The fact that the comedian Lenny Henry is a British man born in Dudley, close to Birmingham, seems – to me at least – something as deep-rooted in the British conscience as other, similar doofus-grade Who Wants To Be a Millionaire questions such as: “Where is the Queen’s Scottish residence?” or “Which country did Paddington Bear come from the deepest, darkest part of?”
It’s impossible as a British person to say how one originally found these things out. One just knows. Still, the fact of Lenny Henry’s country of birth has eluded the Ukip candidate for Enfield, William Henwood, who suggested over the weekend that Lenny Henry should “emigrate to a black country”, if he’s not happy living with “whites”.
Henwood’s oafish mutterings were clearly a rejig of the popular Conversational Racism For Beginners’ phrase: “Get back to your own country.” He is unapologetic and indignant at the fuss. Keeping in mind that Ukip seems to be gaining considerable popularity in this country for being those ruddy great blokes with the brass balls to say what we’re all secretly thinking, it is useful to know what they secretly think we all think.
A recent episode of Channel 4’s Gogglebox – the programme that watches the everyday man watching telly – showed almost every sofa being won over by Farage’s “Tell it as you see it” chutzpah. Presumably, the trickle-down effect of this is buffoons like Henwood treating us to the full majesty of their “everyman” grunts before spinning round with a confident, “Am I right, guys?” For the good of Great Britain we need to keep whacking these prats back into place, like a depressing game of beach-front whack-a-mole, with the vehement shout of, “No, pillock, you’re absolutely wrong.”
The most galling part of Henwood’s musings is that it was in response to an erudite Bafta speech by Lenny Henry about the time-worn British theatrical and televisual problem of representation for non-white actors. Clearly, this discrepancy – the historical and socio-political reasons for it plus the debate of how to rectify the problem – is a topic which could fill many thousands of words. But in its briefest form, there’s a reason that fine British actors like Idris Elba, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Chiwetel Ejiofor found some of their most rewarding roles in America. I would add some of my own thoughts here, but let’s instead go to William Henwood who has his own great wisdom.
“I think,” he told the BBC when they called to find out if his original tweet was perhaps taken out of context, that “if black people come to this country and don’t like mixing with white people, why are they here? If he [Henry] wants a lot of blacks around, go and live in a black country.”
Henwood, it has been said, is not a racist. Unfortunately, the person saying this is BNP chairman Nick Griffin who jumped in to defend Henwood, saying that “the real racism” was the “bullying by the BBC and by the political elite of ordinary British people, of various parties, who stand up and say what most ordinary people think”.
Nick Griffin also added, for good measure: “We are going to be an abused minority in our own homeland.” This seems a rather extreme reaction to Lenny Henry. I’ve watched him for years in Tiswas as Delbert Wilkins, as Theopolis P Wildebeest, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I just don’t think he has violent race-based civil war leadership in him. I think he was just making a point about equality. Henwood’s reaction was a perfect illustration of how far attitudes in this country may need to shift.
For many people, the first time they learnt that Lenny Henry was utterly British was back in 1975 – nearly 40 years ago – when he appeared on the talent show New Faces. As, very typically, the only black person to appear on British TV that evening, Henry would touch on the matter by cracking the joke that Enoch Powell had offered him £1,000 to “go home”. “But it only costs me 50p to get to Dudley!” Henry, just a boy then, would deliver the punchline in a mock-glib, chipper tone brimming with youthful naivety, but in reality it was a dark look at 1970s Britain and the attitudes a black person had to deal with. It’s up to us as voters to spell out to men like William Henwood that this joke isn’t funny any more.