Sir Lenny Henry on career knocks, comedy joy and how he now chooses jobs more carefully

The comedian, actor and writer talks about weight, workaholic tendencies and how grief counselling helped him through his mother’s death.

Hannah Stephenson
Tuesday 30 August 2022 10:07 BST
Sir Lenny Henry (Jack Lawson/PA)
Sir Lenny Henry (Jack Lawson/PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


At 6ft 3in, comedian, actor and writer Sir Lenny Henry is remembering how a body shaming experience in America shattered his self-esteem.

He had flown to Los Angeles with his then wife Dawn French to start filming the movie True Identity (which became a box office flop) and thought he was in top shape to make the movie. “I had been rigorous with my personal training and nutrition – and managed to get down to 15-and-a-half stone. Which is a good size for me – I can get suits off the peg,” he recalls.

But he was asked to lose further weight and, for months, endured a fiendishly difficult exercise regime accompanied by a strict diet.

“It was horrible. It wasn’t just mentally bruising, it was physically bruising,” he recalls today. “I arrived in the best shape I’ve ever been in and they told me I was overweight and needed to lose weight. If anything is going to knock your confidence, it’s something like that. I was already at the best weight I’d been since I left school and suddenly I was told I needed to lose another stone-and-a-half.

“I was able to get through it because I had Dawn with me and she worked hard to make sure I was all right. But inside me, I had this feeling that I wasn’t good enough. I was fighting that all the way through. And actually, the film got slagged off but I got quite good reviews.”

These days, Henry, 64, goes to the gym regularly, does yoga, doesn’t eat rubbish and seems to be in a much better place.

Making that movie is just one of the many anecdotes featured in Rising To The Surface, the second volume of his memoirs, which charts his life through the 80s and 90s, from his success with the sketch shows Three Of A Kind and The Lenny Henry Show to winning the Golden Rose of Montreux, and everything in-between.

In those two decades he worked at a frenetic pace, from TV shows and solo tours, creating hilarious characters like Delbert Wilkins and Theophilus P. Wildebeeste, to becoming a mainstay of Comic Relief (he remains honorary life president) with his pal Richard Curtis and starring in his own sitcom, Chef.

Today, he lives in Oxfordshire with his long term partner, theatre producer Lisa Makin, and is more judicious about what he takes on, he agrees. But it’s his upbringing which drove him.

“I come from a working class family (his parents were immigrants from Jamaica) and I saw my mum doing four jobs to put food on the table and clothes for her seven kids and grandchildren. I took that into the business, sometimes to the risk of my mental health.”

Indeed his mother, Winifred, who died in 1998, was the major force in life, and there are poignant, touching chapters about her health deterioration from 1991, the intimate chats they had about his upbringing and why she beat him, and how the family rallied round to care for her when she was unwell.

“She had the mentality of, ‘If I don’t toughen you up, nobody else will,” he recalls. “That, and seeing how hard she worked to help us, was the shaping of me.”

(Ian West/PA)
(Ian West/PA)

Henry was on tour in Australia when she died, even though a doctor in England had told him before he went on tour that she would be ok in his absence.

“I was literally howling with rage because I could have been there,” he recalls. “It was awful, the worst I’ve ever felt through anything.”

He had grief counselling on his return, which transitioned into cognitive therapy and continued for four years.

“I also did a long tour of Britain and Australia, talking about mum and doing her voice and remembering her and it was kind of a homage to her, which was very good for my mental health.”

Her tough love had given him the resilience he needed to pursue a showbiz career. He rose to fame through talent show New Faces and then honed his craft in cabaret clubs and pubs nationwide. It was hard, but he’s not sure he would have made it in comedy in this day and age.

“I don’t think I would have made it on Britain’s Got Talent. It’s a bear pit where people are pressing buzzers.

“Young people today, God bless them, have other problems. You put yourself on social media thinking you are the funniest thing since sliced bread and it’s not as good as you thought it was.

“You go on Britain’s Got Talent and you get buzzed off in the first minute-and-a-half.”

Honing your craft in front of live audiences isn’t always possible because of social media, he adds.

“I was doing clubs and cabaret clubs and bars and restaurants all over the country and was given the opportunity to learn my craft. I did my 10,000 hours but it’s hard to get your 10,000 hours in this social media environment because everybody’s watching you. So I don’t think they (young comedians) are soft at all. I think they’re brave and long may they continue.”

While some of the work he took on during the 80s and 90s wasn’t the greatest, he loved many of the creative processes and partners he teamed up with in those eras to create laughter, he stresses.

“It was a whirlwind of ideas and thoughts and partnerships, some successful, some failed, but most enriching. And there was a lot of laughing.”

That strong work ethic, taking on too much because you never know when the jobs will dry up in the precarious world of showbiz, meant he wasn’t at home to help out as much as he might have been, he admits in the book.

He set up a production company after True Identity, manically throwing himself into work to offset the damage he thought his career had suffered. At the same time, he and French were in the process of adopting their daughter, Billie, after a number of unsuccessful rounds of IVF.

There are brief mentions of French and Billie in the book but Henry remains tight-lipped about their relationship, admitting only that he could have slowed down a little and helped out a bit more when Billie was a young child.

His mother was also ill from the early 90s, adding to the pressures, and the wider family would help out, as would Henry when he was able.

“I still felt guilty because I wasn’t there more but I was working – but then everyone was working. There was a level of showbiz selfishness there, but I could have worked less.”

While comedy remains his first love, he has long since reinvented himself as a serious actor, received dazzling reviews in the title role of Othello and did stints at the RSC, as well as TV appearances in Broadchurch and Doctor Who, among others.

Next up, he’s playing Sadoc Burrows, one of the tiny hobbit folk with hairy feet and big ears in Amazon’s Lord Of The Rings prequel series, The Rings Of Power, starting on September 2.

“I went backwards and forwards to New Zealand (for filming). It (the experience) was spectacular. Imagine doing a job where money is not an object. Amazon spent so much money on this thing, it was extraordinary. Even the limo driver had a limo driver.

“There were so many special effects, you couldn’t really get to your mark when you were filming because there were so many people in the way all looking at the camera angles to make sure the visual effects would work. It was a wonderful learning experience.”

He’s also written and will be starring in Three Little Birds, a new ITV immigration drama inspired by his mother, about three women travelling from Jamaica to Britain in 1956 and starting a new life.

No sign of slowing down, then?

“I used to make a joke about presenting a moving target – keep moving and doing different stuff so people can’t make a decision about what they think about you because you are always doing something different.

“Actually, now I’m starting to think, ‘No, slow down, what’s the hurry? Take your time.’”

Rising To The Surface by Lenny Henry is published on September 1 by Faber, priced £20.

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