HE has carved out a career as a serious actor lately, but Sir Lenny Henry’s mischievous sense of humour is still very much intact.
Taking to the stage at a Royal Television Society conference last week, the comedian announced: “Nice to see you. I am Justin Trudeau.”
Sir Lenny Henry has revealed how humour helped him through hard times[/caption]
His gag was a perfectly aimed dig at Canada’s under-fire Prime Minister, who has had to apologise after pictures emerged of him wearing “blackface” make-up to parties.
With more than 40 years of showbiz under his belt, it’s no surprise Lenny can still command a laugh.
But as his upcoming autobiography reveals, his life has not always been a giggle. He didn’t discover his real dad’s identity until he was a teen, his mum dished out brutal beatings and racist torment was never far off.
It’s no wonder that comedy provided a saving grace.
TV talent show New Faces launched Lenny Henry’s career in 1976[/caption]
Lenworth George Henry was born on August 29, 1958, in Dudley, West Midlands — which came as quite a surprise to his mum’s husband, Winston, who had been 4,500 miles away at the time of his conception.
Lenny’s mum Winifred had emigrated from Jamaica, leaving Winston and her four children behind, to follow her brother Clifton and find a new life for the family in the tough, working-class town just before its foundries, glassworks and factories entered their terminal decline.
Here she also found fellow Jamaican Albert Green — known as Bertie — who was particularly keen to help her find work and sample the local nightlife.
Their affair, which is said to have lasted several years, produced Lenny, and the trio even lived together for a while. Then in the early 1960s, Winston moved to the UK, reuniting Winnie with her two older sons and two daughters.
Henry and his mother Winifred in 1990[/caption]
In his new book Who Am I, Again?, Lenny writes of Winston: “It took a while for him to thaw to the idea of this new child he’d had no involvement in making.”
The affair forgiven, Winston and Winnie went on to have another two children, Paul and Sharon, and together with Lenny, they formed the “British posse”.
Lenny, 61, said: “We were very different from the Jamaican posse. We ate fish and chips and we couldn’t take the cap off a bottle with our teeth.”
Winston, who worked in a foundry and died shortly after retiring, raised Lenny as his own but he was never the warmest of father figures to any of the children.
The Lenny Henry Show was a comedy sketch show that aired in the 1980s[/caption]
Lenny once said: “My dad rarely spoke to me. He never told me a story or gave me a hug or kissed me.”
It was not until he was a teenager that Lenny found out his true heritage, and then he felt enormous “guilt and shame”.
In an attempt to form some sort of relationship, Bertie would invite his son over for the occasional sleepover, awkwardly sharing his bed in a tiny bedsit.
If he bumped into the lad in Dudley he would throw him a few coins as pocket money.
Lenny kept his audition for TV talent show New Faces a secret[/caption]
But after Lenny found fame, Bertie never blabbed about his son, and took the secret to his grave in 2004.
Lenny’s family background only became public knowledge in 2015 when the star revealed it ahead of his TV “fantasy memoir”, Danny And The Human Zoo.
The drama told of Lenny’s life growing up in the 1970s in that part of the West Midlands known as the Black Country — where slogans such as “Keep Britain White” were regularly painted on walls.
Lenny said previously: “My mum was followed round the streets, people asking where her tail was. My dad could have been in a fight every day.”
Winnie urged them to try to blend in. Lenny recalled: “When I was eight my mum said, ‘You must integrate or you won’t fit in. You must talk like de Dudley people dem.’ Suddenly this thing of having a Jamaican attitude got knocked out of us.”
Winnie, who had been a market trader in the Caribbean, was a strong, domineering woman who would discipline her large brood with boots, branches and belts.
She once threw a chair at Lenny as he ran upstairs and hit him in the face with a frying pan.
But despite her hardness, Winnie — who died in 1998 — was left in stitches when she witnessed her son’s talents. From a young age, Lenny had discovered an ability as a mimic.
Lenny Henry in The Black and White Minstrel Show with Ray Cavender and Ray Winbrow[/caption]
He copied everyone he could, from impressionists to cartoon characters and actors. At Dudley’s Blue Coat secondary school he had also found that comedy was a useful weapon in defending himself from bullies, as well as attracting girls.
Yet he kept his performances secret — including his audition for TV talent show New Faces, aged just 15.
