Henry in The Comedy of Errors in 2011
Lenworth George Henry
29 August 1958
|Alma mater||The Open University (BA)|
Royal Holloway, University of London (MA, PhD)
|Occupation||Comedian, actor, singer, writer, television presenter|
|Known for||The Lenny Henry Show |
(m. 1984; div. 2010)
Sir Lenworth George Henry (born 29 August 1958), known as Lenny Henry, is an English stand-up comedian, actor, singer, writer and television presenter, known for co-founding the charity Comic Relief, and appearing in TV programmes including children's entertainment show Tiswas, sitcom Chef! and The Magicians for BBC One. He is currently the Chancellor of Birmingham City University.
Lenworth George Henry was born at Burton Road Hospital in Dudley, on 29 August 1958, to Winston Jervis Henry (1910-1978) and Winifred Louise Henry (1922-1998), who emigrated to Britain from Jamaica before he was born. The fifth of seven children, Henry was the first to be born in the United Kingdom. When he was 10 years old, he learned that his biological father was Albert Augustus "Bertie" Green (1927-2004), another Jamaican immigrant and a family friend with whom Henry's mother had a brief relationship when she first arrived in England.
Henry's first manager was Robert Luff, who signed him in 1975 and gave him the opportunity to perform from age 16 to 21 as a comedian as part of the Luff-produced touring stage version of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which in retrospect has widely been seen as an embarrassment and one of the most racist shows in British history. In July 2009, Lenny Henry stated he was contractually obligated to perform and regretted his part in the show, telling The Times in 2015 that his appearance on the show led to a profound "wormhole of depression", and regretted his family not intervening to prevent him from continuing in the show.
In 1976 he appeared with Norman Beaton in LWT's sitcom The Fosters, Britain's first comedy series with predominantly black performers. His formative years were spent in working men's clubs, where he impersonated mainly white characters such as the Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em character Frank Spencer (whom he impersonated on New Faces). He also made guest appearances on television programmes including Celebrity Squares, Seaside Special and The Ronnie Corbett Show.
In 1980, Henry performed in Summer Season in Blackpool with Cannon and Ball. He has since said that "the summer season was the first time [he] felt that [his] act had received a proper response from an audience". Around the same time, he co-hosted the children's programme Tiswas from 1978 until 1981 playing such characters as Rastafarian Algernon Razzmatazz, David Bellamy and Trevor McDoughnut (a parody of Trevor McDonald), and subsequently performed and wrote for the show Three of a Kind.
Also in 1980, he teamed up with alternative-comedy collective The Comic Strip. While involved with the group, he met his wife, comedian Dawn French. She encouraged him to move over to the fledgling alternative comedy scene, where he established a career as a stand-up comedy performer and character comedian.
He introduced characters who both mocked and celebrated Black British culture, such as Theophilus P. Wildebeeste (a homage to Teddy Pendergrass using the 'TP' initials) and Brixton pirate radio disc jockey DJ Delbert Wilkins. His stand-up material, which sold well on LP, owed much to the writing abilities of Kim Fuller. During this time, he also spent three years as a DJ on BBC Radio 1, playing soul and electro tracks and introducing some of the characters that he would later popularise on television. He made a guest appearance in the final episode of The Young Ones as The Postman, in 1984.
The first series of The Lenny Henry Show appeared on the BBC in 1984. The show featured stand up, spoofs like his send-up of Michael Jackson's Thriller video, and many of the characters he had developed during Summer Season, including Theophilus P. Wildebeeste and Delbert Wilkins. A principal scriptwriter for his television and stage shows during the 1990s was Jon Canter.The Lenny Henry Show ran periodically for a further 19 years in various incarnations. He performed impressions such as Tina Turner, Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Run DMC, among others.
In 1987, he appeared in a TV film, Coast to Coast. It was a comedy thriller with John Shea about two DJs with a shared passion for Motown music being chased across Britain. The film has a strong following, but contractual problems have prevented it from being distributed on video or DVD.
In the early 1990s, Henry starred in the Hollywood film True Identity, in which his character pretended to be a white person (using make-up, prostheses, and a wig) to avoid the mob. The film was not commercially successful. In 1991, he starred in a BBC drama alongside Robbie Coltrane called Alive and Kicking, in which he played a heroin addict, which was based on a true story.
