PERFORMERS: LENNY HENRY

by Peter Tatchell (reprinted from LAUGH magazine #6, 1993)

In January 1975, a sixteen year old impressionist named Lenny Henry made his television debut on New Faces. Show business veteran Ted Ray (who was one of the judges) called him ‘the most exciting comedy discovery for years’. In the two decades since that fateful appearance, Ray’s comments have turned out to be remarkably prescient.

Lenny’s parents emigrated to Britain from the West Indies in 1957 and he was born in the West Midlands a year later. While at school he had his first taste of performing on stage, and a brief career as an unhappy engineering apprentice motivated him to try his luck at the bright lights.

Following the New Faces success he was signed for a cabaret season with comedian Charlie Williams and then joined The Black And White Minstrels for a stage tour which ran for several summer seasons.

In 1976 he was cast in Britain’s first all-black sitcom The Fosters playing the student son of aSouth London immigrant family. The series ran to two seasons and a total of twenty-six episodes.

More standup followed until late 1980 when he joined the cast of the popular Saturday morning children’s show TISWAS (Today Is Saturday Wear A Smile). Apart from a regular diet of custard pies and buckets of water in the face, he did regular sendups of David Bellamy and created a Rastafarian character called Algernon Razzamatazz.

In early 1982 it was decided to do an adult version of the programme called O.T.T. (Over The Top) which would also feature Alexei Sayle and include material from the burgeoning ‘altemative’ comedy scene. The result was often controversial but only marginally successful. It lasted only one series of thirteen editions.

The enterprise did have a bonus for Lenny’s private life in meeting Comic Strip performer Dawn French, whom he married in 1984. The new wave style of comedy also influenced his own approach to performing and more and more he steered away from the traditional standup stereotypes.

The early 1980s also saw Lenny on the BBC, taking part in another sketch series Three Of A Kind (the other two being Tracy Ullman and David Copperfield). A four-episode trial run in mid-1981 led to follow-up seasons in 1982 and 1983 establishing it as a successor to the popular Not The Nine O’Clock News.

Lenny was now becoming well-known for his own characterisations, rather than imitating those created by Michael Crawford, Dick Emery and others. These included Delbert Wilkins, the cool, street-smart hustler, the aging blues performer Deakus, and the outrageous sex animal Theophilus T. Wildebeeste.

So successful were his gallery of characters becoming, that the BBC gave him his own series in late 1984 and Lenny Henry was at last in the big time of British show business. Initially the programme was a continuation of the sketch and musical mix of Three Of A Kind but, following a season of comedy playlets called Lenny Henry Tonight,   it evolved into a sitcom revolving around the activities of his Delbert character who sets up his own pirate radio station.

In 1984 he also released his first LP, a mixture of live standup (performed in Deptford at the Albany Empire) and a handful of studio vocals. Apart from his one-man stage appearances, Lenny also took part in several all-star fundraisers like the 1986 Comic Relief concert and The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball a year later. When the BBC staged their 8-hour Comic Relief telethon in February 1988 Lenny was invited to co-host the event (with Griff Rhys Jones), and has been a mainstay of this annual event in the year’s since.

ITV’s prestigious South Bank Show did a 60-minute profile of the comedian in March 1988 tracing his career from his hometown of Dudley to his first attempts at breaking into the American market at a comedy club in New York.

Other television ventures included hosting one of the initial editions of Saturday Live (February 1 1986), starring in a BBC2 feature-length comedy-thriller Coast To Coast (January 4 1987) and joining his wife Dawn French (and her partner Jennifer Saunders) in a Comic Strip Presents episode titled Oxford (February 22 1990).

One of his most ambitious projects was a film version of one of his live concerts in 1989. Titled Lenny Live And Unleashed the movie was given a theatrical release before transferring to video.

Into the 1990s, Lenny appeared in such television specials as Bernard and the Genie (December 23 1991) and In Dreams (December 23 1992). He also returned to Hollywood to star in an ill-fated Disney/Touchstone feature film True ldentity, before embarking on a sitcom called Chef at the start of 1993.

More Christmas specials and weekly sketch series The Lenny Henry Show (new version) and Lenny Henry in Pieces followed, along with CDs and DVDs of his live concerts. Not to mention his continued involvement with the biennial Comic Relief telethons.

After four decades in the spotlight, Lenny Henry remains in the top guard of British comedy.

