Sir Lenny Henry: ‘I do wish I had stood up to racism more’
By Hannah Stephenson. Published 2020-10-13BOLD-Living
Sir Lenny Henry talks to TheBoldAge about racism, the pressures of fame, and his fears for today’s young wannabes.
How did he cope with fame at such an early age?“Not very well,” he reflects. “I had an ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude. I was 15 or 16-years-old. I was managed by a DJ called Mike Hollis for the first 10 years of my career. It was literally like being attached to a firework that had had the blue touch paper lit.“There was no way to process anything. I was really young and gullible, so everything that happened to me was with this gung-ho get-stuck-in attitude, without understanding the seriousness and the weight of decisions that were being made in split-second moments.“I drank underage, went out and when I discovered London, which was so different from Dudley, I almost exploded, and then when I went to New York for the first time, I nearly exploded again. There was an element of it where I had a great, great time in a hedonistic way, but I was young.”
So, are youngsters coming out of talent shows today better protected?“No, I don’t think so at all. It’s worse now because kids are younger. Kids on The Voice are just thrown into the spotlight in front of seven million people. You sing your heart out and if you lose, how do you pick up the pieces from that? What happens then? That’s years of therapy.
“If there’s nobody watching out for you it can lead to grave mistakes. The kids on all those talent shows, somebody needs to be watching out for them – and I really wish somebody had been watching out for me.”
“I think if a kid’s going to go into show business they need a crew around them, people around them, they need to be protected mentally and physically, kept fit and kept on top of things. It’s no wonder people break down when they get to their mid-20s if they started when they were 14.
He draws a line between talent shows and reality shows like Love Island.“That’s not really about talent, it’s just about people watching people behave. If you have civilians on television being filmed and then editing them together, that’s going to have a terrible effect on their psyches once they are out of that programme.“All of those things should be regulated and monitored by people who know what they’re doing, rather than having therapists doing punditry. All of those people should receive counselling through the entire process. You’re laying your soul bare.”
He doesn’t, however, think talent shows should be banned.“I wouldn’t be here without a talent show, but there’s a pastoral element that needs to be introduced. There’s a responsibility broadcasters have to young talent to make sure that the effect of being on television doesn’t affect them in an adverse way.”After winning New Faces, Henry signed up to do The Black And White Minstrel Show – the first actual black person in the line-up (the others were white men in make-up) – where he stayed for five years. “It was mentally bruising but kids have a tendency to endure hardship. I sort of pretended that it wasn’t happening and got on with the task of working in a big theatre,” he says.“Even though the guys who came in were white and lovely and nice to me, the truth of the matter is that I was stuck in this show that was a racial anomaly and in my heart of hearts, I hated being in it.”
He’ll never forget the racism he has endured – his front door being smeared with excrement by the National Front in the early days of his marriage to Dawn French, the times people spat on their fingers, rubbing his face and saying, ‘Ooh look, it doesn’t come off’.