Also in 1991, he starred in the Christmas comedy Bernard and the Genie alongside Alan Cumming and Rowan Atkinson. Henry is known as the choleric chef Gareth Blackstock from the 1990s television comedy series Chef!, or from his 1999 straight-acting lead role in the BBC drama Hope And Glory. He was co-creator with Neil Gaiman and producer of the 1996 BBC drama serial Neverwhere.
Henry tried his hand at soul singing, appearing, for example, as a backing singer on Kate Bush's album The Red Shoes (1993) and, backed by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, at Amnesty International's Big 3-0 fund raising concert. He would later say that neither move showed him at his best, and that he felt most comfortable with character comedy. He would occasionally return to singing, performing in small local venues in the West Midlands. Henry returned to the BBC to do Lenny Henry in Pieces, a character-based comedy sketch show which was followed by The Lenny Henry Show, in which he combined stand-up, character sketches and song parodies.
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In 2003, Henry was listed in The Observer as one of the fifty funniest acts in British comedy. In 2004, he was listed in The Sunday Times as the fifteenth funniest black performer of all time. Henry is associated with the British Comic Relief charity organisation, along with his former wife, comedian Dawn French, and Griff Rhys Jones, and has hosted the show and also presented filmed reports from overseas on the work of the charity. He was the voice of the British speaking clock for two weeks in March 2003 in aid of Comic Relief.
Henry voiced Dre Head, the "shrunken head" on the Knight Bus in the 2004 Alfonso Cuarón movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and read the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. He also voiced Sporty on the children's show Little Robots. Henry appeared in advertisements for butter products in New Zealand, commissioned by the company now known as Fonterra, as well as portraying Saint Peter in the Virgin Mobile advertising campaign in South Africa. In the UK, he used his character of Theophilus P. Wildebeeste to advertise Alpen muesli, and promoted the non-alcoholic lager, Kaliber.
In June 2001, for a BBC documentary, he sailed a trimaran from Plymouth to Antigua with yachtsman Tony Bullimore. His motive was to as he put it, "have one last adventure". In 2005, he appeared in Birmingham, as an act for Jasper Carrott's Rock with Laughter. He appeared alongside performers such as Bill Bailey, Jasper Carrott, Bonnie Tyler, Bobby Davro and the Lord of the Dance troupe. In 2006, Henry starred in the BBC programme Berry's Way. He did the voice of Dark Nebula in Kirby: Squeak Squad. On 16 March 2007, Henry made a cameo appearance as himself in a sketch with Catherine Tate, who appeared in the guise of her character Geordie Georgie from The Catherine Tate Show. The sketch was made for the BBC Red Nose Day fundraising programme of 2007.
On 16 June 2007 Lenny appeared with Chris Tarrant and Sally James to present a 25th Anniversary episode of Tiswas. The show lasted 90 minutes and featured celebrities discussing their enjoyment of Tiswas as children, as well as appearances from kids and people who had appeared on the original show. In the summer of 2007, he presented Lenny's Britain, a comedy documentary tour made with the Open University on BBC One on Tuesday nights. In late 2007, he hosted a stand-up comedy tour of the UK.
In early 2008, Henry's series lennyhenry.tv was broadcast on BBC One. The programme has an accompanying website of the same name and broadcasts strange, weird and generally amusing online videos and CCTV clips. He starred in the Radio 4 show Rudy's Rare Records. On 31 December 2008 and 1 January 2009, he appeared on Jools Holland's Hootenanny on BBC Two, singing part of the song Mercy along with singer Duffy. In January 2009, he appeared on the BBC's comedy show, Live at The Apollo, in which he played host for the night, introducing Andy Parsons and Ed Byrne, where he referred to popflock.com resource as "Wrongopedia" for containing incorrect information about his life.
In October 2009, Henry reprised his role of Deakus to feature in comedy shorts about story writing alongside Nina Wadia, Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Stephen K. Amos. He also offers his own writing tips and amusing anecdotes in the writing tips video clip on BBC raw words - story writing. He supplies the voices of both Big and Small in the BBC CBeebies Children's programs Big & Small.
