Lenny Henry

Sir Lenworth George Henry CBE (born 29 August 1958)[3] is an English stand-up comedian, actor, singer, writer and television presenter, known for co-founding the charity Comic Relief, and appearing in TV programmes including children's entertainment show Tiswas, sitcom Chef! and The Magicians for BBC One. He is currently the Chancellor of Birmingham City University.[4]

Lenny Henry

Henry in The Comedy of Errors in 2011
Lenworth George Henry

(1958-08-29) 29 August 1958
Dudley, Worcestershire, England, United Kingdom
Other namesLenny Henry
Alma materSt John's Primary School
Open University[1]
Royal Holloway College[2]
OccupationComedian, actor, singer, writer, television presenter, chancellor of Birmingham City University
Years active1975–present
Known forThe Lenny Henry Show, Chef!, Big & Small, Comic Relief, Broadchurch
Dawn French
(m. 1984; div. 2010)

Early life

Lenworth George Henry was born at Burton Road Hospital[5] in Dudley, on 29 August 1958. He is the son of Jamaican immigrants to Great Britain. One of seven children, he was the first to be born in the United Kingdom.[6] He attended St John's Primary School and later The Blue Coat School in Dudley before completing his schooling at W.R. Tuson College in Preston, Lancashire.[7][8]


Early career

Henry's first manager was Robert Luff, who signed him in 1975 and gave him the opportunity to perform as part of the Luff-produced touring stage version of The Black and White Minstrel Show,[9] which in retrospect has widely been seen as an embarrassment and one of the most racist shows in British history.[10] In July 2009, Lenny Henry stated he was contractually obliged to perform and regretted his part in the show,[11] telling The Times in 2015 that his appearance on the show led to a profound "wormhole of depression", and regretted his family not intervening to prevent him from continuing in the show.[10]

His earliest television appearance was on the New Faces talent show, which he won in 1975 with an impersonation of Stevie Wonder.[12] The following year he appeared with Norman Beaton in LWT's sitcom The Fosters, Britain's first comedy series with predominantly black performers. His formative years were spent in working men's clubs, where he impersonated mainly white characters such as the Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em character Frank Spencer (whom he impersonated on New Faces). He also made guest appearances on television programmes including Celebrity Squares, Seaside Special and The Ronnie Corbett Show.[13]


In 1980, Henry performed in Summer Season in Blackpool with Cannon and Ball.[13][14] He has since said that "the summer season was the first time [he] felt that [his] act had received a proper response from an audience".[14] Around the same time, he co-hosted the children's programme Tiswas from 1978 until 1981 playing such characters as Rastafarian Algernon Razzmatazz, David Bellamy and Trevor MacDoughnut (a parody of Trevor McDonald), and subsequently performed and wrote for the show Three of a Kind.

Also in 1980, he teamed up with The Comic Strip where he met his wife, comedian Dawn French.[15] She encouraged him to move over to the fledgling alternative comedy scene, where he established a career as a stand-up comedy performer and character comedian.

He introduced characters who both mocked and celebrated black British culture, such as Theophilus P. Wildebeeste (a homage to Teddy Pendergrass using the 'TP' initials) and Brixton pirate radio disc jockey DJ Delbert Wilkins. His stand-up material, which sold well on LP, owed much to the writing abilities of Kim Fuller. During this time he also spent three years as a DJ on BBC Radio 1, playing soul and electro tracks and introducing some of the characters that he would later popularise on television. He made a guest appearance in the final episode of The Young Ones as The Postman, in 1984.[16]

The first series of The Lenny Henry Show appeared on the BBC in 1984. The show featured stand up, spoofs like his send-up of Michael Jackson's Thriller video, and many of the characters he had developed during Summer Season, including Theophilus P. Wildebeeste and Delbert Wilkins. A principal scriptwriter for his television and stage shows during the 1990s was Jon Canter.[17][18] The Lenny Henry Show ran periodically for a further 19 years in various incarnations. He performed impressions such as Tina Turner, Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Run DMC, among others.

