Penelope Wilton: A class act
He’s one of the nation’s best-loved stars, having been a regular fixture on our TV screens for almost 50 years. But, when we meet in a riverside hotel near the Home Counties village in which he lives, comedian and actor Sir Lenny Henry is in a reflective mood.
Writing his latest memoir, Rising to the Surface, has been “therapy-tastic”, he says, and has caused him to resolve to prioritise loved ones over work, having thrown himself into his career since he was a teenager.
He was only 16 when he won the ITV talent show New Faces (watch a video of some of the performance here), after which he never stopped.
“The navigation of relationships is the most difficult thing in the world,” confides Henry, who now lives with his partner of 10 years, casting director and theatre producer Lisa Makin.
“But I spent from the age of 16 to just now going to work. I was all over the place mentally and I wasn’t always on call for friends and my family. I don’t regret anything, but I do think about that a lot.”
The turning point came in 1998 when Henry toured Australia while his mother Winifred’s health was deteriorating and she’d had both legs amputated as a result of diabetes.
Halfway through the tour came the news she had died. He needed four years of grief therapy to come to terms with the loss and his absence at her deathbed.
“It was awful,” he says now, eyes rolling wide at the memory. “It was like the universe imploding. How does anybody ever recover from that? My mum was hugely inspirational in me and my [six] siblings’ lives. Though she was a difficult mum.”
Indeed, Winifred used frequently to beat her children with frying pans, broomsticks and the ironing cord. As she grew frailer, Henry asked why she’d done this. “‘I never beat you that much! Anyway, you’re 40 years old and I don’t beat you any more!’” he exclaims, slipping seamlessly into a Jamaican accent.
“She’d conveniently erased that part of our relationship because she became a born-again Christian and didn’t want to drag all that stuff up.
“My mum had that Victorian, Caribbean thing where you just beat children if they do something wrong, so that’s how we were brought up,” he continues. “I’m not condoning what she did to me, but it helped me understand her.”
Despite his resolution to slow down following the reflective process of writing his latest memoir, Henry does seem to have quite a few projects still on the go.
He recently starred in the new, no-expense-spared Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, showing on Amazon Prime Video, as a Harfoot (an early form of Hobbit) with special effects being used to disguise the fact he’s actually 6ft 3in tall.
“There are trolls who don’t like anything you do because of the colour of your skin”
He’s also recently appeared in Netflix’s The Witcher: Blood Origin and he’s working on an upcoming ITV drama Three Little Birds about his Jamaican mother’s arrival in Britain in the Fifties.
And that’s in addition to publishing this second volume of his autobiography, which covers the Eighties and Nineties when he was all over our TV screens on the likes of ITV’s Saturday morning kids’ show Tiswas, co-founded Comic Relief with Richard Curtis and was married to comedy goddess Dawn French, from whom he split in 2010.
In 1984 he launched The Lenny Henry Show, which ran – on and off – on the BBC until 2005. For much of this time he was the only black person with their own British TV show.
“There was an unconscious burden because you’re getting it from all sides,” he says. “The black audience wants you to represent them in a certain way; the white audience is going: ‘This is fantastic! Be [his popular character radio DJ] Delbert Wilkins.’ Then there’s trolls who don’t like anything you do because of the colour of your skin.
“Work saved me because work is a structure. But it can also be your undoing, because then all the stuff underneath and around gets ignored.”
“If you put a bit of weight on, get bigger trousers, for goodness sake.”
When we meet, Henry is looking lean and fit in jeans and a stripy T-shirt, but immersing himself in his work has meant that in the past he has largely ignored his health.
He struggled with his weight, reaching a high of 127kg (20st) and ending up with Type 2 diabetes. When he went to Hollywood in 1990 to make a Disney film, True Identity, he was mortified to be ordered to lose weight.
“It was a horrible experience!” he recalls. “I was the fittest I’d been for a very long time and they said, ‘You’re a bit pudgy.’ My confidence was phwaat, like a two-day-old balloon after a birthday party. I had basically to do a starvation diet and go to the gym five days a week.”
He’s tried “all diets, but none of them work”. Now, he advises only to “watch portion sizes” and “be fit”. He swims, goes to the gym and does yoga.
“Don’t do things that feel like drudge work. If you put a bit of weight on, get bigger trousers, for goodness sake.”