 

Television

The Fosters
LondonWeekend Television

Series l: April 9 to July 2 1976 (13 episodes)
Sex And The Black Community
My Son The Lover
(title unknown)
The Check-Up
Black Jesus
The Man I Most Admire
Situations Vacant
Sonny Gets A Patron
Buy Now, Pay Later
The Windfall
Over The Hill
The Matchmaker
Benjamin’s Rebellion

Series 2: April 16 to July 9 1977 (13 episodes)
(title unknown)
Up In Arms
Give A Little Whistle
Take Your Partners
That Lovely Weekend
The Family Business
The Bargain
The Diet
Home And Away
Who Needs Friends?
That’s My Boy
The Family Way
The Houseguest

TISWAS
ATV
Lenny joined the cast of this long-running Saturday morning children’s show in December 1980 and stayed until March 28 1981

O.T.T.
Central January 2 to March 27 1982 (13 episodes)

Three of a Kind
Series 1: BBC1 July 1 to July22 1981 (4 episodes)
Series 2: BBC1 November 27 1982 to January 8 1983 (not on December 25) (6 episodes)
Series 3: BBC1 September 3 to October 8 1983 (6 episodes)
Also special Montreux edition (highlights) on October 28 1983

The Lenny Henry Show (sketches)
Series 1: BBC1 September 4 to October 9 1984 (6 episodes)
Series 2: BBC1 September 5 to October 10 1985 (6 episodes)
Special: December 24 1987 (40 min)

Lenny Henry Tonite: BBC1 September 4 to October 9 1986 (6 episodes)
Pratt Outta Hell
Popsi
Gronk Zillman
Neighbourhood Watch
What a Country
Heavenly Romance

The Lenny Henry Show (sitcom)
Series 1: BBC1 October 27 to December 1 1987 (6 episodes)
Series 2: BBC1 September 15 to November 3 1988 (not on October 6 or 27) (6 episodes)

Lenny Go Home
BBC1 December 7 1991 (60 min)

Lenny Henry: In Dreams
BBC1 December 23 1992 (60 min)

Chef
Series 1: BBC1 January 28 to March 11 1993 and December 24 1993 (7 episodes)
Series 2: BBC1 September 8 to October 27 1994 (7 episodes)
Series 3: BBC1 November 25 to December 30 1996 (6 episodes)

The Lenny Henry Show (sketches)
BBC1 April 1 to May 6 1995 and January 21 1996 (7 episodes)

Lenny Goes to Town
BBC1 September 5 to October 10 1998 (6 x 40 min episodes)

Lenny Henry in Pieces
special: BBC1 December 30 2000
special: BBC1 December 29 2001
Series 1: BBC1 March 1 to April 5 2002 (6 episodes)
Series 2: BBC1 March 21 to May 2 2003 (7 episodes)

Lenny Henry: This is My Life
BBC1 January 3 2003 (60 min)

and the Christmas Specials:
BBC1 December 26 1988 (40 min)
BBC1 December 28 1994 (40 min)
BBC1 December 28 1995 (30 min)
BBC1 December 28 1996 (titled Lenny Henry Gets Wild) (50 min)

The One Lenny
BBC1 January 6 2012

 

Radio

TALKING COMEDY (series 7)
BBC Radio 2 Saturday 1-00pm January 31 2004: Lenny Henry

LENNY HENRY
BBC Radio 2 Sunday December 26 2004 (2½ hours)

 

Videos and DVDs

Three of a Kind
BBC BBCV 4007
90 minutes of highlights

Lenny Live and Unleashed
Palace Video PVC 4031A
Live performance

Lenny Go Home
4 Front Video 0832743
Live performance

The Best of the Lenny Henry Show
BBC Video BBCV 4314
100 minutes of highlights

Lenny Henry Live – So Much Things to Say
Universal DVD (2005)

Lenny is also featured in:

TISWAS-The Best of the Best Bits

TISWAS-More of the Best Bits

The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball
Virgin Video VIR 205

The Secret Policeman’s Biggest Ball
Video Collection VC 6096/Columbia-Tri Star CVR 16921

Amnesty International’s Big 30
Virgin Video VIR 767

Hysteria 2! – The Second Coming
Palace Video PVC 2113A

The Best of Hysteria 3!
Picture Music International MVN 9913183

Just for Laughs
Telstar TVE 6001

 

Records 

Boiled Beef And Carrots/Pick Me Up When I’m Down
Pye 7” single 7N 45499 (July 1975)

