A touch of class: How an inspirational teacher kickstarted Lenny Henry's comedy career

Lenny Henry struggled at school. But it was an inspirational teacher who kickstarted his comedy career, he tells Richard Garner. Now he's studying for a PhD – and presenting this year's Teaching Awards
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It was a science teacher at his secondary modern school who first gave Henry a helping hand towards stardom. Jim Brookes, a teacher at the Blue Coat school in Dudley, west Midlands, realised that, when it came to science, perhaps Henry's heart was not in it.

"Mr Brookes recognised that I was doing silly voices in class all the time and trying to be funny," says the 51-year-old comedian turned actor – who has just been chosen to host this year's Teaching Awards, to be screened on BBC2 later this month.

"He gave us – me and Graham Willetts [a fellow pupil and no relation to the Universities secretary, David] – a reel-to-reel tape recorder and said: 'Why don't you make up some shows and do your silly things on that?'" So the duo went to a room at the back of the school's science lab and made their own version of The Goon Show.

There was a quid pro quo. Mr Brookes would occasionally tell them: "Don't do it now, do it later. Not in the middle of science." He was also responsible for stage-managing school productions, and probably saw Henry as a likely recruit for them. Henry always got his science homework in on time and ended up getting a C grade in his CSE – something that would probably never have happened had he had not been given a free rein by his teacher. "He was a beacon teacher. He really nurtured this thing in me," Henry says. "He was a very trim guy – he always wore a tie – but he thought education should be fun."

It was a far cry from what was happening elsewhere in the school. Henry remembers there was "quite a lot of racism" and that he was constantly getting involved in fights – as a result of which he was given "the pump", a slipper used for caning pupils.

He can also recall his one "I am Spartacus" moment, when his class decided to hide one teacher's stick – used to cane them on the hand. When the teacher angrily asked for the pupil responsible to own up, they all confessed to the misdeed. By the age of 16, though, Henry had started doing stand-up comedy in clubs, and made his breakthrough appearance on ITV's New Faces programme. Given the chance to pursue a showbusiness career in London, he was off like a shot: "I abandoned my education when I went on the telly."

"My mum said to me, 'It's a shame you're not going to finish your engineering diploma, because it would be something to fall back on.' She only stopped saying that when I bought her a house!" He reflects, "I would absolutely dissuade my daughter now from abandoning school. I would absolutely say, 'Finish your education.'"

Henry did take the first step towards finishing his education when in the early Eighties he was sent to Blackpool for22 weeks to do a summer season with comedians Cannon and Ball. "After about two weeks, I began to think: 'All right, what else is there to do here?' Everybody I'd encountered in showbiz, especially [the actress] Carmen Munro, had encouraged me to feed my mind. I began investigating taking my O-levels."

So, instead of lolling around on the beach for the summer, he enrolled at WR Tuson College in Preston for English language and literature O-levels. There, he was introduced to the works of writers including Yeats, Dickens and Shakespeare. "I was having this weird feeling in my brain," he says. "I would go to my tutor's house. Next thing I was doing was appearing on Tiswas [the children's TV show]. David [Emery, his tutor], then said to me, 'Do you want to do A-levels?'

"I was quite frightened. I slightly panicked and said 'No'. I had never been encouraged to do A-levels at school; I was in the second stream and it wasn't really ever talked about. University was never spoken about, either." He adds, "That's the good thing about today. Everybody wants to go to university and thinks they can."

He believes it is high time the teaching profession was rewarded for what it does. "Teachers don't really realise how important they are to your life," he says.

He himself was spurred on to go back to education by the London showbiz scene. "Everyone I met – Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton – they'd all been to Manchester or Oxford or Cambridge. They've all got degrees."

His decision to enrol with the Open University (OU) for a degree course coincided with being lined up to play the part of a headteacher in the BBC1 series, Hope and Glory. This headteacher character, Ian George, was modelled on a real-life head – Sir William Atkinson at the Phoenix High School in west London, who was knighted by the Blair government for his services to education. "That school was transformed," Henry says. Sir William "went in there and made the teachers write about what they were supposed to achieve. If you've got the right headteacher, then you're there."

To do his OU degree course, he hadfirst to do a foundation course, as he had no A-levels. That included studying Shakespeare again. "It came to life for me," he says. "If I hadn't done that, I would never have done Othello." He won high praise in the title role of that play last year, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and then in London's West End.

He has not yet finished with his education. An MA at Royal Holloway College is now to be followed by a PhD course in philosophy. "I've just signed the cheque for it," he says. The course includes producing a documentary about himself, and also a section looking at black representation in the media. "Me doing a PhD – that's the most unlikely thing to be mooted by anybody anywhere in the world," he says. "It's like the Krankies becoming rocket scientists." Rocket science it may not be, but it will allow him to call himself "doctor" at the completion of the course.

If the Teaching Awards – to be screened on Sunday, 31 October – had been around in his school days, he is in no doubt that his former science teacher would have been in the running: "He was just thekind of teacher you see at the awards: they're funny, they're amusing, they have interesting, creative ways of passing on information," he says. "They're not scared to be affectionate, and they're not scared to be strict either."