"My marriage is a very, very wonderful thing. She makes me laugh a lot, intentionally. She's a very funny woman, on and off stage. She's good at listening too, and tells me off when I tell corny jokes."
Lenny Henry is stand up comedian and comedy actor best known in the UK for his work on TISWAS and Comic Relief, and in the USA for his role in Chef!
His transition from impressionist to comedy actor and charity fundraiser for Comic Relief highlights his personal development over the years and the changing cultural climate in Great Britain during his career over the last three decades.
Born on 29th August 1958 in Dudley in the West Midlands, England, Lenny Henry was named Lenworth George Henry by his Jamaican parents. He attended Bluecoat Secondary Modern School and went on to study at W. R. Tewson School and later at Preston College.
Lenny made his television debut at the age of 16 as an impressionist on the televised talent show New Faces with an impersonation of Frank Spencer. He won the contest.
After his success on New Faces Robert Luff became his manager and Henry ventured into the variety circuit in northern working mens clubs as a stand up comedian. In his act, Henry would use racist jokes and impressions. At one point, Henry even toured with the Black and White Minstrel Show with blacked up white performers, singing songs from America's deep south.
The novelty value of having a black artiste working on a cabaret show such as the Black and White Minstrel Show attracted the attention of the press and they concentrated on this anomoly instead of Lenny's actual stage performance.
After five years of touring with this show, Henry decided that he needed a career move desperately and left the show.
Whilst working with the Black and White Minstrels in 1976, Henry starred as Sonny Foster in Britains first black sit-com. In this programme Henry worked alongside established black actors such as Norman Beaton, Carmen Munroe and Isabelle Lucas. Here he learned about acting and the dynamics of a television career.
In 1977, Henry got a job working on TISWAS, an anarchic Saturday morning television show which entertained adults and children alike.
Character he played included : -
Henry stayed with this television show until 1981 when he was recruited to work on prime time show Three of a Kind with Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield. This was produced by Paul Jackson for the BBC.
Three of a Kind
With Ullman and the lesser known Copperfield, Henry starred in this sketch show which combined satire with slapstick in an original comedic way. Henry had by this time honed his skills at creating characters from his experience of life around West Indian people in Britain. In inventing these roles, Henry added a long list of catchphrases to his portfolio.
Lenny had also begun to socialise with other young comedians of the time such as Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmondson, Rik Mayall and Dawn French. However when he approched Dawn French to collaborate on sketch show OTT which was an adult equivalent of TISWAS. She declined and told him that she didn't have the time claiming it took her 6 months to write a sketch.
French was not amused by Henry's racist style which was causing controversy at the time. Questions were raised concerning a number of Henry's jokes. On numerous occassions whilst on stage, Henry would wipe the sweat from his brow and lick it before proclaiming that it tasted like chocolate. French also stated that he was loud and revolting.
Later on Henry himself was to admit that some of his material
"was very self-deprecating, very self-detrimental."
Despite bad first impressions, French and Henry started seeing more of each other and they realised that they had a lot in common. They were engaged the next year, 1983, and married a year later on 20th October 1984 at St Paul's Church in Covent Garden, London. French's brother Garry gave her away at the service and Henry's friend Martyn Thomas was best man.
The wedding was a star studded affair with celebrities in attendance. This included Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Chris Tarrant, Tracey Ullman and Robbie Coltrane.
When French removed the majority of her clothes for a campaign for Big is Beautiful, Henry stated that,
"I'm her greatest fan when she's got no clothes on. For me, it's natural to be surrounded by big women. Most of my female relatives are over a size 16. Like most people, I'm tired of catwalk stick insects. I can't understand what any man sees in skinny women. In fact, Dawn is the most beautiful girl in the world."
Henry's altered views on many moral and ethical matters were evident in 1984, the year he married French. One example of this is that when he was asked to judge the Miss Blackpool beauty contest alongside Les Dawson and Su Pollard, he refused saying that it was degrading to women.
The Lenny Henry Show
1984 was also the year that Henry was given his own television show. After an earlier appearance on The Young Ones as a postman, The Lenny Henry Show started to be shown on the BBC due to his reputation as a character actor.
Set in a pirate radio station, Lenny starred as Delbert Wilkins who was a Brixton wide boy. This character was created at the same time as the Brixton Riots making the show comtemporary for it's day.
In 1988, Henry presented the first telethon for Comic Relief alongside Griff Rhys Jones and Jonathan Ross.
