Lenny Henry’s mum used to say to him: our lives are like gardens. Be careful what you plant in them because everything needs tending. “And I don’t think I’ve planted my own garden very judiciously,” Henry says when we meet for lunch on a mild September afternoon. It is three weeks to the day since he published a volume of his memoirs, Rising to the Surface. In another three, his children’s novel, The Book of Legends, will appear in bookshops. Overnight, episodes of the new The Lord of the Rings TV show, The Rings of Power, will appear online; Henry has a small role as a hobbit. At home in Oxfordshire he keeps a copy of The Sopranos scripts on his bedside table, to help him sharpen his showrunning work on an imminent ITV drama about the Windrush generation. GQ magazine recently suggested that Henry was undergoing a renaissance (a “Lenaissance”, they said) but honestly, all through his long career, Henry has flitted and filled his days like this, gigging, writing, acting, campaigning, broadcasting, studying.
“My partner Lisa [Makin, a theatre producer] thinks I’ve got to figure out a way to be more choosy,” says Henry, who recently turned 64. “She thinks I should do less. Reap more. I just don’t like ruling anything out. I run around my metaphorical garden saying, ‘Look at that big weed! No need to dead-head anything here!’”
Though Henry has patches of grey in his hair and beard, and walks with a slight stoop, he could pass without much difficulty for a fortysomething. He arrives to meet me, on the concrete concourse outside the British Library in London, wearing a blue Ozwald Boateng suit, a paisley shirt and purple Dr Martens. While lunching on a pastrami sandwich and a Coke, he is recognised by commuters, security guards and library visitors. He exchanges waves. Even from a distance, people seem to warm to that breathless exuberance that has been a part of Henry’s public persona for almost half a century.
In conversation he will frequently adopt voices or characters (cheesy 80s disc jockey; gravelly American PI; the Jamaican accent of his relatives; the Brummie lilt of his home town of Dudley) and sometimes these skits reveal something extra about how he feels. When I ask if I can push him further on this or that personal question, he becomes a Jamaican elder, leaning back and murmuring, “Go ahead, go ahead” in a way that makes no promises. When I tell him that my nine-year-old daughter loved his Book of Legends so much that she stayed up for hours in bed with it, palely turning the pages long after she would normally have fallen asleep, Henry barks with pleasure. Perhaps to cover his pride, he segues straight into a character, pretending to be a Hollywood starlet modestly accepting an award. “Tell her thank you. Tell her thank you very much.”
The Book of Legends, a quest novel in the vein of Tolkien or CS Lewis, is his second children’s book. His first, a superhero novel called The Boy With Wings, came out last year. Both focus on characters who are young and black. Henry wrote them to redress what he sees as an absence in children’s literature. “My daughter Billie arrived in 1991 and I remember when she was little – it was a sharp sting – there were hardly any books that spoke to her, who she was, a baby of colour.” When Billie was older, she and Henry read the Harry Potter books together. They enjoyed them. “But there weren’t many characters in whom she could see herself. There was the kid who did the commentary in the Quidditch matches. Dean. You know … the one who had the loudest voice.”
At the time, Henry was reminded of his own experiences as a preteen reader in Dudley, alternately omitted or belittled by the literature available to him. “You know the first book a teacher ever recommended I should read? It wasn’t The Three Musketeers. It wasn’t A Tale of Two Cities. It was Little Black Sambo. Imagine!” On trips to Dudley’s public library, he remembers reading Hergé’s Tintin books, loving them but feeling unnerved by them. “All of a sudden you’d been in the African jungle and people were wearing grass skirts and saying ‘Unga bunga’ … You can’t process something like that as a kid. You don’t know you’re being patronised. You just read it. You compartmentalise. You put it to one side of your brain so that you can enjoy the rest of the book as an artefact.”
At least since he was in his 40s, Henry says, he has meant to sit down and write a children’s book for middle-grade readers that would be both a decent yarn and “an invitation to the dance” for a young and black audience. It took him decades to “glue his arse to a seat, lots of goes and tries and attempts”. He says he knows people get “vexed” about famous people writing children’s books. “I’m aware there’s a sniffy attitude towards celebs writing this stuff. I read Tom Fletcher’s books. I don’t think about him as the guy from Busted or McFly or whatever. I think, ‘He writes funny. His are funny books.’”
When he finally got up the momentum on his own fiction, Henry says he wrote everywhere, at the kitchen table, on set, in the Groucho Club. He devised The Boy With Wings as a superhero story “because when I was young, there weren’t any who looked like me”. The Book of Legends became a quest novel because (he does the voice of a funk DJ) “you never see no brothers on a quest”.
Advance copies of that book come with a letter from Henry explaining his history as a fan of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Lewis’s Narnia. Both were thrilling sagas. Both were white sagas. By adding to the contemporary work of authors such as Malorie Blackman, Nadia Shireen and Nathan Bryon, Henry says he’s loving being part of an “upflowering” of minority children’s writing. “You walk past a bookshop window and think, ‘It might not have happened yet, but it’s happening. We’re at the beginnings of something.’” He tells a story about doing an acting job on a Netflix fantasy series called The Witcher. His co-star in that show, Amy Murray, is deaf, and when they were hanging out between takes, Henry mentioned that one of the main characters in his new book was deaf. Murray started to cry, Henry says, and he understood why. “Readers don’t forget that feeling of being made invisible.”
