HENRY, LENNY

British Comedian/Actor

In 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.

In 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.

By 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."

Lenny 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.

By 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.

Lenny 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.

Henry's 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.

Since 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.

-Sarita Malik

LENNY (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.

TELEVISION SERIES

1975             Tiswas
1976-77        The Fosters
1981-83        Three of a Kind
1982             OTT
1984, 1985,
1987, 1988,
1995             The Lenny Henry Show
1986             Lenny Henry Tonite
1992, 1994    Chef!

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES(selection)

Coast to Coast, 1984; Alive and Kicking, 1990; Lenny Go Home.

FILMS

The 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.

RECORDINGS

Stand Up, Get Down.

 

See also Beaton, Norman; Munroe, Carmen