Lenny Henry at Hay Festival: From overcoming bullies with comedy to becoming a children's author

Sir Lenny Henry
-Credit: (Image: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Comedian Sir Lenny Henry has thanked the two teachers who inspired him to become a celebrated children's author and said it was never too late to get an education.

It was while he was a pupil at the Blue Coat School in Dudley, West Midlands, in the 1970s that Henry first realised he had a gift for comedy. His quick wit soon got the better of the school bully and a natural ability at telling jokes led to the club stand-up comedy circuit before he got his TV breakthrough with ITV's New Faces programme.

He co-founded the charity Comic Relief with screenwriter Richard Curtis and later turned to acting appearing in Chef! and the Amazon Prime series Lord Of The Rings.

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The 65-year-old, who was speaking at an event at the Hay Festival in Powys, Wales, said he was inspired to write by two of his teachers, Jim Brookes and Mr Nash.

"There was this brilliant teacher. Are there any teachers here? You guys do not get paid enough," Henry said.

"Without brilliant teachers you don't get told to read or encouraged or anything. I had a brilliant teacher called Mr Brookes and he encouraged me to read, and so did Mr Nash. That's why I wanted to write. Every exam or any time there was an essay or a problem question in maths I made a story about it. That's why I am inspired to write."

Henry has now written several children's adventure comedy books featuring a character called Tunde Wilkinson, which he says was partly inspired by his own childhood.

He said Tunde was an adopted child like his own daughter and also, like him, bullied at school. "Anyone here been bullied? It's horrible, isn't it. I was bullied by this guy at school I can't say his name," Henry said.

"Every day he would call me names, punch me and kick. Then one day the reason I am where I am today is because I had an idea why he was throttling me on the floor. I said, 'You must really fancy me or something because rolling around on the floor fighting'.

"And anybody who was standing around, who usually said 'fight, fight, fight', they suddenly laughed at that joke. I said, 'You should come and meet my mum and dad and you can buy me a ring and make it official...'

"It just came out of me. I said, 'Let's go for a walk and hold hands and skip'. And he ran off. I wanted Tunde similar to have a similar sense of humour as he's bullied in the story."

He said his favourite subject was English and he went to university after his mother died.

"My mum always said to me, 'Len, you must get an education'. So, I always wanted to study, and I always wanted to do better as an adult than I did at school," he said.

"When I was at school, even though I had a great English teacher, I didn't really enjoy school because I was bullied and stuff. When I was about 30, I decided I wanted to be a writer and I did an English degree with the Open University, and I loved it.

"Anybody here who studies and is older, and wants to study now, please do, because the Open University is great, and you can do it at home."

He has since completed an MA in screenwriting for TV and film and a PhD on the role of black people in the media.

Henry told the audience he enjoyed the freedom he had to write and encouraged children to carry a notepad and pen to jot down ideas for stories.

"You can sit in your kitchen with a packet of jammy dodgers and a pen and pencil in your pyjamas and just do what you want," he said.

"If you have an idea, you can write it down and that can be your story. I love that ... your imagination running riot and just thinking up stupid stuff that kids will enjoy."