Recently, with the broadcast of The Rings of Power, there has been some bleak and predictable criticism about the casting of actors who look like Henry as hobbits, elves, dwarves and such. To borrow from Henry – imagine! This guy, who once read Tolkien’s Middle-earth books and wondered where all the non-white characters were, now finds himself having to answer for the fact that the characters in a 2022 adaptation aren’t all white. Henry rolls his eyes. “The world has changed,” he says. “It needs to change more. But some people don’t like any degree of change. They’re stuck in their ways. They’re sat in their pants, eating Hobnobs and looking at their computers, slagging off anything different.” Broadening representation on a programme that will be seen by millions is “the right thing to do. It’s the brave thing to do. The next generation of showrunners will look back and ask, whatever took us so long?”
Henry says he gets that these changes might take a minute’s adjustment, at least for fantasy obsessives who’ve pored over certain texts for most of their lives. He’s a fantasy obsessive himself. As well as Tolkien and Lewis, he grew up adoring the comic-book creations of Alan Moore. As a reader of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, Henry was accustomed to seeing the central character of Death as she appeared on the page, a white woman, originally inspired by the goth fashion designer Cinamon Hadley. In a Netflix adaptation of Sandman that debuted this year, Death is played by a British woman of colour, Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Henry says: “I’ve read all Neil’s comics. I was used to seeing Death in a particular way. After one episode of Kirby, who nailed that part? I can’t imagine it any other way.”
Something about this phase of our conversation puts him in mind of his bedside table at home in Oxfordshire: that pile of books-on-the-go that includes David Chase’s Sopranos scripts, a memoir about the making of Apocalypse Now and a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He mentions this to explain that, although he can brush off the silly, trollish criticism directed at his screen presence in Middle-earth, he is far from immune to hurt on these subjects. “I was rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, which I hadn’t dipped into since I was in my 20s. I’d forgotten something about the language in that book. The moment Lee first uses the N-word? It was like somebody had punched me in the heart.”
He thought he knew the book pretty well. He thought he was more robust, at 64. “But that kind of thing, it can catch you by surprise, it can really knock you off your horse. And I must admit, I stopped reading. I haven’t been able to pick it up again since. How strange, right? That I should be so thin-skinned.”
There are two versions of his early-life biography, the partially true one that Henry cobbled together mid-career, and the more honest backstory that he finally feels free to talk about from the distance of his 60s. His appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1989 is a fascinating document that makes for uncomfortable listening now. Henry was 30 when he was quizzed by the then-host, Sue Lawley. (“Too young?” he wonders.) In the show, he talks about his mum Winifred and his dad Winston coming from Jamaica to the Midlands in the 1950s, to take work in factories. Henry was born in 1958. He grew up to be a teenager with a knack for doing impressions. He appeared on national TV at 16, in a talent contest called New Faces, before moving on to a sitcom about a black British family called The Fosters, then touring with a light-entertainment troupe called The Black and White Minstrel Show through the summers of the late 70s. “Interesting,” Henry told Lawley of his five years as a Minstrel. “Nice people.”
Or so went the glossed-over version of his biography that Henry gave out in 1989. While studying for a BA, MA, then a PhD in film and TV studies during the 2000s and 2010s, Henry did a lot of inner wrestling with his formative experiences in British show business. By the time he published his doctorate in 2018, he was ready to say The Fosters’ “lack of cultural veracity (inconsistent dialects, clothes, politics, etc) was preposterous … The all-white production team had no idea how to cast a Caribbean London family and so procured black performers from all corners of the globe.” As for his “interesting” experience as part of The Black and White Minstrel Show, Henry wrote: “I was miserable the entire period.” In his recent memoir, Rising to the Surface, he goes further, admitting the experience left him with “everlasting shame, smothered in a duvet of depression”.
I ask Henry what changed, why he has felt able to be honest about this. He says, “There’s a thing about getting to a certain age and lancing a boil.” The same principle applied to the story of his parentage. As recently as 2015 (when Henry wrote and produced a movie called Danny and the Human Zoo that drew from events of his own teenage years), he couldn’t bring himself to talk in public about the true circumstances of his birth. “Apart from close family, nobody knew.” Then, in 2019, Henry decided to lance another boil. His named father, Winston Henry, wasn’t his biological father. In fact, Henry was born to Winifred and another man, Albert Green, whom she’d met in the Midlands in the 1950s, before Winston travelled over to join her from Jamaica.
When Henry wrote this up in a first volume of memoir, 2019’s Who Am I Again?, it was “like ripping off a plaster”, he says. “I felt like I was being truthful about myself for the first time, where before I’d had to be economical. And now I can talk about my birth father without feeling like …” He does an impression of a tortured superhero in pain. He grits his teeth and groans. Then he drops the performance, Lenny again, and says: “They’re all dead now. I can’t hurt them.”