As you’d expect, Henry’s a natural comedian, making you laugh even when the stories he’s telling are serious. But he exudes intensity, especially when he reflects on his past.
It’s not just Winifred’s beatings that were a traumatic feature of his upbringing. He was 11 when he learned his father wasn’t factory-worker Winston, the emotionally distant man who’d brought him up, but friend of the family ‘Uncle Bertie’.
“It was as if my world had been flipped by a cosmic spatula,” he’s said, though he now won’t discuss the issue after a TV drama he wrote about the discovery, Danny and the Human Zoo, upset his family.
For similar reasons he’s reticent about French. They married in 1984 and split 25 years later. Now both are with new partners – Henry with Makin and French with charity executive Mark Bignell, whom she married in 2013. “It was a very amicable divorce, we’re still friendly, still raising a child,” he says.
His memoir hints at tensions in the marriage over his long absences and how French was unhappy at having to put her career on hold when he was working for Disney.
He mentions only in passing the “number of unsuccessful rounds of IVF” they underwent before adopting Billie when she was just two weeks old.
“Raising kids, there’s no manual for that”
“Raising kids, there’s no manual for that,” Henry smiles. “You stand behind the door going, ‘What are you going to say to them? I’ll say this, what are you going to say? OK, go!’”
Despite some difficult times, he says his relationship with Billie is ‘great’. “There are challenges obviously, because that person is an adult and you’re relating to them like that, but you also feel like a wise advisor, because of your years of experience,” he says.
My children always ignore my advice, I reply. “There is that, yeah,” he grins.
When Billie was a child, one of the books he read aloud to her was JRR Tolkien’s three-volume epic Lord of the Rings.
“It was long – I was 78 by the time I finished,” he jokes. “But she did love it.” So it’s a thrill for him to feature as Hobbit elder Sadoc Burrows in this new series. It’s said to be the most expensive television show of all time, with the first season alone costing $450 million (about £373 million) to produce.
Season one was filmed in New Zealand, with Covid restrictions meaning Henry was restricted to a hobbit bubble. “We could only stay in our village set, so it was only when we saw the trailer we were like, ‘Oh! It’s not just some hobbits in a wood. It’s awesome.’”
Reading to Billie, now 31, who’s mixed-race, also inspired Henry to start writing children’s books, the first of which, The Boy With Wings, was published last year. Its follow up, The Book of Legends, comes out this month.
Both have black protagonists, something Henry and his daughter never saw. “I’ve always really wanted to create some books where a black boy or girl could go, ‘Hey, that’s me!’” he says proudly.
He sets all his books in his native Midlands, which he thinks often gets overlooked in the debate between North versus South. Needless to say, he was thrilled to perform at the opening ceremony of Birmingham’s recent Commonwealth Games.
“They were a game-changer for Birmingham and so is [BBC drama] Peaky Blinders,” he says, switching into a Brum accent. “There will be more and more people talking like this in television and movies in the next 10 to 20 years.” He lost his accent in the Seventies.
“I’m trying to work out a better balance”
“There’s a kind of media lingua-franca people have when they work in London and because I’m a mimic I started to copy it, then it became natural. But the minute I turn off to Birmingham from the motorway I start…” he switches again, “talking loike this.”
After decades of reluctance to be a race spokesperson, he now campaigns for diversity in showbusiness, where, even though there are now more black and brown faces on screen, there are still very few behind the scenes.
“There’s been slow progress but change is long. The whole thing of ‘Work three times as hard as white people just to be accepted as equal’ – when’s that going to go?” he asks.
Henry is planning a third volume of his memoir covering the past quarter of a century, when – among other things – he focused on serious acting: winning rave reviews for his Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2009. “For years I’d wanted to act but held it at arm’s length,” he says.
He’d do comedy again but generally, the change in direction means he’s ‘not on the road so much’. “I’m trying to work out a better balance,” he says. “My partner might say, ‘Er, that’s not strictly true!’ She cares about my health and wellbeing so she always makes me stop if I’ve been working too hard. But I’m at home much more than I was.”
Let’s hope he can really relax. He deserves it.
Rising to the Surface (Faber & Faber, £20) and The Book of Legends (Macmillan Children’s Books, £12.99) are out now.
Written by Julia Llewellyn Smith