10 Times Sir Lenny Henry Was A Trailblazer In The Arts

From his acting talents to his life-changing charitable efforts.

Lenny Henry with the 'Special Recognition' award in the winners' room during the National Television...
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We’ve long known that the remarkable Sir Lenny Henry is a national treasure, and now it’s official. The veteran comedian and actor won the Special Recognition Award at the National Television Awards on Oct. 13, honouring his 50-year career. This coveted prize is the only gong at the NTAs that isn’t voted for by the public, and past winners include Sir David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, and David Tennant.

Henry has most recently dominated our screens with his portrayal of Sadoc, a Harfoot, in The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power. The actor has made a major impact in film and television, and on the stage, over the years, with incredible performances in The Sandman, Doctor Who, Broadchurch, Othello.

From his sketch comedy efforts to his philanthropy, the 64-year-old has an impressive list of achievements under his belt. We take a look at some of Sir Lenny Henry’s trailblazing moments, below.

Making A Name For Himself

Henry’s career began at 16, when he appeared on the televised New Faces talent show in 1975. He ended up winning the show with spot-on impersonations of Stevie Wonder, Frank Spencer, and more. The performer honed his comedic skills on his school stage and at working men’s clubs, where he impersonated mainly white characters such as Fred Flintstone, John Wayne, and Elvis.

Breaking Ground For Black Talent

Henry was undoubtedly the most prominent Black British comedian in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during a time when Black representation in entertainment and media was sorely lacking. Over the years, he’s continuously used his platform to celebrate his heritage and uplift others.

He starred in The Fosters, the UK’s first comedy series featuring a predominantly Black cast, with Norman Beaton in 1976. When writing his sketch series Three Of A Kind in the early ‘80s, Henry — recalling his experience on The Black & White Minstrel Show — insisted that his race not be made into the punchline for jokes. “I wanted the attitude to Black performers to change. It was time that we were the maker of the joke, not simply the taker,” he said.

In the early ‘90s, Henry also worked on the comedy TV series Chef!, playing the domineering chef Gareth Blackstock. This was a project that he was very proud of, he told Radio Times, because “it was a true attempt at having a diverse production onscreen and beyond [with] a brown cinematographer, a Black sound man, a Turkish cast member, and a pretty diverse mix of crew.”

Branching Out Into Children’s Shows

The proof of Henry’s widespread appeal also lies in his success within children’s entertainment. He co-hosted the ‘70s children’s TV series Tiswas (an acronym of Today Is Saturday: Watch And Smile) from Seasons 5 to 7. His most famous segments on the show include impersonating David Bellamy in a spoof gardening segment called “Compost Corner,” and the skits including his recurring character Trevor McDoughnut, who was based on newsreader Trevor McDonald.

His Work With The Comic Strip Collective

In the early ‘80s, Henry made moves again and branched out into alternative comedy, teaming up with the British comedy collective The Comic Strip, whose core members include Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Nigel Planer, and Jennifer Saunders.

During this time, he created comic characters who both mocked and celebrated African-Caribbean British culture, such as the Brixton-based pirate radio DJ Delbert Wilkins. Following the support of his then-partner French (the two were married for 26 years and share a child), Henry fully established himself as a stand-up comedian in the entertainment circle.

Finding Mainstream Success With Three Of A Kind

What really cemented Henry’s presence in the mainstream media was his involvement with the BBC comedy sketch show Three Of A Kind, which aired from ‘81 to ‘83. Henry both wrote and performed for the show, proving very much to be an integral part of all aspects of the series. The fast-moving, quippy show was full of gags, and also co-starred Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield.

Making Sounds On The Airwaves

Between ‘82 and ‘85, Henry worked for Radio 1 as a DJ, initially filling in for Noel Edmonds, before going on to front his own show, The Sunday Hoot. Unleashing his creativity, he introduced several characters such as Elfreda the Tea Lady and 21st century private eye Gronk Zillman. “The idea of playing the music I loved and mixing that with all my comedy nonsense was irresistible. I loved it,” the performer shared.

Aside from being a DJ, Henry has also written radio plays. His personal favourite remains his very first work, Corrinne Come Back And Gone, produced with Radio 4. The plot follows Corrinne, who leaves an abusive relationship — and her children — in Jamaica to live in the UK, but returns 20 years later and is faced with her daughters.

Fronting His Very Own Show

You know you’ve made it when you’ve got your own TV show and it’s named after you. The Lenny Henry Show aired from 1984 to 1988 as a comedy sketch, and later returned as a sitcom incarnation from 1987 to 1988. It featured stand-up comedy, along with impressions of celebrities including Tina Turner, Prince, and Stevie Wonder. Its various iterations and revivals ran across 19 years, including a six-part Radio 4 revival in 2020.

Co-founding & Supporting Comic Relief

Comic Relief may well be Henry’s most significant legacy. In 1985, he co-founded the charity organisation alongside scriptwriter Richard Curtis, as a response to the famine in Ethiopia. Its founding principle is to raise money by having British comedians make the public laugh, and its first live fundraising event in 1986 eventually gave birth to the first Red Nose Day in 1988.

In 2015, it was announced that in the 30 years that Comic Relief had been running, it had raised over £1.4 billion for charity. Henry and Curtis still actively participate in the annual telethons to this date. “I miss the days when it was just three people and a dog in a room arguing about where the money should go and why. But I love the fact that Richard is still at the helm, and that people still care and put their hands in their pocket for it,” Henry wrote.

Singing The Blues

Though he doesn’t really identify as a singer, Henry has been involved with quite a few musical projects. Interestingly, he first appeared as a backing singer on Kate Bush’s song “Why Should I Love You?” in 1993.

In 2015, he produced the show Lenny Henry’s Got The Blues for Sky, in which he worked with musicians, including King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk, to produce an album. This culminated in Henry’s well-received blues album, New Millennium Blues.

Penning Books For His Daughter

In 2019, Henry published his first memoir Who Am I, Again?, which detailed his formative years, stretching from his parents arriving in Dudley from Jamaica to his rise in the entertainment business. Written in a slightly frenetic tone that mirrors his exuberant persona, Henry mused that it felt less like an autobiography, and more like “laughing and crying like a maniac until it was all on the page.” He then followed it up with his second memoir Rising To The Surface in 2021, which covers the years through his rise to fame.

Confronting the lack of non-white characters in fantasy novels, Henry has written two young adult books. He was inspired to do so when he couldn’t find books and stories that spoke to his daughter, Billie. The Boy With Wings and The Book Of Legends both feature young Black protagonists, and one of his main characters is also deaf. Diversity and inclusivity is integral to the projects.