What space does Sir Lenny Henry occupy in your hearts? Honestly.
Are you struggling?
Assume the correct answer is “Whew, Lenny Henry.” *shakes head, mops brow*. “Lenny was the bold champion of black comics when Great Britain had none. Revered as the man who hacked his own path through the undergrowth of working men’s clubs of the seventies and eighties to mainstream television and beyond, Sir Lenny now occupies that most coveted of roles in public life: National Treasure. We’re very proud.”
That’s what it looks like. Nice, isn’t it? Everyone comes out of it looking like a thoroughly good chap and Sir Lenny Henry receives his due for a career spanning some forty years and counting.
Lean in, though.
There’s a touch of revisionism going on here, isn’t there? Not with personal comedy preferences – for the purposes of this conversation, they’re not relevant – but with our cultural history and our almost pathological insistence on rewriting history to make ourselves feel better.
I knew you’d understand. You can move away now.
The fact remains, I probably wouldn’t have bothered listening to an interview with Lenny Henry if Amanda Palmer (white, cis, female, author, musician) hadn’t chosen to speak to him on her pod, The Art of Asking Everything. I’m not proud of it, but if I’m going to lightly admonish English culture for being fucking awful, it’s reasonable I take my share of the blame.
I love comedy, just not ‘that’ kind of comedy. As I was growing up and developing my taste, I was attracted to alternative performers, although at the time I couldn’t have defined that for you. I just knew that Rik Mayall’s love affair with Cliff Richard and Neil the hippie sneezing into a binbag made me laugh so much I hurt. Lenny’s output, in comparison, felt a little tame.
Even as I was pressing play, I wondered what the host might have to say to this man, and what could possibly be interesting about it. Last week’s episode, ‘Bullshit Is Everywhere’ with author Elizabeth Lesser, demonstrated Palmer’s skilful and sensitive technique as an interviewer – a surprise from a performer so expressive and dynamic – and my curiosity was piqued.
Only a white child growing up in England could believe that having your own sitcom on national television at twenty-four years old was dangerous. That’s not to say that Mayall, Edmondson, Planer and Elton don’t deserve the plaudits they’ve received over the years, far from it, but having listened to Lenny discuss performing comedy to a crowd of mildly inebriated and unapologetically racist blokes in what’s essentially a glorified outhouse, I feel I now have a better grasp of the term ‘dangerous’.
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the clues. Despite heavy indications to the contrary, I don’t believe the majority of us on this septic isle are racist. I still believe in that now beleaguered cliche that we’re a friendly, hospitable bunch who will inevitably be let down by some twats who like to shout.
But dwelling between these comfy binaries is the truly British trait of ‘ooh, that makes me mildly uncomfortable, let’s never speak of it again’. Lenny Henry lives here too. A man who, for many years, was one of very few black faces regularly appearing on television. Who had little choice but to force himself into a box that didn’t fit him so he could stay there, all the while watching fellow comedians (and I use that term loosely) like Jim Davidson perpetuate unpleasant stereotypes and get rewarded with more screen time.
Henry was still there though, wasn’t he? As an advocate of representation, I understand the importance of seeing others like yourself in powerful positions, so surely that’s enough? The man’s got a knighthood, right?
Via this conversation, I learned more about Lenny’s early life and career than I ever picked up from watching him on TV. He discussed his memoir, ‘Who Am I, Again?’ and the necessity to tell his story in its entirety, rather than the sanitised version which TV execs and viewers preferred. The one that won’t frighten an audience only capable of coping with black people who don’t make a big deal of being black. Even better if they play along with the tropes. Henry himself did this for five years as a member of a touring stage version of ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’; a source of shame that he himself should not be forced to bear.
Even Ricky Gervais, a man who should know better (an article in its own right), riffed gently on Henry’s position in English popular culture as recently as 2006.
I’d expect a guy as smart as Ricky to have figured out the reason Lenny might be perceived as ‘unfunny’ in some quarters is quite simply that he’s built a very successful comedy career despite being unable to tap into his own personal history. I can’t think of a single creative type who wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown upon reading that statement, including myself.
Please listen to it. Especially if you grew up in the UK in the seventies and eighties. In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement wavers between catching fire and burning out, it’s our job to ensure the former happens and we do this by listening. Don’t assume you already know or you have nothing more to learn. The world can look completely different if you take a second to move slightly and change your perspective.
It’s more important now than it’s ever been.
Amanda Palmer’s podcast, The Art of Asking Everything, is available in all the usual places.