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Henry, Lenny (1958- )

Comedian, Presenter, Writer

Main image of Henry, Lenny (1958- )

One of a select few to have built a lasting career on the back of success in a TV talent show - he was a finalist on ITV's New Faces (1973-78) in 1975 - Lenny Henry has been one of Britain's best-loved personalities for so long that it's easy to forget that he was the first, and for much of his career the only, Black British entertainer to achieve acceptance in the TV mainstream.

Born Lenworth George Henry in Dudley, West Midlands, on 29 August 1958, he was one of seven children of Jamaican parents, and the first to be born in the UK. While still in his teens he developed a stage act based around celebrity impressions, with which he toured the working men's club circuit before New Faces catapulted him to national fame. Subsequently he made stand-up appearances on variety shows - including, in a sign of a political innocence that would later embarrass him, The Black and White Minstrel Show (BBC, 1958-78) - and at the age of 17 won a leading role in The Fosters (ITV, 1976-77), Britain's first all-Black sitcom.

But it was the Saturday morning children's show TISWAS (ITV, 1974-82) that enabled him to develop a more personal style. TISWAS's trademark anarchy gave him free rein to depart from the impressions that had been a mainstay of his act to date - though he retained affectionate but increasingly eccentric impersonations of botanist David Bellamy and newsreader Trevor McDonald (as Trevor McDoughnut) - and to introduce his own creation, lovably loopy rasta Algernon Winston Spencer Castlereagh Razzmatazz, armed with oversized woolly hat, condensed milk sandwiches and a proclivity for extremely elongated vowels.

Algernon made further appearances on OTT (ITV, 1982), a disastrous attempt at a TISWAS for adults which was cancelled after one season for its embarrassing sexism. Unlike some of his co-stars (notably host Chris Tarrant), Henry emerged from the series with his reputation largely unscathed. By now, however, he had been exposed to the burgeoning 'alternative comedy' scene and, with prompting from Dawn French, was questioning the racial stereotyping that had characterised much of his comedy. Appearances in The Young Ones (BBC, 1982-84), The Comic Strip Presents (Channel 4, 1982-88) and on stage in The Secret Policeman's Ball (from the late-1980s) followed but, in truth, despite his relationship with French (they married in 1984), his comedy was always broader, less angry and less political than that of the alternative comics. In the meantime, he teamed up with relative unknowns Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield for the popular, if patchy, sketch show Three of a Kind (BBC, 1981-83), which allowed him to experiment with a more diverse array of characters.

By 1984, his growing status had won him his own series, The Lenny Henry Show (BBC, 1984-85), which developed as a mix of stand-up, character monologue and sketches featuring a host of characters old and new, notably soul-singer Theophilus P. Wildebeeste, a ridiculous, medallion-wearing, silken-voiced would-be Lothario inspired by Barry White, Alexander O'Neill and Teddy Prendegast (sample chat-up line: "Have you got any African in you? Would you like some?"); Brixton pirate radio DJ Delbert Wilkins (who took centre stage in a second incarnation of The Lenny Henry Show (BBC, 1987-88) in a sitcom format); Pentecostal preacher the Reverend Nat West; and Grandpa Deakus, an aged Jamaican proffering his own particular homespun 'wisdom'. Specials appeared periodically from 1987 until the series returned in 1995, but by now the format was looking somewhat tired. Meanwhile, he attempted to extend his range in a six-part series of one-off comedies, Lenny Henry Tonite (BBC, 1986), in which he appeared as a different character each week, and became a leading light in the annual charity telethon Comic Relief (BBC, 1988-), which he co-hosted with Griff Rys-Jones. In 1989 he broke new ground for a British comedian with the cinema release of Lenny Henry Live and Unleashed, a live stand-up show recorded at the Hackney Empire - importing a practice previously associated with American comics like Richard Prior and Eddie Murphy.

An attempt to break into feature films with the racial switch comedy True Identity (US, 1991) failed, and his next move was a return to formal sitcom after a gap of more than 15 years with Chef! (BBC, 1993-96), based on his own idea. In the shape of the temperamental, bullying but insecure restaurateur Gareth Blackstock, Chef! presented Henry with his most complex and well-rounded character to date, and his performance won the series a substantial following and returned him to critical favour.

In 1999 Henry took on his first straight role in Lucy Gannon's Hope and Glory (BBC, 1999-2000) as headmaster Ian George, charged with the unenviable task of turning round a failing inner-city comprehensive school. As with Chef!, the casting of a Black actor as an authority figure, in a context in which race is barely an issue, demonstrated that television had made some progress since the early days of Henry's career. Again, his performance was well-received, and the drama lasted three series, climaxing with his character's death. But he was anxious to return to more familiar territory, and 2000 saw the pilot of a new sketch show, Lenny Henry in Pieces (BBC, 2001-03), in which he laid to rest some of his old characters in an attempt to replenish his act, with mixed results. In 2004 he was back with a new series of The Lenny Henry Show, and gave his voice to a shrunken head in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (UK/US, d. Alfonso CuarĂ³n).

Henry has been criticised for lacking political bite, but such attacks underestimate his achievement. He won public affection at a time when racial intolerance was widespread, successfully reinvented his comic persona while less flexible performers were swept aside in the wake of the alternative comedy boom, and has demonstrated a skill for straight and comic acting which may, in the long term, prove a more durable outlet for his talents than his sketch and stand-up roots. As well as his symbolic value as the most visible example of Black success in TV comedy, Henry has, since 1991, used his own production company, Crucial Films, to encourage and nurture young Black talent. He was instrumental in establishing the Black comedy revue series The Real McCoy (BBC, 1991-96), and in giving opportunities to new filmmakers in the 10-minute slot Funky Black Shorts (BBC, 1994), produced by Crucial Films. Alongside numerous awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Black Entertainment Comedy Awards in 2003 and the Montreux Golden Rose in 2001, he received a CBE in 1999.

Mark Duguid

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From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Black and White in Colour (1992)Black and White in Colour (1992)

Analysis of Black representation on and in British television

Thumbnail image of Chef! (1993-96)Chef! (1993-96)

Lenny Henry's triumphant return to sitcom

Thumbnail image of Fosters, The (1976-77)Fosters, The (1976-77)

Sitcom about the life of a South London black family

Thumbnail image of Hope and Glory (1999-2000)Hope and Glory (1999-2000)

Lenny Henry stars in a drama set in a struggling comprehensive school

Thumbnail image of Lenny Henry Show, The (1984-88, 1995, 2004-)Lenny Henry Show, The (1984-88, 1995, 2004-)

Popular stand-up and sketch comedy

Thumbnail image of Lenny Henry in Pieces (2001-02)Lenny Henry in Pieces (2001-02)

Sketch comedy with new characters including Blaxploitation Pope

Thumbnail image of TISWAS (1974-82)TISWAS (1974-82)

Saturday morning anarchy presided over by Chris Tarrant and Sally James

Thumbnail image of Three of a Kind (1981-83)Three of a Kind (1981-83)

Sketch comedy with Lenny Henry, Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1982-84)Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Anarchic sitcom which launched a generation of alternative comedians

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How the sitcom has tackled one of society's must difficult subjects

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Thumbnail image of French, Dawn (1957-)French, Dawn (1957-)

Actor, Writer