We talk about what a tricky thing it is, writing from life, whether this is done in the form of autobiography or as art that’s mined from real events. “You have to be so, so careful,” he says. “There will be things that your relatives recognise. ‘Len put that in?’ But at the same time you have to try to write from your truth.”
For 25 years, from the mid-80s until 2010, Henry was married to the British comedian Dawn French. (Their daughter, Billie Henry, was adopted as a newborn in the 1990s.) The first half of the Henry-French marriage coincided with some explosive years in both their careers. By his own admission, Henry allowed his schedule to become “hyperkinetic”. He was part of the original Comic Relief cast, instrumental in its transfer from a one-off stage show that made £1m for charity to a TV special that rakes in millions each year. He had earned his professional spurs in children’s TV and an evening sketch show. Later he got his own vehicle, The Lenny Henry Show. He formed a production company and made the well-liked 90s sitcom Chef!. There were films and comedy tours. In Rising to the Surface, which tracks the story of his life up to the turn of the millennium, Henry acknowledges he sometimes let the starrier side of his life take over.
On his 1984 wedding to French, he writes of rising to make his speech, “and suddenly regret[ting] inviting industry people. Why did I invite all these people off the telly? Why is the woman from Hi-de-Hi! at my wedding?” All through the 90s, he recalls, “I had something to prove [and] I threw myself into the work, even though, with a young child around, I could have slowed down a little and helped out a bit more.” When Winifred became gravely ill in 1998, Henry decided to go off on an arranged tour of Australia. She died while he was gone and in his memoirs he wonders what that was about. “Why couldn’t I just be at Mum’s side? I still don’t know and still question my behaviour at that time.” He describes what sound like the beginnings of the end of his marriage to French: “My selfish need to succeed through constant working [was] taking its toll on my family life. I made some bad decisions.”
Towards the end of Rising to the Surface (which breaks off before his turn to academia, theatre acting and novel writing), Henry considers Winifred’s advice about life being a garden needing tending. He concludes with melancholy frankness that working within the entertainment industry can “make you the most neglectful gardener on Earth”.
Henry has finished his lunch. He’s about to drive away from the British Library in a taxi that will take this knight of the realm – he became Sir Lenny in 2015 – to an afternoon engagement. We’re using the time we have left to talk about a shared love of comic-book films. Henry is telling a funny story about the difference between watching the Marvel movie Black Panther in a London cinema full of delighted black teenagers, and the same movie again, with his daughter in a rural cinema in Plymouth. “No other black people in the room. And everyone saying: ‘Well, that was alreet, I s’pose. But I can’t see what all the fuss was about.’”
While his current job on The Rings of Power is probably the most prominent acting role he’s had (Makin helped him shoot his audition footage on their iPad), you get the sense that prose writing has become Henry’s primary passion. It’s writer to writer that I want to take him to task on one aspect of his recent memoir, Rising to the Surface. The last 70 or so pages are compelling because they detail Henry’s mounting obsession with public recognition, meanwhile tracking his neglect of obligations at home. In the penultimate chapter, he appears to realise that what really mattered all along was the personal, not the professional. Moving stuff.
But then, in a chapter paying off that notion of Henry “rising to the surface”, he describes winning a major industry award for one of his 2000s TV shows. The chapter comes with a photo of him holding a Golden Rose of Montreux entertainment award and the words: “What surfacing looks like.” For the reader it’s an unsettling swerve, I say. It seems to undercut his epiphanies in the previous chapters about the relative value of private and public validation.
Henry politely disagrees. An award is not a small thing for a black creator. “Awards are a litmus test for what’s happening, for what’s in the air, which talents are being elevated, what shows are being lionised, what films are being slept on. You see [awards] and you can think, this is where we are at the moment.” When he was a boy, he continues, he was given the same piece of advice by his mum that a lot of black parents give to children. “You’ve got to be two, three times as good [as a white counterpart] to be accepted as equal. You can’t just be ‘pretty good’ at a job. You’ve got to be brilliant – otherwise you’re fucked. There’s no permission to fail, not if you’re from a minority.”
So yeah: winning the Golden Rose felt to him a worthy place to end a book of reminiscences. But he acknowledges that, over his decades in the public eye, he may have developed some skewed notions about validation. He says that one acquaintance who read Rising to the Surface reported back that it contained too much whingeing. “You’ve had a decent career,” the acquaintance told him, “you seem successful to me!” Henry touches his head and says: “But from in here, it’s felt like a treadmill. It’s felt like I could have made better choices. There’s been self-doubt. There’s been impostor syndrome. There’s been deflation.” He performs the act of deflation, swelling up like a balloon, letting the air out with a loud raspberry that turns heads.
He has his Golden Rose. He has his knighthood. A few years back, he was made chancellor of Birmingham City University. I ask what validation is left to him? What would it even look like?
Henry turns over a few answers in his whirring brain, perhaps trying to decide whether to take the question seriously or to treat it as a joke. He settles on something in between. “I want a special medal,” he decides. “It wouldn’t be a gold one. Not a silver one. What comes after bronze? Pewter? I want a pewter medal. And I want it to be engraved with the words: ‘He fell over in the race. But he participated.’”
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