Lenny Henry Q&A: “I met Mandela and saw all the tiny wrinkles on his face”

The comedian talks Eighties sports films, Stephen King’s strong grammar skills, and Black Panther.

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Lenny Henry was born in Dudley in 1958. He first appeared on TV in 1975 with an impersonation of Stevie Wonder, and has since hosted “The Lenny Henry Show”. He is also a co-founder of Comic Relief.

What’s your earliest memory?

Lots of people from around the way bouncing me on their knees, throwing me in the air and laughing. Frightening…

Who are your heroes?

My mum was my hero when I was little. She cooked every day, worked hard, cleaned the house and made dresses. Mind you, she made sure to tell us all this every day. Lately, I admire Greta Thunberg’s bravery on climate change.

What book last changed your thinking?

I love Stephen King’s insistence on strong grammar skills in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’m also a big fan of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power, which tells how people of colour have contributed to life in Britain for yonks, way before slavery.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela. I met him and saw all the tiny wrinkles on his face. Despite a punishing time in jail, his smile lit up the room: his determination to free black South Africans was unyielding. A hero.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Eighties sports films, I’m afraid. I watched Rocky, A League of Their Own and The Natural for my PhD on the lack of diversity in Hollywood sports films. So many films, so few black coaches…

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Wakanda, the world of Black Panther. It’s a fictional, independent African country hidden from the rest of the world, a utopia with its own power source.

What TV show could you not live without?

Watchmen. Alan Moore’s original text is ingenious and the new series expands on his work confidently, in a jazz/improv way. I have no idea what they’ll do next and I love Regina King as Sister Night. She’s fire.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d like Neil Gaiman’s sometime collaborator Dave McKean to have a go – either him, or Chris Ofili.

What’s your theme tune?

Side two of Hounds of Love.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“When you walk on, don’t start straight away. Walk around a bit, let ’em look at the suit.” – Max Bygraves. And yes, I do that!

What’s currently bugging you?

Oh, nothing, everything’s just peachy right now…

What single thing would make your life better?

True inclusion and representation. Everywhere.

When were you happiest?

My childhood between 1970 and 1974 has obvious charms, but I’m happy now, thanks!

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

The bass player in Parliament. Not Bootsy Collins, the other one.

Are we all doomed?

I don’t know. I know that people are standing up to bullies and that can only be a good thing. I feel that people have stopped taking what their so-called leaders tell them as gospel. The more we question, the more they have to account for themselves. That can only be a good thing. 

“Who Am I, Again?” by Lenny Henry is published by Faber & Faber

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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