Posing the question “how does a young, black and relatively poor son of immigrants get to have the career that I’ve had?”, comedian and diversity campaigner Sir Lenny Henry went on to outline the obstacles he has overcome in his life and career, describing his return to education and “foray into dramatic acting”.
“My parents came to Dudley [from Jamaica] seeking streets paved with gold, but found only factories, soot and racial abuse,” he began, explaining that, at school in the 1960s, he was also bullied for his race. It was here he learned that “humour could be used not only as a weapon but as armour”.
Having failed his 11-plus, and “given up on education”, on leaving school, he took a factory job at British Federal Welders “clocking in and clocking out”; however, an appearance on the New Faces talent showmarked “the beginning of a tremendous career” in show business.
Despite this success, he returned to education later in life, taking O-levels and an Open University degree and even performing Shakespeare, winning the ES Outstanding Newcomer Theatre Award at the age of 50, for his portrayal of Othello. “Further education can transform people’s lives,” he enthused, treating a spellbound audience to Othello’s final speech.
Henry stressed the ongoing lack of BAME representation “in TV, film and all walks of life”, urging delegates to continue the fight in their industries; he has campaigned to increase diversity in the media since 2012. “As long as we commit to working and creating true representation, the fight can be won,” he pledged.