Lenny Henry is a British actor, writer, comedian and occasional television presenter.
Lenny’s thirty plus years in show business as an award winning comedian, documentary maker, communicator and founding member of Comic Relief have equipped him for more than just the stand up comedy, acting, writing, producing for which he has become renowned.
Throughout the years, Lenny has been present at some of the most amazing events in history, two Mandela days as co-host, various Red Nose days, and performances for Amnesty International.
Lenny has also travelled far and wide for Comic Relief fundraising purposes. His career has also encompassed an epoch in British show business history, where black performers and programme makers have been sadly, few and far between.
His earliest television appearance was on the New Faces talent show, which he won in 1975 with an impersonation of Stevie Wonder. The following year he appeared with Norman Beaton in LWT’s sitcom The Fosters, Britain’s first comedy series with predominantly black performers. His formative years were spent in working men’s clubs, where his act was as a young black man impersonating white characters such as the Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em character Frank Spencer (whom he impersonated on New Faces). He also made guest appearances on television programmes including Celebrity Squares, Seaside Special and The Ronnie Corbett Show.
In 1980, he performed in Summer Season in Blackpool with Cannon and Ball. He has since said that “the summer season was the first time he felt that his act had received a proper response from an audience”. Around the same time, he co-hosted the children’s programme Tiswas from 1978 until 1981, and subsequently performed and wrote for the show Three of a Kind, with comedians Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield.
During this time he also spent three years as a DJ on BBC Radio 1, playing soul and electro tracks and introducing some of the characters that he would later popularise on television. He made a guest appearance in the final episode of The Young Ones as The Postman, in 1984.
The first series of The Lenny Henry Show appeared on the BBC in 1984. The show featured stand up, spoofs like his send up of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and many of the characters he had developed during Summer Season, including Theophilus P. Wildebeeste and Delbert Wilkins. A principal scriptwriter for his television and stage shows during the 1990s was Jon Canter. The Lenny Henry Show ran for a further 20 years in various incarnations.
In 1987, he appeared in a TV film Coast to Coast. It was a comedy thriller with John Shea about two DJ’s with a shared passion for Motown music being chased across Britain. The film has a strong following, but contractual problems have prevented it from being distributed on video or DVD.
In 1991, he starred in a BBC drama alongside Robbie Coltrane called Alive and Kicking, in which he played a heroin addict, which was based on a true story. Also in 1991, he starred in the Christmas comedy Bernard and the Genie along side Alan Cumming and Rowan Atkinson.
Lenny is known as the choleric chef Gareth Blackstock from the 1990s television comedy series Chef!, or from his 1999 straight-acting lead role in the BBC drama Hope And Glory. He was co-creator with Neil Gaiman and producer of the 1996 BBC drama serial Neverwhere.
Lenny tried his hand at soul singing, appearing, for example, as a backing singer on Kate Bush’s album The Red Shoes and, backed by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, at Amnesty International’s Big 3-0 fund raising concert. He would later say that neither move showed him at his best, and that he felt most comfortable with character comedy. Lenny would occasionally return to singing, performing in small local venues in the West Midlands.
In 2003, Lenny was listed in The Observer as one of the fifty funniest acts in British comedy. In 2004, he was listed in The Sunday Times as the fifteenth funniest black performer of all time.
Lenny is associated with the British Comic Relief charity organisation, along with his former wife, comedienne Dawn French, and Griff Rhys Jones, and has hosted the show and also presented filmed reports from overseas on the work of the charity.
He was the voice of the “shrunken head” on the Knight Bus in the 2004 movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and read the audio book version of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. He also voices a character on the children’s show Little Robots.
In June 2001, for a BBC documentary, he sailed a trimaran from Plymouth to Antigua, Jamaica with yachtsman Tony Bullimore. His motive was to as he put it, “have one last adventure”.
In 2005, he appeared in Birmingham, as an act for “Jasper Carrott’s Rock with Laughter”. He appeared alongside performers such as Bill Bailey, Jasper Carrott, Bonnie Tyler, Bobby Davro and the Lord of the Dance troupe.
In 2006, Henry starred in the BBC programme Berry’s Way. He did the voice of Dark Nebula in Kirby: Squeak Squad. On 16 March 2007, Henry made a cameo appearance as himself in a sketch with Catherine Tate, who appeared in the guise of her character Geordie Georgie from The Catherine Tate Show. The sketch was made for the BBC Red Nose Day fund raising programme of 2007.
In early 2008, his show lennyhenry.tv was broadcast on BBC One. The programme has an accompanying website of the same name and broadcasts strange, weird and generally amusing on-line videos and CCTV clips. He starred in the Radio 4 show Rudy’s Rare Records.
In October 2009, Lenny Henry reprised his role of Deakus to feature in comedy shorts about story writing alongside Nina Wadia, Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Stephen K. Amos. He also offers his own writing tips and amusing anecdotes in the writing tips video clip on BBC raw words – story writing.
He also supplies the voices of both Big and Small in the BBC CBeebies Children’s programs Big & Small and provides the voices of Elephant, Buffalo and Cougar in Tinga Tinga Tales.
In 2009, he became the face of budget hotel operator Premier Inn, and to date continues to star in adverts for them. In 2011, he presented a Saturday night magic series called The Magicians on BBC1.
In March 2011, Lenny Henry appeared with Angela Rippon, Samantha Womack and Reggie Yates in the BBC fundraising documentary for Comic Relief called Famous, Rich and in the Slums, where the four celebrities were sent to Kibera in Kenya, Africa’s largest slum. He was criticised for his opening sketch for the 2011 Comic Relief, during which he spoofed the film The King’s Speech and grew impatient with Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George VI as he stammered over his speech.
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