Prior to the 1987 general election, Henry lent his support to Red Wedge by participating in a comedy tour organised by the campaign.[19]

In 1987, he appeared in a TV film, Coast to Coast. It was a comedy thriller with John Shea about two DJs with a shared passion for Motown music being chased across Britain. The film has a strong following, but contractual problems[20] have prevented it from being distributed on video or DVD.


In the early 1990s, Henry starred in the Hollywood film True Identity, in which his character pretended to be a white person (using make-up, prostheses, and a wig) to avoid the mob. The film was not commercially successful. In 1991, he starred in a BBC drama alongside Robbie Coltrane called Alive and Kicking, in which he played a heroin addict, which was based on a true story.

Also in 1991, he starred in the Christmas comedy Bernard and the Genie alongside Alan Cumming and Rowan Atkinson. Henry is known as the choleric chef Gareth Blackstock from the 1990s television comedy series Chef!, or from his 1999 straight-acting lead role in the BBC drama Hope And Glory. He was co-creator with Neil Gaiman and producer of the 1996 BBC drama serial Neverwhere.[21]

Henry tried his hand at soul singing, appearing, for example, as a backing singer on Kate Bush's album The Red Shoes (1993) and, backed by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, at Amnesty International's Big 3-0 fund raising concert.[22] He would later say that neither move showed him at his best, and that he felt most comfortable with character comedy. He would occasionally return to singing, performing in small local venues in the West Midlands. Henry returned to the BBC to do Lenny Henry in Pieces, a character-based comedy sketch show which was followed by The Lenny Henry Show, in which he combined stand-up, character sketches and song parodies.


In 2003, Henry was listed in The Observer as one of the fifty funniest acts in British comedy. In 2004, he was listed in The Sunday Times as the fifteenth funniest black performer of all time. Henry is associated with the British Comic Relief charity organisation, along with his former wife, comedian Dawn French, and Griff Rhys Jones, and has hosted the show and also presented filmed reports from overseas on the work of the charity. He was the voice of the British speaking clock for two weeks in March 2003 in aid of Comic Relief.

Henry voiced Dre Head, the "shrunken head" on the Knight Bus in the 2004 Alfonso Cuarón movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and read the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. He also voiced a character on the children's show Little Robots. Henry appeared in advertisements for butter products in New Zealand, commissioned by the company now known as Fonterra, as well as portraying Saint Peter in the Virgin Mobile advertising campaign in South Africa. In the UK, he used his character of Theophilus P. Wildebeeste to advertise Alpen muesli, and promoted the non-alcoholic lager, Kaliber.

In June 2001, for a BBC documentary, he sailed a trimaran from Plymouth to Antigua, Jamaica with yachtsman Tony Bullimore. His motive was to as he put it, "have one last adventure". In 2005, he appeared in Birmingham, as an act for Jasper Carrott's Rock with Laughter. He appeared alongside performers such as Bill Bailey, Jasper Carrott, Bonnie Tyler, Bobby Davro and the Lord of the Dance troupe. In 2006, Henry starred in the BBC programme Berry's Way. He did the voice of Dark Nebula in Kirby: Squeak Squad. On 16 March 2007, Henry made a cameo appearance as himself in a sketch with Catherine Tate, who appeared in the guise of her character Geordie Georgie from The Catherine Tate Show. The sketch was made for the BBC Red Nose Day fundraising programme of 2007.

On 16 June 2007 Lenny appeared with Chris Tarrant and Sally James to present a 25th Anniversary episode of Tiswas. The show lasted 90 minutes and featured celebrities discussing their enjoyment of Tiswas as children, as well as appearances from kids and people who had appeared on the original show. In the summer of 2007, he presented Lenny's Britain, a comedy documentary tour made with the Open University on BBC One on Tuesday nights. In late 2007, he hosted a stand-up comedy tour of the UK.

