His four-decade reign as one of the most familiar faces on British TV began when he was just 16.
Now Sir Lenny Henry has revealed how he developed his precocious comedy talent as a way to beat bigoted bullies.
In his hotly awaited autobiography Who Am I, Again? – serialised exclusively in The Mail on Sunday’s Event magazine today – he reveals how his wit saved him from a beating at the hands of his tormentors at school in Dudley in the West Midlands.
And that gave him the confidence to start performing, which led him to win the ITV talent show New Faces in 1975 – and go on to have a glittering, award-winning career.
In his hotly awaited autobiography Who Am I, Again? – serialised exclusively in The Mail on Sunday’s Event magazine today – he reveals how his wit saved him from a beating at the hands of his tormentors at school in Dudley in the West Midlands. Pictured is Sir Lenny Henry with his mother in 1975
It was a time when racism was all too common, and ‘the National Front was out there starting trouble if you had the nerve to walk down the street with black skin,’ Sir Lenny recalls.
He details the abuse he received at his secondary modern school, Blue Coat, from one boy in particular: ‘For a brief period, I’d had a fight every single day with this kid, let’s call him Danny Waverly.
‘He’d say hateful things like, “Hey, darky. Oi, nig-nog.” Every day, the same greeting as usual. There he was, as soon as I walked through the school gates, with his fists up. A racist slur and then a fighting blur.’
But young Lenny had little success with his fists.
‘One thing everybody knows about me is that I cannot fight,’ he writes.
He talks of the abuse he received at his secondary modern school, Blue Coat, from one boy in particular: ‘He’d say hateful things like, “Hey, darky. Oi, nig-nog”
‘If you asked my sister Kay whether I can handle myself in a scrap, she would throw back her head and cackle like a witch. I was hopeless.
‘But every day I’d be rolling around on the ground with Danny Waverly, who hated me for the sole reason that I was black. I was tired of this constant scrapping. I needed to think my way out.
‘The particular escape route I chose that morning would lay the foundation for my future career.
‘I said something like, “Not this again Waverly. Ya must really fancy me, ‘cos you’re always tryin’ to get me to roll around on the ground with ya.” ’
The dim-witted Waverly responded with more racist abuse: ‘Shut y’mouth, coon,’ but Lenny carried on with his patter: ‘You hit me, I hit you, we fall on the ground and hug. Why don’t we go and have dinner and a movie first? You could buy me a ring – mek it official?’
Lenny’s decision to use his wit was decisive. ‘Normally, whenever these situations would occur at the school gates, other kids would gather in a circle and yell, “FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!” This time, these kids did me the huge favour of actually laughing at my attempts at humour.
‘The particular escape route I chose one morning would lay the foundation for my future career. ‘I said something like, “Not this again Waverly. Ya must really fancy me, ‘cos you’re always tryin’ to get me to roll around on the ground with ya”
‘Waverly still gave me one or two pops to the head, but the laughter made me feel immune. Eventually, someone in the crowd said, “Jesus, leave him alone man.”
‘The rest of the crowd joined in, and soon he simply stopped and walked away.
‘I had a handle on what to do now. I had a weapon – humour. Result.’
But he was not to be free of racism, recalling how even at college he would be tormented by another bigot, called Barry Jones, who would regularly abuse him.
‘As usual I tried joking my way out of it by playing to the gallery,’ he recalls. ‘Sometimes it works.’
But one day Jones reacted viciously to Lenny’s teasing. ‘He lost his rag, turned on me and spat out the phrase “black c***,” ’ the comedian, now 61, recalls.
‘My cheeks burnt. I lashed out and caught Barry with a whopping blow to the side of his face.
‘Everyone told me that he was a racist and he deserved it.
‘But I just felt sad that I lashed out. What happened to what I’d learnt at school about handling racism with humour?’
But it was not long before Lenny’s wit and gift for impressions became his fortune. By the time he was 15, he had developed enough of an act to perform in a local club – and after just a couple of performances he applied for New Faces, which he went on to win.
‘In an instant my life had changed for ever,’ he writes.
Haunting. Unflinching. Profoundly shocking. Yet all told with the warmth and humour that’s made him one of Britain’s best-loved comedians. In an enthralling new autobiography, Sir Lenny Henry reveals how growing up as a black boy in 1970s Dudley was no laughing matter
So here we are then. I never ever ever ever thought I’d be allowed to write a book. This is brilliant – I’m chuffed to bits, dancing on air like Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers in that movie where they perform that insane routine with the leaping and spinning and circus tricks. You know the one.