Fearing his mum would never allow him to bunk off school for the day, Lenny didn’t tell her until afterwards.
He has described the successful audition — in which he impersonated Tommy Cooper, Stevie Wonder and Frank Spencer — as “one of the most brilliant moments of my life”.
The comedian won New Faces with an impersonation of Stevie Wonder[/caption]
Back home, when he confessed what he had been up to, his mum made him perform his routine all over again — and the family were suitably impressed. When Lenny then won the show, by then aged 16, his family “all went nuts”.
While talent shows today might launch a career, there were no such immediate offers of fame and fortune then.
And so, at 17, Lenny signed up to do a stand-up routine on The Black And White Minstrel Show, a touring production of the TV show in which blacked-up performers sang minstrel tunes.
But being the only black entertainer on an act that was intrinsically racist took its toll.
Lenny Henry on The South Bank Show in 1988[/caption]
Lenny writes: “My life quickly became one of creeping dread. Very similar to how Melania Trump must feel most evenings.
“I would arrive at the theatre and know that I would be the only actual black person in the building, perhaps the only one within a 50-mile radius.”
His older brother, Seymour, practically blanked him during the five years he worked on it, and in 2013, Lenny confessed he wished he had never done it.
He said: “I think I went through a wormhole of depression because of it that went on for five years.”
Lenny Henry and Dawn French announced they were separating after 25 years of marriage in April 2010[/caption]
Even so, the experience did teach him how to put a show together, for which he is grateful. And there were more promising projects to focus on.
In 1978 he became co-host on the children’s show Tiswas, alongside Chris Tarrant, where he proved a big hit with characters such as Trevor MacDoughnut, a parody of newsreader Trevor McDonald, and a Rastafarian called Algernon Razzmatazz.
He also joined the TV band of Comic Strip comedians, which included Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French — who he went on to marry in 1984.
That same year, The Lenny Henry Show launched on BBC One.
The comedian appeared alongside Melvyn Bragg in The South Bank Show[/caption]
But fame only fanned the flames of racism. The National Front smeared “NF” in excrement on the couple’s front door, and burning rags and threatening letters would land on their doormat.
Dawn, who went on to star as The Vicar Of Dibley, once said: “We had words scratched into every panel of every car — very offensive, derogatory, racist terminology.”
Lenny said he learned to be stoic from his mum, who would say: “Don’t rise to any kind of abuse. Ignore it, just get on with it.”
But now he writes: “I wish I had stood up to racism more.”
Sir Lenny Henry won the Special Award at the 2016 BAFTAs[/caption]
Lenny and Dawn adopted their mixed-race daughter, Billie, now 28, but after 25 years of what was assumed to be one of the strongest marriages in showbiz, the pair announced their shock split in 2010.
A few months afterwards, Lenny said they had drifted into being “more friends than a couple”.
He added: “I watched my parents, thinking, ‘You’re not very happy,’ and I didn’t want to get to the point where we were unhappy.”
Dawn is now married to Mark Bignell, a charity chief executive, and after they wed in 2013, Lenny said he was “really glad for her”.
Henry was knighted in the Queen’s 2015 Birthday Honours for services to drama and charity[/caption]
Besides being a long-running host for Comic Relief — which he co-founded with Four Weddings And A Funeral writer Richard Curtis in 1985 — Lenny’s own life has included a move into serious drama, such as the award-winning TV series Broadchurch, as well as on stage, most notably as Othello in the West End.
In 2014 he began a diet and fitness regime after discovering he was “a little bit diabetic”, and eventually shed 3st ahead of playing a Jamaican slave in The Long Song, a three-part TV drama shown last year.
Despite never training as an actor, Lenny believes he has now proved his worth.
He said recently: “I’m touching wood but I believe directors now think, ‘Would he like to do this?’ rather than, ‘He’ll never do this, he’s a comedian.’”
Who Am I, Again? by Lenny Henry is out on October 3rd[/caption]
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Theatre has also brought him a new relationship, with producer Lisa Makin.
Now he has got his autobiography coming out, and this autumn he will be touring a one-man show based on his memoir.
It seems King Henry still has plenty more to laugh about.
- Who Am I, Again? by Lenny Henry (Faber, £20) will be published on October 3.
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