In early 2008, Henry's series lennyhenry.tv was broadcast on BBC One. The programme has an accompanying website of the same name and broadcasts strange, weird and generally amusing online videos and CCTV clips. He starred in the Radio 4 show Rudy's Rare Records. On 31 December 2008 and 1 January 2009, he appeared on Jools Holland's Hootenanny on BBC Two, singing part of the song Mercy along with singer Duffy. In January 2009, he appeared on the BBC's comedy show, Live at The Apollo, in which he played host for the night, introducing Andy Parsons and Ed Byrne, where he referred to Wikipedia as "Wrongopedia" for containing incorrect information about his life.

In October 2009, Henry reprised his role of Deakus to feature in comedy shorts about story writing alongside Nina Wadia, Tara Palmer Tomkinson and Stephen K. Amos. He also offers his own writing tips and amusing anecdotes in the writing tips video clip on BBC raw words – story writing. He supplies the voices of both Big and Small in the BBC CBeebies Children's programs Big & Small.[23]


In 2010, Henry produced and starred in a five-part web series for the BBC Comedy website, Conversations with my Wife,[24] about a fictional couple conversing over Skype while the wife is away on business leaving the husband (played by Henry) to hold the fort at home.

In 2008, he became the face of budget hotel operator Premier Inn, and to date continues to star in adverts for them. One of the adverts caused controversy and was banned from children's programming hours. The advert, from 2010, parodied a well-known scene from the film The Shining, with Lenny Henry spoofing the scene originally starring Jack Nicholson, by smashing a door with an axe and then thrusting his head through the door saying: "Here's Lenny."[25]

In 2011, Henry presented a Saturday night magic series called The Magicians on BBC One. The show returned in 2012, however, Henry was replaced by Darren McMullen.

In March 2011, he appeared with Angela Rippon, Samantha Womack and Reggie Yates in the BBC fundraising documentary for Comic Relief called Famous, Rich and in the Slums, where the four celebrities were sent to Kibera in Kenya, Africa's largest slum.[26]

Henry was criticised for his opening sketch for the 2011 Comic Relief, during which he spoofed the film The King's Speech and grew impatient with Colin Firth's portrayal of King George VI as he stammered over his speech. The Sun reported that the British Stammering Association had branded the sketch as "a gross and disgusting gleefulness at pointing out someone else's misfortune".[27]

In 2014, Henry appeared in and produced a play based on his radio show Rudy's Rare Records, which played at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre before moving on to a run in London.[28]

In 2015, Danny and the Human Zoo a ninety-minute film for television was made and shown, written by Henry and directed by Destiny Ekaragha, it was a fictionalised account of the former's life as a teenager in 1970s Dudley.[29][30][31]

In November 2019, it was announced that Henry would guest star in Spyfall, the two-part opening episode of Doctor Who's twelfth revived series, set to begin broadcast on New Year's Day 2020.[32][33]


In February 2009, Henry appeared in the title role in the Northern Broadsides production of Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.[34] Before the production opened the director Barrie Rutter said of the decision to cast him: "knives might be out at me or at Lenny. I don't care. This has come about from a completely genuine desire to do a piece of theatrical work. Bloody hell, how long has the Donmar had Hollywood stars going there for £200? He's six-foot five. He's beautifully black. And he's Othello."[35]

Henry received widespread critical acclaim in the role. Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph said "This is one of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen. It is impossible to praise too highly Henry's courage in taking on so demanding and exposed a role, and then performing it with such authority and feeling."[36] Michael Billington in The Guardian noted "Henry's voice may not always measure up to the rhetorical music of the verse, but there is a simple dignity to his performance that touches one".[37] Lynne Walker of The Independent said of Henry that his "emotional dynamism is in no doubt. The frenzy within his imagination explodes into rage and, finally, wretchedness. It's not a subtle reading but it works powerfully in this context."[38]

