Comedian, student, actor and campaigner Sir Lenny Henry’s career has been full of turning points and characterised by reinvention. He’s now calling on business leaders to help create a more accepting and inclusive society.
Comedian Lenny Henry hit the headlines in 2014 with his contemptuously amusing BAFTA television lecture, berating the film and TV industry for its “appalling” record on diversity – specifically, the representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people.
He drew attention to the harsh reality that the television industry did not reflect modern British society, and highlighted the “mass exodus” of BAME talent.
“Since 2008 I’ve noticed a worrying trend,” he told delegates. “Our most talented BAME actors are increasingly frustrated; they have to go to America to succeed.”
Between 2006-2012 the number of BAME people employed in television declined by 31%; this spurred on Henry’s campaign to increase diversity in the industry. Speaking at Changeboard’s Future Talent Conference, he was tangibly frustrated by the lack of BAME representation in industry generally and the current treatment of ethnic minorities in the UK.
“You only need to look at some of the things being said about immigrants; about Muslims; the value placed on some people’s lives right here in London who don’t have their voices heard – even when all they’re asking for is a decent sprinkler system. Our voices matter. Our participation matters. Our lives matter,” he asserted.
Soot, racism and mind-numbing work
Off stage, Henry is calm and reflective. Tall, slim and with a hint of a beard, he contrasts with the larger-than- life figure who frequented our TV screens in the 1990s. He seems relaxed, but there’s a hint of unease in his manner.
As the best-known black British entertainer on mainstream TV, Henry has experienced ‘difference’, and the associated racism, first-hand. “When I went to work at the BBC, there was no sense of diversity – there were only a few people that looked like me: Floella Benjamin and Derek Griffiths,” he recalls.
Henry’s parents had moved to Britain in the mid ‘50s from Jamaica and settled in Dudley in the West Midlands. “They came seeking streets paved with gold, but found only factories, soot and racial abuse. When my mother first came to the Midlands, she was followed down the road by a guy asking where her tail was. Those were difficult days,” he says.
It was the efforts of his parents to put food on the table (both did factory work and his mother also baked cakes and designed dresses; his father bricklaying, carpentry and electrics) that taught Henry the value of working hard. “I watched them almost break themselves to put clothes on our backs,” he says.
After failing his 11-plus, Henry attended secondary school in Dudley, leaving aged 16. He got a “mind-numbing” job in a welding factory, from which his only release was performing his comedy skits in discos around Dudley.
“When I was trying out material, I worked as hard as I could because I knew that if I didn’t make a go of it, I’d be stuck in that factory for the rest of my life, clocking in and clocking out – the boredom, the repetition, the smell,” he says.
In 1975, he appeared on the TV talent show New Faces – and won. This marked the beginning of a tremendous career, which took him in previously undreamt of directions.
One of these is further education, which Henry has embraced with gusto in recent years; and it is when our conversation turns to education that he becomes visibly engaged.
In the 1980s, four weeks into a six-month Blackpool summer season with fellow comedians Cannon and Ball, Henry decided to hire a tutor and take O-levels. “I was bored,” he admits. “I thought I’d given up on education, but I’ve always been curious about the world and wanted to try new experiences. I felt there was more to life than learning jokes parrot fashion.”
While he admits the thought of studying again was daunting [“I was full of self-doubt”] Henry embraced the poetry of Sassoon, Brooke, Owen and Wordsworth and bagged himself a degree in English Literature from the Open University.
He had long harboured a desire to find something “to use my brain better”, he tells me – fuelled, in part, by failing his 11-plus. “I had a chip on my shoulder about people who had gone to university, or Oxbridge and got double firsts. When I was 40, I decided to change that.”
Henry went on to study for an MA and has been working on a PhD for the past six-and-a-half years, exploring race, class and gender in sports films.
“It’s been quite lonely [studying] because nobody really gets what you are doing, only you understand why you are doing it,” he confesses.
The paradigm shift was “massive” for Henry. “Your biggest enemy is your own fear of change,” he acknowledges. “In many respects, change is good: reading is great, learning is fantastic. Why wouldn’t you want to know more if you have the chance?”
Reinvention has permeated Henry’s career. Having made his name as a comedy actor, he met director Barrie Rutter from theatre company Northern Broadsides in 2009, while presenting What’s so great about Shakespeare? on Radio 4.
Rutter’s agenda, throughout his theatrical career, was “to get Northern voices doing classical work in non-velvet spaces”; he demonstrated to Henry how Shakespeare wrote about all sections of society. “Growing up working class and black, I felt Shakespeare wasn’t for me. Every time you saw it on the telly, it was some posh white bloke with a cabbage down his tights talking with a lisp,” he quips.
But when Rutter outlined the plot of Othello and cajoled him into playing the lead for his forthcoming production at West Yorkshire playhouse, Henry felt an affinity with the title character. “I get being the only black guy. Because I’ve been the only black guy. In the classroom, at work, at the BBC, at ITV, in my Open University class.” he says.
The critics were expecting the production to be something of a theatrical car crash, yet Henry’s performance bagged him ‘Best Newcomer’ in the Evening Standard Drama Awards and gave him a new lease of artistic life. “It was brilliant,” he enthuses. “All the perspiration, preparation and teamwork paid off”. And all this happened at the age of 50.
For Henry, changing direction requires bravery. “If all your mates and family are from one area, doing one thing, and you’re saying ‘I want to be different’ it’s a world change. It can be tough but you’ve got to remember why you are doing it. It’s because you think you can do better. Be brave because only you know how far you can go… there are no limits.”
Prompted by a census of the creative media industries, showing that the number of BAME workers had fallen by 2,000 between 2012-15, despite the overall head count growing by 5,000, Henry demanded an increase in monitoring and drafted a proactive proposal to encourage more productions to use BAME actors and production staff. “For every black and Asian person who lost their job, two white people were employed,” he explains.
The fact that every major broadcaster now recognises the importance of diversity, is due to the campaigning of many people in the industry and beyond, he believes. Today, you cannot get funding from the British Film Institute without proving how diverse your film will be; Sky and Channel 4 have major diversity strategies, and diversity is part of the official BBC Charter. But despite the victories, diversity in television is in a “critical condition”.
“At the last Royal Television Craft Awards, for those who work behind the camera, there wasn’t one black or Asian person in the entire UK industry considered worthy. We’re so busy asking, ‘please can we have a black Doctor Who’, we forget to look at who is writing and directing these programmes,” says Henry.
Diversity and inclusion – or rather the lack of it – impacts on all aspects of society, he warns, and it is incumbent upon each of us to play our part in making diversity a core part of our everyday; from a leadership perspective, it’s having a succession plan that is diverse.
“As long as we all commit to working at creating true representation in all our industries, the fight can be won,” he pledges. “No one can expect it to happen immediately, these things take constant pressure and time. But even if we’re not in a position to do anything about it ourselves, let’s keep applying pressure to those who are.”