Mole In The Hole
C.B.S./Jet 7” single JET 7006 (March 1981)

Three Of A Kind
BBC LP REB 480, cassette ZCF 480 (1983)
Peter O’Sullevan
signature tune
Married Couples
Da Doo Ron Ron
Vasectomy + Doctor + Cars
No Particular place To Go
C.B. Radio
P.C. Ganja
Roz + Three Of A Kind
Orson Welles + Aspirin + Australian Express
Aussie Blue Peter
The Reverend Nat. West
Bachelor Boy
Fungus
Scrunge
Sheik ya Hamburger
Computer Dating
Sing A Soppy Song + Dollop + Three Of A Kind
Interview
Clever Dick
Fred Dread + Three Of A Kind
Strippers + Have To Go + Talk Dirty
Wired For Sound + Three Of A Kind
Chicken
Delbert
Break Wind And Fire
Maura McBitch
What’s Wrong + Video
Darts
Memphis Tennessee + Three Of A Kind
Scrunge
Wingy Wangy Song
Woman Newsreader
Ghandi Doll + Three Of A Kind + Medallion Man + signature tune + Space Invader
A montage of highlights from all three series of the BBC television show

Stand Up … Get Down
Chrysalis LP CHR 1484, cassette ZCHR 1484 (November 1984)
Hello Everybody
Olympics
Kid’s TV
School
Katanga
Blackpool
J.A. Deakus
Scratch Joke
Sex And Kids And Growing Up
Big Love
Delbert
Crucial Times
A mixture of studio vocals and Albany Empire Deptford stand up (of August 26th and September 2nd 1984)

Crucial Times/Big Love
Chrysalis 7” single CHS 2819

Crucial Times (extended version)/Crucial Times (the Floor-Crusher Mix)/Big Love
Chrysalis CHS 12 2819 (l2″ single)(both October 1984)

Comic Relief Presents – Utterly Utterly Live
WEA LP 240 932-l, cassette 240932-2 (1986)
An original cast album of the concerts for Comic Relief staged at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London on April 4, 5 and 6th 1986.
Lenny is featured on two tracks:
Big Love
Romeo And Juliet And Harry (with Frank Bruno)

The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball
Virgin V 2459 (LPX1987)
An original cast album of the concerts for Amnesty International staged at the London
Palladium on March 26, 27, 28 and 29th 1987.
Lenny is featured on one (self-titled) track

Lenny Live And Unleashed
Island LP ILPS 9937, cassette ICT 9937, CD CID 9937 (1989)
Line Up Ragamuffin Style
Bad Jokes
Harrassing The Paying Public
In Clubland
lnternational Negro
Delbert Wilkins Kickin’ It Live
lnternational Negro Continued
I Come From Dudley …
Tales From Disco City
Pay Attention
Everybody Knows
Men & Women
Catflaps!
Animal Heaven
The Blues ya’All
The Music Scene
Mandela Day
Deakus
Theophilus P. Wildebeeste
I Don’t Wanna Leave

Don’t Even Think About It/Bad Jokes
Island 7” single IS 433

Don’t Even Think About It (12″ version)/Don’t Even Think About It (instrumental)/Bad Jokes
Island 12” single 12 IS 433 (12″ single)

Don’t Even Think About It (7″ version + 12,”version + instrumental)/Bad Jokes
Island CD single CID 433 (all three August 1989)

The Best of Hysteria 3!
EMI CD CDP 7980212
An original cast album of the concert for the Hysteria Trust staged at the London Palladium on June 30th 1991.
Lenny is featured on one track:
Take Me In Your Arms (with Steve Nieve & The Love Band)

Live and Loud
Comedy Club cassette GAGMC 023 (1994)
no track itemisation

Have You Seen This Man?
E.M.I. CD 5574232 (2002)
Pathe News Guy
Leaving Paradise
The Boat
Dudley – My Dudley
The King of ‘Out’
Discipline – to Blouse and Skirt
The Blues Dance
Seven-Inch Nail
Church Y’All
Ja Tough Guys in Dudley
Buffrey Park
Kenny Dawson
Mob Head
Drinking
Becoming a Man
Mom in Hospital
Black Funerals
My Funeral
Heaven


Books

LENNY HENRY’S WELL-HARD PAPERBACK
by Lenny Henry (Virgin/W.H. Allen, London. 1989)

LENNY HENRY – A BIOGRAPHY
by Jonathan Margolis (Orion, London. 1995)

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