Henry has said that he saw parallels between himself and Othello. "I'm used to being the only black person wherever I go...There was never a black or Asian director when I went to the BBC. Eventually I thought 'where are they all?' I spent a lot of time on my own. Things have changed a bit, but rarely at the BBC do I meet anyone of colour in a position of power."[39]

The production was scheduled to transfer to the West End of London from 11 September to 12 December 2009, to be performed at the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall.[40]

He was introduced to Shakespeare when he made the 2006 Radio 4 series Lenny and Will, which saw him going "in search of the magic of Shakespeare in performance".[41]

In November 2011, Henry made his debut at the Royal National Theatre in London in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, directed by Dominic Cooke, in which he played the character of Antipholus of Syracuse. The production was selected to be broadcast live to selected cinemas worldwide in March 2012 as part of the National Theatre Live programme. Henry's performance gained positive reviews. Paul Taylor in The Independent wrote that "Henry beautifully conveys the tragicomic plight of an innocent abroad."[42]

Music career

In 2015, Henry was asked by Sky Arts to produce a show for them, Lenny Henry's Got The Blues. He worked with a group of musicians including Jakko Jakszyk, lead singer of King Crimson, to produce the album New Millennium Blues. The album consists of both covers of blues classics, as well as original tracks co-written by Lenny.[43] Henry later released "hard-hitting animated blues video" directed by Iranian filmmaker, Sam Chegini titled The Cops Don't Know which was premiered by Classic Rock magazine on 20 April 2016.[44]

Personal life

Henry met Dawn French on the alternative comedy circuit. They married in 1984 in Covent Garden, London.[45] They adopted a daughter, called Billie.[46] On 6 April 2010, French and Henry announced they were separating after 25 years of marriage. It was reported that the separation was amicable; they had decided to separate in October the previous year but left it until then as they were still in discussion over the separation.[47] Their divorce was finalised in 2010.[48]

He graduated with a degree in English Literature (BA Hons), from the Open University, in 2007.[49] He studied for an MA at Royal Holloway, University of London in screenwriting for television and film, where he received a distinction and in 2010 he began studying at the same institution for a PhD on the role of black people in the media.[50] His PhD was awarded in July 2018 for a thesis titled Does the Coach Have to be Black? The Sports Film, Screenwriting and Diversity: A Practice-Based Enquiry.[51]

Henry has been an open critic of British television's lack of ethnic diversity in its programmes. During a speech at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in March 2014, he called the lack of minorities "appalling" and he has continued to raise the issue publicly.[52]

Henry is a lifelong supporter of West Bromwich Albion Football Club.


Henry was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1999 New Year Honours.[53] He was knighted in the Queen's 2015 Birthday Honours for services to drama and charity.[54][55] In July 2016, Henry became the chancellor of Birmingham City University to help inspire young people particularly in the West Midlands to get into learning.

In 2016, Henry was made a fellow of the Royal Television Society.[56] Henry was awarded the BAFTA Television: Special Award in 2016.[57] On 20 July 2016, Henry was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Nottingham Trent University in recognition of his significant contribution to British comedy and drama, along with his achievements in international charity work.


  • Margolis, Jonathan. Lenny Henry – A Biography, Orion, 1995; ISBN 978-0-7528-0087-5


Screen and Stage

Year Title Role
1987 Coast to Coast Ritchie Lee
1988 The Suicide Club Cam
1989 Work Experience Terence Welles
1991 True Identity Miles Pope
1997 Famous Fred Fred (voice)
2004 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Shrunken Head (voice)
2008 Penelope Krull (voice)
2012 The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists Peg-Leg Hastings (voice)
2014 Postman Pat: The Movie Mr Bernard (Tow Truck Manager; voice)
Year Title Role
1976–1977 The Fosters Sonny Foster
1981–1983 Three of a Kind


1994, 1995


The Lenny Henry Show Himself

Delbert Wilkins (sitcom version)

