Lenny Henry never stops. The cheeky boy from Dudley who burst onto our screens at 16 has been at it for nearly 50 years: comedy gigs up and down the country, his own comedy TV show on BBC, founding Comic Relief with Richard Curtis in 1985. The most striking thing about Rising to the Surface, the sequel to his first memoir Who Am I, Again? (2019), is the sheer energy on display. “You can’t just sit around and expect these things to appear and bestow their many gifts on you,” he tells us. “You gotta get up, strip to your long johns, pick up a shovel and dig all the way down till you can’t dig no mo’. That’s a direct quote from Keats, by the way.”
The earlier memoir recounted his childhood in the West Midlands; his aspirational Jamaican mother; his precocious television debut aged 16 in January 1975 in front of 16 million people, when he became the first schoolboy to win the TV talent show New Faces. He then worked on The Black and White Minstrel Show between 1975 and 1979, as the first black performer to appear on a show that lampooned black people, an experience he now looks back on bitterly.
Rising to the Surface picks up in 1980, and charts the next 20 years. We see Henry working on the kids TV show Tiswas with Chris Tarrant, “providing ‘water cooler’ TV at a time when no one in the UK even had a water cooler”. Then, in 1982, they launched an adult version called O.T.T. (Over the Top), along the lines of the American comedy show Saturday Night Live, starring up and coming talents like Alexei Sayle, and more established names like Bernard Manning – “the spherical racist northern comic,” as Henry bluntly puts it, whose “technical skills were not in doubt” but whose “raison d’être seemed to be to annoy as many of the audience as possible.”
When Manning came to see Henry perform his solo show, he “sat there like an oversized comedy sphinx amidst the muggles and roared his approval at every gag that didn’t work.” Later, at the stage door, Manning lit a cigar with faux bonhomie and said: “By the way, if ever you’re going by my club [killer pause]... keep going...”
O.T.T. was a great flop. It only lasted for one season. Even Henry’s normally supportive family hated it. “The joke shop musta been shut,” he heard one of his siblings say. “You tink it’s easy putting a show together like that?” said his mother. “Chris Tarrant is a good man. He eats one of my h’alcoholic Christmas cake from me every year. This is just the beginning of the series; it won’t be this bad next week...” It was one of many times he heard the “resounding KER-THUMP” of his career flying 12 steps backwards. “The entertainment industry was a reluctant bedfellow at times. Just when you thought you had an equal share of the eiderdown, you’d wake to find yourself with an ice-cold rear end and no cover at all.”
The friends Henry was making were a who’s who of British comic talents: Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Alexei Sayle, Tracy Ullman, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, whom he married in 1984. Up to that point, Henry confesses: “I’d been serial dating a variety of dancers from summer shows, funakteers and fellow clubbers. None of these relationships were based on [...] a “meeting of minds”. But then he met French. Their first date was at a bar in Soho called La Beat Route, and it was a peach. “I realised that you could have a reciprocal conversation with someone and not have to perform or amuse them all the time. They could make you laugh too. A massive light bulb went off over my head. BONG!”
To pay for their big wedding, Henry played Blackpool North Pier for 22 straight weeks in 1984. “I had to remind myself that I had chosen this path and, in many respects, I was digging it: six nights a week, two shows a night, plus Sunday concerts in Scarborough, Yarmouth, Bournemouth and Torquay.” What comes through in this memoir is how much Henry genuinely loves being a comedian. He is still living his boyhood dream. “The fact is: show business didn’t feel like work to me. There were elements of it that were difficult, and there were times when I struggled, but at no point did I ever give up and want to be a welder again.”
The book ends with Henry at 30, the only black comedian in Britain with his own television show, a happily married man, a founder of Comic Relief, which had raised £15 million for poor children in Africa and Britain after its first televised show, and the subject of Melvyn Bragg’s The South Bank Show. But the next decade will be more complicated. His attempts to make it in Hollywood do not come off, and by the end of the book, something devastating happens: his mother dies. I look forward to the next instalment of Sir Lenworth Henry’s memoirs, and hope it will be as ebullient and moving as the first two.
Rising to the Surface by Lenny Henry is published by Faber & Faber at £20. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books