This charity which was set up in response to the famine in Ethiopia which seemed neverending. As well as famine relief the charity also helps with projects in Africa and the UK which help poor and disdvantaged people. Other issues which have been raised by Comic Relief are HIV education, immunisation, helping communities to rebuild their homes after conflict and literacy courses.
In the UK alone the charity has helped raise awareness of disability issues and funded safe houses for battered spouses.
Since the charity's humble beginnings, Henry has become a key fundraiser for them as well as helping other charities such as Amnesty International, even to the point of opening the Lenny Henry Sickle Cell Clinic at King's College Hospital in London in 1989.
Lenny Live and Unleashed
In 1989 Henry starred in a self titled live stand up comedy film called Lenny Live and Unleashed as a number of characters including : -
This was due to Henry being influenced by his American contemporaries such as Robin Williams and Bill Cosby who had participated in similar projects.
Henry's live tours were renowned for being chaotic, however they relied on individual characters with strong personalities.
Henry's impression of Steve Martin in Lenny Live and Unleashed attracted attention from America in the form of Disney who offered Lenny the lead role as Miles Pope in the film True Identity which was released in 1991. In this film Henry starred as a fast talking black actor who managed to get into trouble with the Mafia and disguises himself as a white man through the use of extensive make-up. Lenny's caucasian character is then hired by the mob as a hit man to kill his black alter ego.
Along with this role, he was contracted to star in two other Disney films for the fee of around $1 million but as the revenue from True Identity eventually added up to less than $5 million, Disney bought him out of the contract for around $500,000 so they didn't have to make the other two movies.
Alive and Kicking
Around this time, Henry started to enhance his portfolio by taking on serious acting roles. His role in Alive and Kicking as Stevie "Smudger" Smith was a big step away from him previous comedic roles. Smudger is a drug dealer who is married to Marie who is also addicted to drugs. When Marie gives birth, her child is also addicted. This convinces her to give up drugs, but Smudger isn't so eager and is enticed to go to group therapy sessions led by a counsellor played by Robbie Coltrane.
Due to the film dealing with the subject of drugs in a sensitive way, in 1992 the film was awarded The Monaco Red Cross and The Golden Nymph Award at The Monte Carlo Television Festival.
Henry is probably most famous in the USA for his role as Gareth Blackstock, the erratic head chef at Chateau Anglais, in the BBC comedy series Chef! Since its beginning in 1993 it has completed three series which have been critically acclaimed for its high production values, excellent quality scripts and lead performances.
Chef! is also a landmark programme for the BBC as Gareth Blackstock just happens to be be black as opposed to being intentionally black. This also doesn't limit the series in any ways, or the programme's target audience.
Whilst starring in this comedy series, Henry was also starting an enterprise to nurture the talent of up and coming black performers through his television company Crucial Films. This film company was established with the aim of launching film and comedy projects to encourage black film practitioners and performers. Along with this and work in setting up comedy writing workshops for the BBC sketch show The Real McCoy he earned the Royal Television Society Award for outstanding contribution to multiethnic programming.
Hope & Glory
More recently, Henry has been taking on more serious role such as Ian George, the headmaster of a school who gives up the offer of a large promotion to try to empower a troublesome area in Hope & Glory on BBC1. First aired in 1999, this programme is now in its third series.
Henry is kept very busy through his charity work which earned him a CBE in March 1999 and is a key member of the fundraising team for Comic Relief.
In 2002 he appeared at the Party at the Palace which was a celebration at Buckingham Palace for the Queen's Golden Jubilee.
In 1992 Lenny and his wife Dawn French adopted a mixed race daughter called Billie.
"We try to keep Billie out of interviews. We don't want her in the papers. It's not her fault that her mum's the Vicar of Dibley and her dad's the Chef".
Their marriage is regarded as one of the most solid unions in British showbusiness despite a number of rumours in 1999. After tabloid newspaper articles about this, Henry made a brief stay at The Priory clinic due to a bout of depression.
Their marriage is now back on track and as happy as ever.
"Dawn and me are like the EverReady bunny, we just keep going. And yes, it's pretty good. It works. I think it's because we both have careers, we're both ambitious and we both like being at home. We try very hard to make sure that when one of us is working the other is at home, so one of us can put Billie to bed and tell her a story. We have help, but most of the time one of us is there. When Dawn is filming 'The Vicar of Dibley' I take Billie to school and do a ten to four day at the Crucial offices."
Life for the family is as normal as it can be, with Henry even being a member of their local Neighbourhood Watch scheme.
Film and Television Credits