1987–2007, 2011— Comic Relief Presenter
1991 Alive and Kicking
Bernard and the Genie Josephus the Genie
1992 In Dreams Lenny
1993–1996 Chef! Gareth Blackstock
1999–2000 Hope and Glory Ian George
2000-2003 Lenny Henry in Pieces Himself
2008 lennyhenry.tv Presenter
2008–2011 Big & Small Big/Small (voice)
2009, 2011 Live at the Apollo Presenter (two episodes)
2010–2011 Britain's Classroom Heroes Presenter
2011 The Magicians Presenter
Rich, Famous and in the Slums Contributor
2012 Jackanory Junior – "The Enormous Crocodile"[58] Narrator
The One Lenny Henry[59]
2015 Operation Health for Comic Relief Contributor
The Olivier Awards Presenter
The Syndicate Godfrey Watson
Danny and the Human Zoo Samson Fearon
2017 Broadchurch Ed Burnett
2018 The Long Song Godfrey
2020 Doctor Who TBC


Year Title Role Theatre
2009 Othello Othello Northern Broadsides / West Yorkshire Playhouse

Trafalgar Studios, London

2011, 2012 The Comedy of Errors Antipholus of Syracuse National Theatre, London (Olivier)
2013 Fences Troy Maxson UK tour

Duchess Theatre, London

2014 Rudy's Rare Records Adam

(also dramaturg and co-creator)

Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Hackney Empire, London

2015 Educating Rita Frank Minerva Theatre, Chichester
2017 The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Arturo Ui Donmar Warehouse, London