So the memoir – called Who Am I, Again? – is a dance through my childhood, my origins (like Batman year one, except I don’t fight crime, I end up in a Minstrel show). I get to share moments and events that I’ve never shared with you before – some happy, some sad.
My story begins with my mum and how I came to be. It’s been a therapeutic blast writing it – like pouring out everything you’ve ever thought about something and then chopping it into chapters
I write about my birth father, Albert Green, and the day I found out the truth about our blood relationship. I’ve made an effort not to be judgmental about my origins – it’s a familiar story: someone leaves their family behind to embark on a journey to another country and in the space in between, in the cold of winter, companionship is sought, connections are formed, new life begins. It’s a story as old as time.
My story begins with my mum and how I came to be. It’s been a therapeutic blast writing it – like pouring out everything you’ve ever thought about something and then chopping it into chapters. I’m proud of my mum and everything she achieved later on in her life, she had weight problems, diabetes, glaucoma, asthma and yet she was active in the church, and continued her lay preacher mentoring and charity activities, even when she was in a wheelchair. Talk about not going gently.
So, for my family, my friends, my daughter, my lovely partner Lisa and EVERYONE who knows me: here’s my story – have a read... it’s bosting! (that’s Brummie for excellent!)
How I beat the bigots with comedy
When I was seven years old, Mama lined us kids up in the hall one day. I remember our hypnotically repetitive flock wallpaper, peeling at the edges and the still potent aroma of last night’s delicious oxtail stew wafting through from the kitchen and Mama in her work clothes towering over us. She looked serious.
‘You children have to learn how to h’integrate, y’hear me?’
Silence from her baffled kids.
We stood and waited for understanding to appear, most of us restless and distracted by thoughts of Batman, Thunderbirds and 99 ice creams.
Mum, seeing our uncomprehending faces, upped the ante: ‘LISTEN TO ME NOW!’ she exploded. ‘You haffe hin-te-grate wid de Dudley people or you won’t fit eeen! Y’unnerstan’? Mek friends wid dem, eat dem food, talk wid dem, learn how t’communicate. Or…’ she geared up for the killer line, ‘DEM WILL PRISON WE ALL!’ We nodded. None of us wanted jail time.
Sir Lenny Henry in 1978. 'So, for my family, my friends, my daughter, my lovely partner Lisa and EVERYONE who knows me: here’s my story,' writes Sir Lenny
Lenny with his mum, Auntie Pearl and family in 1974 after his New Faces audition
Mama certainly understood the perils of not fitting in. She had moved to Dudley from Jamaica in the mid-Fifties before I was born, following in the footsteps of her brother Clifton, who promised jobs for all the family, and temporarily leaving my father, Winston, my elder brothers Hylton and Seymour and my big sisters Bev and Kay.
Mum was confronted by racism on a daily basis in those early days: she would be followed down the street by children who wanted to know where she was hiding her tail; on the bus, women would feel her face with their hands and ask her whether her skin colour came off; men on the street would make monkey noises at her as she passed. That was when there were signs in all boarding house windows saying, ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’. So if you were a black Irish wolfhound, you had no chance, as my old gag-writer Kim Fuller once noted.
As in most of these stories of immigrants crossing oceans to begin new lives, Mama eventually found a place to live and soon formed a relationship with a man called Albert Green, or Bertie, who helped her to find work, and took her to pubs and clubs. He was a decent guy, and when the harsh realities of living in a semi-hostile environment grew all too evident, he provided her with comfort and companionship.
This relationship would have consequences.
I was born in August 1958 and, in many respects, I was a surprise – not least to Mama, who hadn’t banked on producing yet another Henry while her husband was still in the Caribbean.
Needless to say, when Winston finally arrived in Dudley with my big sister Kay, it took a while for him to thaw to the idea of this new child he’d had no involvement in making. There were tensions and the two of them argued a fair deal. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in my cot (baby jail), hands on the bars, and watching them fuss and fight.
But even though it took what seemed like an eternity, he did eventually grow to appreciate me. And however much they argued and yelled at each other, it has to be said: coming to the UK changed their lives for the better. They raised, nurtured and loved me as best they could under the circumstances, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Lenny Henry in 2015. 'I was born in August 1958 and, in many respects, I was a surprise – not least to Mama, who hadn’t banked on producing yet another Henry while her husband was still in the Caribbean,' he writes
Everyone in Dudley seemed to know my mama. Most days she seemed to wear a mask of granite that said, ‘Don’t mess with me. I’m Winifred Henry, and if you try anything funny, I’ll knock you through a brick wall.’ Because she could.
