1976, at the age of sixteen, Lenny Henry won the British television
talent show New Faces, as a comic and impressionist, and
he became one of Britain's best-known personalities. The transitions
in his career are indicative both of his personal development and
of the changing cultural climate in Britain over the past two decades.
Henry began by doing stand-up comedy which often included making
racist jokes and impressions. Managed by Robert Luff, he entered
the British variety circuit, touring with The Black And White
Minstrel Show and the comedy duo Cannon And Ball. Although
this was good show business experience, the press tended to focus
more on the "novelty-value" of Henry's blackness rather than on
his actual stage performances.
1976, Henry was offered a part in The Fosters (LWT 1976-77),
British television's first ever black television situation comedy.
Working alongside established black actors such as Norman Beaton,
Carmen Munroe and Isabelle Lucas, Henry learned more about acting
and the dynamics of television. When Henry began to make regular
appearances on the Saturday morning children's programme Tiswas
and its adult equivalent OTT (Over The Top), his anarchic,
irreverent style of comedy really gained popularity. Henry was recruited
by BBC producer Paul Jackson, for a prime-time sketch show Three
Of A Kind (1981-83) in which he appeared with Tracey Ullman
and David Copperfield.
this time, Henry's gift for creating comic characters and witty
vignettes of West Indian life in Britain, was firmly established.
The nuances of his comedy were gradually changing from straight
jokes and blatant impressions to more farcical and chaotic comedy.
This was partly influenced by other young rising comics of the time
such as Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Dawn French.
At this time however, Henry was best known for his caricatures such
as the African television host Josh Arlog, the cartoonish Rastafarian
Algernon and Black politician Fred Dread, all with their own widely-imitated
catchphrases. Many of Lenny Henry's character creations caused controversy
and raised the question of whether Henry, as a black comedian, was
actually reinforcing already-existing stereotypes of black people.
Henry admits that some of the material he was doing at the time
"was very self-deprecating, very self-detrimental."
Henry created a myriad of familiar caricatures but the most popular
one earned him his own series, The Lenny Henry Show (BBCTV
1984-88). Set in a pirate radio station, the series featured Delbert
Wilkins, a Brixton wide-boy, a character created at the same time
as the real-life Brixton riots. Henry was influenced by comedians
from the United States such as Richard Pryor, Steve Martin and Bill
Cosby, and became the first British comedian to make a live stand-up
comic film, Lenny Henry Live And Unleashed (1989),
in the tradition of U.S. comics such as Robin Williams and Eddie
Murphy. His live tours are renowned for being chaotic, noisy and
daring but also for relying on the same collective of characters
such as the extravagant soul singer Theophilus P. Wildebeeste and
the old West Indian man Grandpa Deakus.
the late 1980s, Lenny Henry began to broaden his repertoire even
further. He became increasingly interested in "serious" acting roles
and starred in the BBC's Screen Two production Coast To Coast.
In 1990, he was signed by Disney on a three-film deal, the first
of which was True Identity (1991), a comic-drama about mistaken
identity. Later that year, Henry starred in Alive And Kicking,
a BBC drama in which he played a drug dealer alongside Robbie Coltrane
as a drug councillor. The film was awarded the Monaco Red Cross
and The Golden Nymph Award at The Monte Carlo Television Festival
in February 1992.
Henry has recently extended his ambition to other areas including
his own production company, Crucial Films. The company was established
to launch film and comedy projects, but to particularly encourage
black performers and film practitioners. He initiated "Step Forward"
comedy-writing workshops in conjunction with the BBC which led to
the comedy series The Real McCoy which consisted of selections
of sketches and songs and stand-up comedy from a black perspective.
Crucial Films has also led to a series of ten-minute dramas entitled
Funky Black Shorts.
most recent television appearance has been in Chef! in which
he plays the erratic Head Chef Gareth Blackstone. The series has
been highly critically-acclaimed for its high production values,
its comic-drama scripts and its lead performances. Most of all perhaps,
the series is a landmark programme in the sense that Henry plays
a character who just happens to be black; the fact of his blackness
does not limit the narrative or the audience the series reaches.
the mid 1970s, Lenny Henry has risen from being a talent show hopeful
to being the most popular black British light entertainer. He has
won numerous awards including the Radio and Television Industry
Club Award for BBC Personality Of The Year in 1993. Although Henry
does not see himself as a specifically black comedian, he does believe
that being black enriches his work. The development in his work
and the breadth of his appeal signifies the different contexts within
which he has managed to sustain his popularity and credibility as
one of the key players in British comedy.
(LENWORTH GEORGE) HENRY. Born in Dudley, England, 29 August
1958 Attended Bluecoat Secondary Modern School; W. R. Tewson School;
Preston College. Married: Dawn French 1984; child: Billie. Made
television debut on New Faces at the age of 16, 1975; subsequently
established reputation as popular stand-up comedian and as character
comedy actor; head of Crucial Films independent production company.
Address: James Sharkey Associates, 3rd Floor Suite, 15 Golden Square,
London W1R 3AG, England.
1976-77 The Fosters
1981-83 Three of a
Lenny Henry Show
1992, 1994 Chef!
Coast to Coast, 1984; Alive and Kicking, 1990; Lenny
Millionaires' Club; The Secret Policeman's Third Ball, 1987;
Lenny Live and Unleashed, 1989; Double Take, 1984;
Work Experience, 1989; True Identity, 1990; Quest
for the Big Woof; Charlie and the Big Chill.
Up, Get Down.
See also Beaton,