  1. "Pieces of Sir Lenny Henry". BBC News. 12 June 2015. Retrieved 5 December 2019.
  2. "Birmingham City University : Sir Lenny Henry appointed as Chancellor of Birmingham City University". www.bcu.ac.uk. Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  3. "Series 4, Episode 5". Live at the Apollo. 9 January 2009. BBC One.
  4. Mark Duguid. "Lenny Henry profile at". screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
  5. Owen Gibson (11 February 2008). "Where are all the black new faces?". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 9 January 2009.
  6. "Lenny Henry's Preston memories". This is Lancashire. Newsquest Media Group. 27 January 2008. Retrieved 11 October 2008. Henry left school without any qualifications but decided to retake his "O" levels at Preston College – then called W.R. Tuson College – while appearing in a summer season in Blackpool with Cannon and Ball in the early 1980s. [...] "I thought 'I'm going to do my O levels', which is a bizarre thing for a rock 'n' roll 21-year-old comedian to do".
  7. "Robert Luff (obituary)". The Daily Telegraph. London, England. 23 February 2009. Retrieved 1 March 2009.
  8. Midgley, Carol (6 June 2015). "Lenny Henry on racism and regret". The Times. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  9. Five Minutes With: Lenny Henry. BBC News, 18 July 2009.
  10. Iley, Chrissy (30 November 2010). "Lenny Henry interview". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  11. "Comedy Kings – an unofficial Cannon and Ball website". Archived from the original on 10 March 2011. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  12. Henry, Lenny. "About Me: The Story So Far". Archived from the original on 13 July 2011. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  13. "BBC Comedy Profiles: Lenny Henry". Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  14. oGeMmAo (11 April 2009), The Young Ones – Summer Holiday – Part 3, retrieved 23 July 2016
  15. "Jon Canter". Pbjmgt.co.uk. Archived from the original on 15 March 2007.
  16. "BBC Guide to Comedy: Jon Canter". Bbc.co.uk.
  17. "Where will the next generation get its political anthems from?". LabourList. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  18. "Coast To Coast details". guerilla films. Archived from the original on 27 January 2013. Retrieved 11 March 2013.
  19. "Neil Gaiman's Urban Fantasy "Neverwhere", Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric, Nov 6–10". Cornish College of the Arts. 9 October 2013. Retrieved 8 November 2014.
  20. Miles, Barry; Mabbett, Andy (1994). Pink Floyd - The Visual Documentary. Omnibus. ISBN 0-7119-4109-2.
  21. "BBC – CBeebies Grownups – Big & Small". BBC. Archived from the original on 26 March 2010. Retrieved 5 October 2009.
  22. "BBC Comedy – Conversations with my Wife". BBC. Retrieved 1 October 2010.
  23. "Premier Inn 'horror' ad banned from children's network". BBC. 24 March 2010. Retrieved 18 March 2012.
  24. Mangan, L. (4 March 2011). "TV Review". Guardian.co.uk. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  25. Ryan Love (2011). "Digital Spy". Retrieved 21 March 2011.
  26. "Rudy's Rare Records review", theguardian.com, 14 September 2014.
  27. "BBC orders Lenny Henry biographical drama". The List. 28 February 2014. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  28. "BBC orders Lenny Henry biographical drama". Virgin Media. 28 February 2014. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  29. Young, Gary (28 February 2014). "Lenny Henry writes TV drama about Dudley childhood". Birmingham Mail. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  30. "Stephen Fry and Sir Lenny Henry CBE to appear in the twelfth series of Doctor Who". BBC Media Centre. 20 November 2019.
  31. "Doctor Who to land on Who Year's Day in Spyfall". BBC Media Centre. 2 December 2019.
  32. "Lenny just a jealous guy... and it's no joke". Yorkshire Evening Post. 10 April 2008. Retrieved 10 April 2008.
  33. Brown, Mark (10 February 2008). "A new Moor for West Yorkshire". The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved 10 February 2008.
  34. Spencer, Charles (19 February 2008). "Othello with Lenny Henry at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, review". Daily Telegraph. London, England. Retrieved 5 April 2008.
  35. Michael Billington (19 February 2008). "Othello". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 5 April 2008.
  36. Walker, Lynne (19 February 2008). "First Night: Othello, Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds". The Independent. London, UK. Retrieved 5 April 2008.
  37. Larkin, Maeve (19 February 2008). "Othello – Resource Pack" (PDF). Northern Broadsides. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 May 2010. Retrieved 5 April 2008.
  38. "Henry brings Othello to West End". BBC News. 24 April 2008. Retrieved 24 April 2008.
  39. "Othello – Resource Pack". BBC. 25 March 2006. Retrieved 5 April 2008.
  40. Taylor, Paul (23 November 2011). "First Night". The Independent. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
  41. The Guardian
  42. "Lenny Henry launches The Cops Don't Know video". Classic Rock. 20 April 2016. Retrieved 5 May 2016.
  43. "Dawn French: Someone firebombed the home I shared with Lenny Henry" BirminghamLive (UK). Retrieved 18 July 2019.
  44. "Dawn French: The French connection" The Independent (UK). Retrieved 13 December 2007.
  45. "Lenny Henry and Dawn French split". BBC. 6 April 2010. Retrieved 6 April 2010.
  46. "Comedian Dawn French marries for second time". BBC Online. 22 April 2013. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
  47. Lenny Henry Collects Degree 28 April 2007
  48. "Lenny Henry's long road to a PhD". BBC. 5 October 2010. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  49. "Lenny Henry receives Doctorate from Royal Holloway". Royal Holloway, University of London. 13 July 2018. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  50. Khaleeli, Homa (20 June 2014). "Lenny Henry: diversity in the TV industry 'is worth fighting for'". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 December 2015.
  51. "Lenny sees red over nose ban". BBC. 2 March 1999. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  52. "No. 61256". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 June 2015. p. B2.
  53. "Lenny Henry 'chuffed' at knighthood". BBC News. Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  54. "Sir Lenny Henry awarded RTS fellowship and judges award". BBC News. 23 March 2016. Retrieved 6 April 2017.
  55. "BAFTA Television in 2016". Retrieved 25 December 2016.
  56. "Jackanory Junior – 'Rastamouse'". Bbc.co.uk. BBC. 23 November 2012. Retrieved 2 June 2016.
  57. BBC – The One Lenny Henry


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