She had powerful hands, and if you were swiped or punched by either of them, you knew about it. As a subsistence farmer and market trader back in Jamaica, she’d spent hours working in the fields and carrying baskets of fruit and veg to and from the market.
As a child I slid around in her huge shoes, pretending to be important. Mama was the alpha in our family. Papa was tough and ‘manly’ in appearance, but at home it was clear who wore the trousers.
Mama smiled rarely, but when she did, it was fantastic. Because I spent a lot of my childhood being disciplined by this woman – with belts, branches, boots, sometimes the occasional pan lid – seeing her laugh was a revelation. All that anger and worry would disappear from her face, and this other Mama would appear – huge smile, sparkling eyes, honking laugh. (Maybe this is what triggered my love of comedy – Mum’s laugh was legendary.)
I loved this Mama: I wasn’t so keen on the other one – she was too vexed.
Lenny Henry as a boy, aged 17. 'By the time I was 12 or 13, I’d had an epiphany. I knew I could make people laugh with the things I said'
I was the first of the Dudley-born Henry kids – my brother Paul and sister Sharon would soon follow – but the elder Jamaican-born siblings gradually all joined us in the UK. Which meant that I grew up in a Jamaican household where everyone spoke in the Jamaican dialect:
‘Wha’ wrong wid yu, yu finger’s bruk? Go fetch yu own water!’
‘Mama! Len put di hot peppa in me mout’ an’ it a bun mi!’
We always ate as a family in those days, everyone round the table. The food was almost always delicious (pilchards and rice on a Thursday – ugh).
Mama had truly mastered stick-to-the-ribs food and knew how to make supplies stretch. Even when it was just us, she always cooked for 27 people – minimum.
When we came home from school and stared listlessly into the cupboards, we’d see geriatric tinned pilchards, asthmatic bags of rice and odd damp scraps of green somethings near the back. When Mama looked into that same cupboard, she would see the makings of a glorious feast.
She was a fine cook, but she was a hard woman and could be brutal when she disciplined us. She once hit me in the face with a frying pan. Another time she threw a chair at me – I ran up the stairs and round the corner – but the chair followed me.
I once got a letter from a black journalist taking issue with me about the stand-up I’d done about getting beaten by her. He said it trivialised physical child abuse and perpetuated a stereotype of Third World parenting. I agree with all that, but the problem is, I grew up with beatings and bitch licks – to use the West Indian term. It might be a trope, but it was true.
Life was tough in other ways, too, for a young West Indian boy in industrial Dudley. When I was young, I lived next door to a kid called Steven, who was my age and white, and we played together until one day I knocked on his door, opened the letterbox and shouted, ‘Steven, you playin’?’ There was silence, and then I saw him approaching the door. He put his lips level with my eyes, spat through the letter box and told me not to come round again. It broke my heart. But I carried on with my life, minus Steven.
Later, Skin Williams, a boot-boy type in the park, took great pleasure in calling me names and insisting that I smelt ‘like all nig-nogs do’. My brother Seymour had the answer. ‘Next time one of these eediats calls yu ‘wog’ or ‘coon’ or ‘nig-nog’, you pick up a brick and lick them inna dem neck back.’
'Mama smiled rarely, but when she did, it was fantastic. Because I spent a lot of my childhood being disciplined by this woman – with belts, branches, boots, sometimes the occasional pan lid – seeing her laugh was a revelation'
'We always ate as a family in those days, everyone round the table. The food was almost always delicious'
I guess this was solid advice, but Skin was bigger than me and had his own gang, so I never got the chance to retaliate. I just stood there and took it.
For a brief period, I’d had a fight every single day with this kid, let’s call him Danny Waverly. He clearly didn’t like the way I looked. He’d say hateful things like, ‘Hey, darky. Oi nig-nog.’ Every day, the same greeting as usual. There he was, as soon as I walked through the school gates, with his fists up. A racist slur and then a fighting blur.
Blue Coat secondary modern on Bean Road in Dudley had a healthy mix of Afro-Caribbean and Asian kids, but it was predominantly white, so this kind of racist abuse was basic – we all had it to contend with. ‘Oi, wog. Move, coon.’ The language of simpletons.
Now, one thing everybody knows about me is that I cannot fight. If you asked my sister Kay whether I can handle myself in a scrap, she would throw back her head and cackle like a witch. I was hopeless. But every day I’d be rolling around on the ground with Danny Waverly, who hated me for the sole reason that I was black. I was tired of the constant scrapping. I needed to think my way out of this.
The particular escape route I chose that morning would lay the foundation for my future career.
I said something like: ‘Not this again Waverly. Ya must really fancy me, ’cos you’re always tryin’ to get me to roll around on the ground with ya.’
