Lenny Henry at Cambridge Corn Exchange - a comedy genius who generated a warmth in a vast auditorium

PUBLISHED: 10:45 26 November 2019

Lenny Henry

Lenny Henry

Archant

When he got through the audition to appear on the television talent show New Faces - his biggest fear was how to tell his mum he had bunked off school

Lenny Henry was 15 years old when he auditioned for the TV talent show, New Faces.

He had taught himself the acts walking along the street after seeing characters on the telly. He wanted to be them. They were all white - only white people were on the telly.

He entertained his friends in the park. His mates were his audience.

He didn't go to drama school or the National Youth Theatre. He didn't have a pushy stage mother. His mother knew nothing about it. His big fear was having to tell his mum he had bunked off school.

What are you going to do? she asked as she stood in the doorway - and he showed her and the rest of the family then and there.

As a teenager, his impressions of a whole host of actors and commedians were irresistable. He won the series.

They are still irresitable. He held the audience at Cambridge Corn Exchange in the palm of his hand.

He may have been knighted and become a serious actor but his Tommy Cooper is a scream.

Now touring with his autobiography Who am I, again? he gives us the Yorkshire accent of Barry Rutter from the theatre company Northern Broadsides, as Henry describes his preparations for Othello.

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After his first reading he was congratulated by the rest of the cast.

His satire on the lovees' guestures are bliss. He says: "The best one is this" and demonstrates: both arms held out in supplication, the eyes closed, the head bent in reverence.

Then the down-to-earth director Rutter had stood up and said that Laurence Olivier had with his reading of Othello left his audience quite hollow and wrung out with emotion, unable to go on. Then he added: "Thank goodness Lenny hasn't done that to us tonight."

Lenny is loved for his story-telling and his wit. A warmth was generated in the vast auditorium, then there were pauses in the laughter for shocked silence when he described moments of racism in his childhood.

And you hold your breath too when he shares some of the twists and turns of his youth. His mum decided that the teenage Len should get to know his uncle better. She sent him round to do chores. He went to the man's home, swept the floor and washed the dishes until the man's scowling son told him: "He's not your uncle, he's your dad."

So now he had two dads. The one at home had not only brought up Lenny but also a brother and sister who were also the uncle's children.

Mrs Winnie Henry was a strong woman in every sense. She had been a subsistance farmer in Jamaica and carried her wares to market. When she came to Britain, she worked hard and brought up her family with ferocity. She didn't spare the rod to spoil the child.

But as Lenny says, beating children "wasn't a Jamaican thing or a working class thing" it was what people did in those days.

It didn't stop him growing up smiling, tall, upright and generous of spirit. He founded Comic Relief, which has now raised a billion.

And he was confident enough to take on the world of television with nothing but his natural talent at the age of 15.

His book about his early years, Who Am I, again? is published by Faber and Faber, £20. The show is at Ipswich Regent Theatre on Tuesday, November 26, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre, Wednesday, November 27, Bath Forum, Thursday, November 28 and finishes at Stoke on Trent Regent Theatre on Friday, November 29.

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