer, French & Saunders Live, French & Saunders, 2000.
Television Appearances; Series:
The Summer Show, 1975.
Sonny Foster, The Fosters, 1976.
Himself, TISWAS, 1977–1981.
Himself, Three of a Kind, BBC, 1981–1983.
Himself, OTT, 1982.
Himself, The Lenny Henry Show, BBC, 1984.
Various roles, Lenny Henry Tonite, BBC, 1986.
Delbert Wilkins, The Lenny Henry Show, BBC, 1987–1988.
Gareth Blackstock, Chef!, BBC, 1993–1996.
Himself, The Lenny Henry Show, BBC, 1994.
Funky Black Shorts, 1994.
The Nose at Ten, 1996.
Himself, Lenny Goes to Town, BBC, 1998.
Ian George, headmaster, Hope and Glory, BBC, 1999–2000.
The Sketch Show Story (also known as Victoria Wood's Sketch Show Story ), BBC, 2001.
Voice of Sporty, Little Robots (animated), 2003.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Ritchie Lee, Coast to Coast, 1987.
Josephus, the Genie, Bernard and the Genie, BBC, 1991.
Stevie "Smudger" Smith, Alive and Kicking (also known as Screen One: Alive and Kicking ), BBC, 1991.
In Dreams, 1992.
Charlie Collins, White Goods, ITV, 1994.
Dennis Jackson, The Man, 1999.
The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything, BBC, 1999.
Roy Buchanan, Goodbye Mr. Steadman, 2001.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
(Television debut) Himself, New Faces, 1975.
The Ronnie Corbett Special, BBC, 1979.
Blankety Blank, Ten Network, 1981.
Postman, "Summer Holiday", The Young Ones, BBC, 1984.
Hollywood Hobo, "Cassie", Happy Families, BBC, 1985.
Himself, Scoff, 1988.
French and Saunders, BBC, 1988.
"Lenny Henry", The South Bank Show, ITV, 1988.
Warder, "South Atlantic Raiders: Part 1", The Comic Strip Presents, Channel 4, 1990.
Steve Wild, "Oxford", The Comic Strip Presents, Channel 4, 1990.
"Lenny Henry Hunts the Funk", The South Bank Show, ITV, 1992.
"Darker Than Me", The South Bank Show, ITV, 1994.
Himself, Sunday Night Clive (also known as Clive James ), PBS, 1994.
"The Quick and the Dead", French and Saunders, BBC, 1996.
(Uncredited) Voice, "Dr. Quimn, Mad Woman", French and Saunders, BBC, 1996.
"Comic Relief: 10th Anniversary", Omnibus, BBC, 1996.
Richard and Judy, Channel 4, 2003.
The Kumars at No. 42, BBC, 2003.
Televison Appearances; Specials:
Comic Relief (also known as The Utterly Utterly Rude Video Live ), BBC, 1986.
The Secret Policeman's Third Ball, Arts and Entertainment, 1987.
Spitting Image: The Ronnie and Nancy Show, NBC, 1987.
A Night of Comic Relief 2, 1989.
Hysteria 2!, 1989.
The Secret Policeman's Biggest Ball, Arts and Entertainment, 1990.
Lenny Go Home, 1991.
Host, Comic Relief: Red Nose Day 3: The Stonker, 1991.
The Real McCoy, 1992.
Comic Relief: The Invasion of the Comic Tomatoes (also known as Total Relief ), 1993.
Lenny Hunts the Funk, 1994.
New Soul Nation, Channel 4, 1994.
Comic Relief: Behind the Nose, 1995.
The Story of Bean (documentary), 1997.
Comic Relief, 1997.
Comic Relief: The Record Breaker, 1999.
2000 Today, BBC, 1999.
Lenny Henry in Pieces, BBC, 2000.
Narrator, Steve Martin Seriously Funny (documentary), Comedy Central, 2000.
Lenny's Big Atlantic Adventure (documentary), 2000.
Comic Relief: Short Pants, 2001.
(In archive footage) Night of a Thousand Faces, BBC, 2001.
Comic Relief: Say Pants to Poverty, BBC, 2001.
(In archive footage) I Love Christmas (documentary), BBC, 2001.
Host, Party at the Palace: The Queen's Concerts, Buckingham Palace, BBC, 2002.
Host, Comic Relief 2003: The Big Hair Do, 2003.
Loud!, 1994, Australian cities, 1995.
Large!, Australian cities, 1998.
Large '99, British cities, 1999.
Have You Seen This Man?, British cities, 2001.
Appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Stand–Up Get Down, 1984.
Lenny Live and Unleashed, Island, 1989.
Lenny Live and Unleashed, 1989.
(With Neil Gaiman) NeverWhere, BBC, 1996.
Comic Relief (also known as The Utterly Utterly Rude Video Live ), HBO, 1986.
Lenny Henry in Pieces, BBC, 2000.
Television Composer; Specials:
"Big Love", Comic Relief (also known as The Utterly Utterly Rude Video Live ), HBO, 1986.
Lenny Henry's Well–Hard Paperback, Virgin Books, 1989.
The Quest for the Big Woof (autobiographical), 1991.
Charlie and the Big Chill, Gollancz, 1995.
Charlie Queen of the Desert, Gollancz, 1996.
Margolis, Jonathon, Lenny Henry: A Biography, 1995.
The Look in the Mirror, September 5, 1998, pp. 20–21.
Publishers Weekly, December 2, 1996, p. 60.
Radio Times, September 12, 1998, pp. 22–23.