An interview with ATV’s latest star in 1975: a 16-year-old impressionist from Dudley called Lenny Henry
Comic impressionist Lenny Henry was the hit of the factory floor, then entered a talent show for a dare. The result: acclaim in New Faces, a string of club engagements, a return to TV in Saturday’s The Summer Show and the chance to entertain in Las Vegas. Not bad going… for a 16-year old.
LENNY HENRY is black, 16 years old, 6ft. plus and is the comedy impressionist who stood the New Faces panel on its ear with his sunburned Michael Crawford routine. Lines such as “Betty got me this job as an Ambre Solaire salesman and it won’t come off”, helped to cam him top marks for “star quality”.
And since those early accolades Lenny, the boy from Douglas Road, Dudley, in Worcestershire, a few miles outside Wolverhampton in the industrial Midlands, is working the top clubs in the North, making TV shows such as Saturday’s The Summer Show and hoping, as a result, for the chance of a cabaret engagement in Las Vegas.
Lenny the fifth (“Henry the Fifth”) of seven children, started his comic career in the classroom. “I used to do impressions of teachers; that always went down well. I would always get a laff from me mates. And I did other things, like a Groucho Marx routine.”
School for Lenny was a great time for getting comedy routines from his classmates. “But it didn’t do much for me when it came to learning anything. It was a terribly big school with huge classes. Then they raised the school leaving age; this created one hell of a confusion.
“But it was fun a lot of the time. Science classes were the best, because the teacher used to help us to do a radio show. We would do all those comic routines, impressions of the teachers and stuff like that, and then play them back over loudspeakers in the science laboratory.”
Lenny lives with his parents, younger brother and two sisters in a large, crumbling Victorian house: “Six rooms, all with very high ceilings. It’s a great place, but it needs thousands to put it right. Our house is right in the middle of Douglas Road. There’s big houses on one side and little council houses on the other. A lot of me mates come from that road.” His parents came to Britain from Jamaica in 1958. “Mum came over first. She and Dad used to live in the country part of Jamaica, where Dad had a store. He used to do all sorts of jobs — stonemason, store owner — and they lived in a big house with green crops of all kinds. But they wanted a change. Me Mum had read that English streets were paved with gold, so they decided to leave for Britain.
“So she came to Dudley, got a job and a flat. Dad came over a while after her and I was born here.
“Dad works in a big engineering factory. I don’t know what he thinks of his job, he just does it, day in and day out.”
Lenny made light of the monotony of his own factory job, as an engineering apprentice. “1 was always playing it for laffs in the factory. Me mates used to like me to do routines at the bench. One day I was working with a screwdriver and it slipped and cut my hand. They all laffed but I couldn’t see anything funny in it. So I went into ray Max Bygraves routine — ‘You need hands…’, that used to go down really well.”
Lenny’s break from his engineering career came after he entered a talent competition run by a local disc jockey and record shop owner, Mike Hollis. “I did it as a dare. Me mates sort of pushed me into entering the contest so I did Presley’s Jailhouse Rock.
“I won that week, and the next week I did an impression of Tommy Cooper and won again.”
Hollis recognised his show-stopping abilities and took him under his wing. “Lenny has a natural instinct for humour and an incredible gift for mimicry,” says Hollis, who has become Lenny’s mentor and friend since they first met just over a year ago. And Lenny has a great regard for “me mate Mike”, who is “very honest and reads me like a book.” The repertoire of impressions includes James Mason — “I was chuffed when I got him right” — Michael Crawford, James Stewart…
He also has a good line in Kojak jokes, the voice honed to perfection.
At the moment, Lenny is able to satisfy only his liking for clothes and food.
“But when I start to get into the money, there’s loads I want to do. It’s my birthday on August 29. I’ll be 17, so I want to buy a car. I’d also like to take the family off for a holiday in Jamaica. Mum and Dad would love to go back there. Mum’s a bit fed up with Dudley now. She’s seen it all. They’ll never get a chance to go back though, except for a holiday.”
Since some bad experiences as a child, Lenny says that the colour question hasn’t bothered him. “I got known as the Sun-Tanned Kid and I thought, looking at my skin, this is my gimmick, this is my ticket.” That ticket, and his natural talent for mimicry and humour, is likely to take Lenny Henry, first-class, to the top of the entertainment tree.