In 2010, Henry produced and starred in a five-part web series for the BBC Comedy website, Conversations with my Wife, about a fictional couple conversing over Skype while the wife is away on business leaving the husband (played by Henry) to hold the fort at home.
In 2008, he became the face of budget hotel operator Premier Inn, and to date continues to star in adverts for them. One of the adverts caused controversy and was banned from children's programming hours. The advert, from 2010, parodied a well-known scene from the film The Shining, with Lenny Henry spoofing the scene originally starring Jack Nicholson, by smashing a door with an axe and then thrusting his head through the door saying: "Here's Lenny."
In March 2011, he appeared with Angela Rippon, Samantha Womack and Reggie Yates in the BBC fundraising documentary for Comic Relief called Famous, Rich and in the Slums, where the four celebrities were sent to Kibera in Kenya, Africa's largest slum.
Henry was criticised for his opening sketch for the 2011 Comic Relief, during which he spoofed the film The King's Speech and grew impatient with Colin Firth's portrayal of King George VI as he stammered over his speech. The Sun reported that the British Stammering Association had branded the sketch as "a gross and disgusting gleefulness at pointing out someone else's misfortune".
In 2014, Henry appeared in and produced a play based on his radio show Rudy's Rare Records, which played at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre before moving on to a run in London.
Henry wrote Danny and the Human Zoo, a ninety-minute television film shown on BBC One in 2015. Directed by Destiny Ekaragha, it was a fictionalised account of Henry's life as a teenager in 1970s Dudley. Henry played Samson Fearon, a character based on Henry's own father Winston.
In November 2019, it was announced that Henry would guest star in "Spyfall", the two-part opening episode of Doctor Who's twelfth revived series, which began broadcast on New Year's Day 2020. Henry played technology billionaire Daniel Barton.
Henry was introduced to Shakespeare when he made the 2006 Radio 4 series Lenny and Will, which saw him going "in search of the magic of Shakespeare in performance". In February 2009, he appeared in the title role in the Northern Broadsides production of Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Before the production opened the director Barrie Rutter said of the decision to cast him: "knives might be out at me or at Lenny. I don't care. This has come about from a completely genuine desire to do a piece of theatrical work. Bloody hell, how long has the Donmar had Hollywood stars going there for £200? He's six-foot five. He's beautifully black. And he's Othello."
Henry received widespread critical acclaim in the role. Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph said "This is one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen. It is impossible to praise too highly Henry's courage in taking on so demanding and exposed a role, and then performing it with such authority and feeling."Michael Billington in The Guardian noted "Henry's voice may not always measure up to the rhetorical music of the verse, but there is a simple dignity to his performance that touches one".Lynne Walker of The Independent said of Henry that his "emotional dynamism is in no doubt. The frenzy within his imagination explodes into rage and, finally, wretchedness. It's not a subtle reading but it works powerfully in this context."
Henry has said that he saw parallels between himself and Othello. "I'm used to being the only black person wherever I go...There was never a black or Asian director when I went to the BBC. Eventually I thought 'where are they all?' I spent a lot of time on my own. Things have changed a bit, but rarely at the BBC do I meet anyone of colour in a position of power."
In November 2011, Henry made his debut at the Royal National Theatre in London in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, directed by Dominic Cooke, in which he played the character of Antipholus of Syracuse. The production was selected to be broadcast live to selected cinemas worldwide in March 2012 as part of the National Theatre Live programme. Henry's performance gained positive reviews. Paul Taylor in The Independent wrote that "Henry beautifully conveys the tragicomic plight of an innocent abroad."
In 2015, Henry was asked by Sky Arts to produce a show for them, Lenny Henry's Got The Blues. He worked with a group of musicians including Jakko Jakszyk, lead singer of King Crimson, to produce the album New Millennium Blues. The album consists of both covers of blues classics, as well as original tracks co-written by Lenny. Henry later released "hard-hitting animated blues video" directed by Iranian filmmaker, Sam Chegini titled The Cops Don't Know which was premiered by Classic Rock magazine on 20 April 2016.
