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Lenny Henry Biography - Selected works

comedy comic british black

1958—

Comedian, actor, "Comic Relief" campaigner

Naming him one of the 50 funniest people in Britain in 2003, the Observer newspaper described Lenny Henry as "a comic genius with a highly effective social conscience." Henry is one of the most successful British comedians of the "alternative comedy" generation that emerged in the 1980s, enjoying a 30-year career that spans stand-up live performances, TV comedy shows, TV drama, voiceovers, and movies. Henry became famous for his gentle and affectionate mockery of the Jamaican community in which he grew up, but he has also been a savage critic of jokes that exploit minority groups out of bigotry or ignorance. He had a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with Hollywood in the 1990s, but has since returned to the "character comedy" for which he is best known. In 1999 he was awarded a CBE (meaning Commander of the British Empire, an honor bestowed by the royalty of England), in part for his years of campaign work with the charity Comic Relief.

Lenny Henry was born on August 29, 1958, and grew up in Dudley, a suburb of Birmingham, England. His family was from Jamaica and moved to Birmingham in the 1950s. He attended Bluecoat Secondary Modern School, W.R. Tewson School, and Preston College, but in 1975, aged just 17, his show business career took off when he was a repeat winner on the weekly TV talent show, New Faces. His act consisted of impersonating white TV celebrities, and for the next few years he performed in pubs and local clubs around Britain. He also went on tour with the Black and White Minstrels' Show—a variety show featuring white performers with blacked-up faces—and endured many jokes based on his color. On his official Web site he explains: "I think by '79—I'd had enough. The jokes were boring—'And now the only one of 'em who doesn't need make up' …It hurts thinking about it now."

Between 1978 and 1980 he performed on the chaotic British Saturday morning children's TV show Tiswas, where he was allowed to improvise and where he invented characters such as Delbert Wilkins, an inept pirate radio DJ from the West Indian London suburb of Brixton, who would later become part of his adult stand-up act. For the next few years he performed in the "summer season" variety shows at English seaside resorts, but continued with Tiswas and began to tour colleges and universities in the United Kingdom. Henry notes that performing for students had a liberating effect because it allowed him to swear in front of an audience.

In 1980 he became involved with The Comic Strip, a group of comedy performers from the London "Comedy Store," best known for their anti-establishment sentiment and (for the time) shocking comedy shows produced as The Comic Strip Presents … It was through The Comic Strip that he met Dawn French (later known as the Vicar of Dibley), whom he married in 1984, and who steered him towards "alternative" comedy, a style of comedy that was radically different from the "summer season" shows in which he began his career. In 1981 he teamed up with Tracy Ullman and David Copperfield in the sketch show Three of a Kind, which ran on BBC TV for three years. He left to perform in his own TV show, The Lenny Henry Show, featuring Delbert Wilkins. Other characters appearing on the show included Theophilis P. Wildebeest, a parody of black R&B singers in the style of Barry White, and Trevor McDoughnut, based on the black British news anchor, Trevor MacDonald. The Lenny Henry Show ran for a decade and was revived as Lenny Henry in Pieces in 1999.

Henry became a well-known British TV personality during the 1980s. His humor was gentler than other "alternative comedy" performers and his TV show aired in prime time. But Henry retained his pioneering edge and in 1989 he became the first British comedy performer to make a live stand-up movie, Lenny Live and Unleashed. Offers from Hollywood followed and in 1991 he made True Identity, which was supposed to be the first of three movies for Disney. Unfortunately the film failed and the remainder of the contract was canceled. In 2004 he returned to the big screen as a shrunken head in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Besides his work as a performer Henry is also a founder, frontman, and an important creative force behind the charity Comic Relief, which raises money to fund education, immunization, rebuilding, and community work in the United Kingdom and around the world. Launched at Christmas in 1985 from a refugee camp in Sudan, Comic Relief runs a fundraising effort every two years in the United Kingdom culminating in "Red Nose Day," a day when Britons are encouraged to do silly things to raise money. The centerpiece of the campaign is a mammoth telethon that contrasts comedy routines with documentaries about the various causes. Between 1985 and 2003 the charity raised £337 million; "Red Nose Day" is the United Kingdom's biggest charitable event.

In the 1990s Henry's production company, Crucial Films, involved him in many new projects including a workshop for new writers and performers called Step Forward. He also began to garner a reputation as a television actor. His performance in Alive and Kicking alongside Robbie Coltrane won several awards, while his situation comedy Chef! ran for three seasons. In 1999 he appeared as school head teacher Ian George in Hope and Glory, a TV drama that reflected current fears about the British state school system and brought him personal critical acclaim, though the series itself was not highly rated. In 2001 Henry himself returned to education when he began studying for a degree in English literature part-time at the Open University. Henry has credits as writer, actor, director, and producer of many TV shows, has performed voiceovers for cartoons and documentaries, and continues to tour with his one-man show. In 1999 he was rewarded for his contribution to entertainment and for his work with Comic Relief when he was honored as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

Selected works

Films

Lenny Live and Unleashed, 1989.

True Identity, 1991.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban, 2004.

Television

The Lenny Henry Show, 1984-93.

Alive and Kicking, 1991.

Chef!, 1993-4, 1996.

Hope and Glory, 1999-2000.

Lenny Henry in Pieces, 1999.

At a Glance …

Born Lenworth George Henry on August 29, 1958, in Dudley, near Birmingham, England; married Dawn French, 1984; children: adopted daughter Billie.

Career: Comedian, England, performed in pubs and clubs as well as with the Black and White Minstrels, 1970s; television and film actor, 1980s–; The Comic Strip, comedian group, 1980–; Comic Relief, founder, 1985–; Crucial Films, independent film production company, founder, 1980s(?).

Awards: New Faces talent show, winner, 1975; Monte Carlo Television Festival, Monaco Red Cross and the Golden Nymph Award, 1991, for Alive and Kicking; Royal Television Society Silver Award; BBC British Personality of the Year Award, 1993; Edric Connor Inspiration to Black People Award; Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), 1999; BFM Awards, Winner of the Inspiration Award, 2002; Black Entertainment Comedy Awards, Winner of Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003; British Comedy Awards, Winner of Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003.

Addresses: Agent—PBJ Management, 7 Soho Street, London W1D 3DQ, England; Web—www.lennyhenry.com.

Sources

Books

Margolis, Jonathan, Lenny Henry: A Biography, Orion Press, 1995.

Periodicals

Essence, August 1991.

The Independent (UK), March 2002.

The Observer (UK), December 7, 2003.

On-line

Comic Relief, www.comicrelief.com/allaboutus/index.shtml (accessed April 11, 2005).

"Lenny Henry," 100 Great Black Britons, www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/lenny_henry.html (accessed April 11, 2005).

"Lenny Henry," The Black Presence in Britain, www.blackpresence.co.uk/pages/entertainment/henry.htm (accessed April 11, 2005).

Lenny Henry, www.lennyhenry.com/home/index.asp?pID=0 (accessed April 11, 2005).

—Chris Routledge

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