‘Shut y’mouth, coon.’
‘Here we go,’ I carried on. ‘You hit me, I hit you, we fall on the ground and hug. Why don’t we go and have dinner and a movie first?’
‘Are we gonna fight or wha’?’
‘You could buy me a ring – mek it official?’
Now, normally, whenever these situations would occur at the school gates, other kids would gather in a circle and yell, ‘FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!’ This time, these kids did me the huge favour of actually laughing at my attempts at humour. Waverly still gave me one or two pops to the head, but the laughter made me feel immune. I kept on making the funnies even as he continued to kick and punch.
Eventually, someone in the crowd said, ‘Jesus, leave him alone, man.’ The rest of the crowd joined in, and soon he simply stopped and walked away. I had a handle on what to do now. I had a weapon – humour. Result.
By the time I was 12 or 13, I’d had an epiphany. I knew I could make people laugh with the things I said, but now I was doing something else: I’d begun to impersonate voices, people, things, all the time.
This really helped with my mama’s H’Integration Project, because if you can make people laugh, you’re breaking down barriers.
I watched all the afternoon cartoons – Top Cat, The Flintstones, Tom And Jerry, Porky Pig – and sometimes the evening programmes too – Burke’s Law, The Prisoner, The Saint, Doctor Who, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – and absorbed the way people moved, talked and cracked wise.
I watched Mike Yarwood, the premier impressionist at the time, and copied every intonation, every grimace, every eyebrow-raise. I began to develop an arsenal of voices and ideas and jokes that would stand me in good stead for the next 30 years.
Girls intrigued me by this time, but the church girls I saw every Sunday – the ones who tormented you with the way they sang and gyrated for the Lord during the hymns, then tossed you the odd devilish smile – wanted the real Jamaican tough guys who went to the reggae club up by Green Park.
Lenny doing impressions on the New Faces show in 1975. 'The following Saturday night, the whole family sat down and watched me on TV. They all went nuts – though Dad didn’t say much, just patted me on the shoulder afterwards, grunting, "Mek sure yu keep yu feet on the ground," on his way to the kitchen'
'In 2016, one of the producers of New Faces called me and asked if I wanted to see my first performance. Watching all those years later, I saw in my youthful eyes the commitment to this new life,' writes Lenny Henry
It seemed so unfair, but these were hard times. The National Front was out there starting trouble if you had the nerve to walk down the street with black skin. When you’re being attacked by racist thugs – ‘Come on then, you black git, what you gonna do?’ – you can’t just come out with an impression of Kenneth Williams.
So I stopped yearning for them. They didn’t want me, so I decided that I didn’t want them. (I would get over this temporary slight relatively soon.) But in the park with my white friends, things were different. I made them – and any girls who were around – laugh. Sometimes that led to snogging, and that was joyous. Usually, it would be a behind-the-sheds/ toilets/ big-horse-chestnut-tree kiss, because some of these white girls didn’t want to be seen kissing me. If anyone walked by, they’d almost tear your bottom lip off trying to get away.
To further complicate matters, the secret of my real birth father was finally revealed to me as adolescence dawned, triggering great guilt and shame on my part. I was horribly embarrassed whenever I clocked Bertie around Dudley. Sometimes I’d see him when I was in the park with my friends. He might amble out of some pub, see me across the street and yell at the top of his voice, ‘LEN!’ and I’d have to cross the road and say hello to him. He might give me some pocket money in front of people. I would die.
Clearly, he wanted to bond, but to me it felt too late. In my early teens I overnighted a few times at his bedsit. It was strangely intimate – we had to sleep in the same bed. I can’t remember what we spoke about. I was a mute visitor who chose to speak only when questioned directly.
The main feeling I had about the whole ‘new dad’ situation was that although Bertie was my father by blood, Winston – whether he liked it or not – was the guy who had raised me. This new situation was interesting, but it didn’t change the infrastructure.
I was a happy kid, but I do remember waking up one morning, very early, looking out of the window and thinking, ‘I have got to get out of Dudley.’sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more
I don’t know where this feeling came from, but there was a sense that if I followed the path laid down by the careers officer at school and my parents at home, I would be stuck there forever, working in the factory like my papa. The possibility of running away to enter showbusiness was an immense twinkling jewel, my light at the end of the tunnel.
I turned to face the audience – me as Frank Spencer – and my life changed for ever
If you were black and on TV in the Seventies, the jokes told tended to be against yourself rather than about any other subject. This was a survival technique: the reason the black comedian Charlie Williams self-deprecated in a