Henry met Dawn French on the alternative comedy circuit. They married in 1984 in Covent Garden, London. They adopted a daughter, called Billie. On 6 April 2010, French and Henry announced they were separating after 25 years of marriage. It was reported that the separation was amicable. Their divorce was finalised in 2010. Since 2012, Henry has been in a relationship with theatre producer and casting director Lisa Makin.
He graduated with a BA Hons in English Literature, from the Open University, in 2007. He studied for an MA at Royal Holloway, University of London in screenwriting for television and film, where he received a distinction and in 2010 he began studying at the same institution for a PhD on the role of black people in the media. His PhD was awarded in July 2018 for a thesis titled Does the Coach Have to be Black? The Sports Film, Screenwriting and Diversity: A Practice-Based Enquiry.
Henry has been an open critic of British television's lack of ethnic diversity in its programmes. During a speech at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in March 2014, he called the lack of minorities "appalling" and he has continued to raise the issue publicly.
Henry is a lifelong supporter of West Bromwich Albion Football Club.
Henry was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1999 New Year Honours. He was knighted in the Queen's 2015 Birthday Honours for services to drama and charity. In July 2016, Henry became the chancellor of Birmingham City University citing his passion to give life changing opportunities to young people from a wide range of backgrounds. Henry has also been listed in the Powerlist of the 100 most influential Black Britons, including ranking fourth in 2016.
In 2016, Henry was made a fellow of the Royal Television Society. Henry was awarded the BAFTA Television: Special Award in 2016. On 20 July 2016, Henry was awarded an honorary doctorate from Nottingham Trent University in recognition of his significant contribution to British comedy and drama, along with his achievements in international charity work.
|1987||Coast to Coast||Ritchie Lee|
|1988||The Suicide Club||Cam|
|1989||Work Experience||Terence Welles|
|1991||True Identity||Miles Pope|
|1997||Famous Fred||Fred (voice)|
|2004||Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban||Shrunken Head (voice)|
|2012||The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists||Peg-Leg Hastings (voice)|
|2014||Postman Pat: The Movie||Mr Bernard (Tow Truck Manager; voice)|
|1976-1977||The Fosters||Sonny Foster|
|1978-1981||Tiswas||Himself, David Bellamy, Tommy Cooper, Trevor Mcdonut & various characters|
|1981-1983||Three of a Kind|
|The Lenny Henry Show||Himself
Delbert Wilkins (sitcom version)
|1987-2007, 2011--||Comic Relief||Presenter|
|1991||Alive and Kicking|
|Bernard and the Genie||Josephus the Genie|
|1999-2000||Hope and Glory||Ian George|
|2000-2003||Lenny Henry in Pieces||Himself|
|2008-2011||Big & Small||Big/Small (voice)|
|2009, 2011||Live at the Apollo||Presenter (two episodes)|
|2010-2011||Britain's Classroom Heroes||Presenter|
|Rich, Famous and in the Slums||Contributor|
|2012||Jackanory Junior - "The Enormous Crocodile"||Narrator|
|The One Lenny Henry|
|2015||Operation Health for Comic Relief||Contributor|
|The Olivier Awards||Presenter|
|The Syndicate||Godfrey Watson|
|Danny and the Human Zoo||Samson Fearon|
|2018||The Long Song||Godfrey|
|2020||Doctor Who||Daniel Barton|
|2020||The Big Night In||Co-presenter|
|2009||Othello||Othello||Northern Broadsides / West Yorkshire Playhouse|
|2011, 2012||The Comedy of Errors||Antipholus of Syracuse||National Theatre, London (Olivier)|
|2013||Fences||Troy Maxson||UK tour|
|2014||Rudy's Rare Records||Adam
(also dramaturg and co-creator)
|Birmingham Repertory Theatre|
|2015||Educating Rita||Frank||Minerva Theatre, Chichester|
|2017||The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui||Arturo Ui||Donmar Warehouse, London|
|2019||King Hedley II||Elmore||Theatre Royal Stratford East, London|
Henry left school without any qualifications but decided to retake his "O" levels at Preston College - then called W.R. Tuson College - while appearing in a summer season in Blackpool with Cannon and Ball in the early 1980s. [...] "I thought 'I'm going to do my O levels', which is a bizarre thing for a rock 'n' roll 21-year-old comedian to do".[permanent dead link]