For many, Sir Lenny Henry is an institution. Indeed, for those with African-Caribbean roots and living in Great Britain in the late 70s and 80s, he was a rare example of ‘visible success’. At a time before the Internet – when terrestrial television was still the main arbiter of broadcast information, entertainment and, indeed, public perception – he was an icon.
Henry’s 1976 sitcom, The Fosters – made when he was only 18 – received 21 million viewers at its height; as he himself said: ‘what TV programmers would to do get those figures now (?)’ To the older black adults – the ‘Windrush Generation’, he was a rare example of Britain’s apparent acceptance of black people; an instance where ‘integration through assimilation’ – UK’s promise to those who relocated from its former colonies – seemed to hold true. For black children growing up at that time (myself, included), he was an inspiration. My guardians put a caveat on his ‘success’ – gained, as it was, through mere comedy/entertainment – but it didn’t matter… he was up there!
After a short introduction, and a screening of the 1989 Oscar-winning short, Work Experience which he starred in, Sir Lenny Henry entered the BFI stage to talk with journalist Brenda Emmanus about his career. We, the audience, were treated to a series of old clips – outlining his journey to date – and to Lenny’s forthright, and considered appraisal of it all.
He spoke candidly about being a 16-year old comedian in the 70s, having to navigate his way through the casual, and often blatant, racism of the ‘Working Mans’ Club’ scene. He talked glowingly of the late Norman Beaton, his co-star in 1976’s, The Fosters, and discussed the joyful anarchy of the 1978 Saturday show, Tiswas, and of its main man Chris Tarrant’s generosity towards him. Also, he admitted that – as he achieved more success with 1981’s TV series, Three of a Kind – he became envious of the work being done by, Comic Strip comedians Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, Jennifer Saunders, and Alexei Sayle. Perhaps this was part of the reason he created, and starred in, more ‘serious’ character-led work, including 1993’s Chef TV series.
Certainly, Henry’s later career choices – not least an acclaimed central role in the 2013 West End adaptation of August Wilson’s seminal play, Fences – confirm both his creative talent, and his willingness to explore it. In the Q&A, he answered such questions as ‘diversity in The Arts’ and ‘BAME visibility’ – as well as his ‘other’ roles as a producer and writer – with good-humour, clarity, and optimism. He suggested that would-be writers continue writing, and that all BAME practitioners who wish to make a career in the arts – whether in performance, or behind the scenes – should ‘just keep banging on the doors of the gate-keepers’.
He also offered this: “the person in power is the person with the mic” (i.e. ‘use whatever vehicle/voice you possess to create your own opportunities’).
Finally, whilst acknowledging his legacy and what it means to others, he reminded the audience that – when far from the madding crowd of public perception – he has ‘just been doing the things that normal people do… like being a parent’. In summary – just as his 2015 TV production, Danny and the Human Zoo (a fictionalised account of his life as a teenager in 1970’s Dudley) sought to contextualise his early career – those who attended this event got a sense of a charming, multi-faceted, talented man at peace with his achievements and still committed to adding to them.
Once again, Sir Lenny, we salute you.
Review by Mike Scott-Harding
For more of the BFI Black Star season go to Black Star BFI