Sir Lenny Henry celebrated the launch of his new book, Rising To The Surface with a trip down memory lane with an audience at the Alexandra Palace Theatre.
An evening with Sir Lenny Henry on 8 September gave his fans a chance to have a sneak peek into his new book and to hear first-hand about his journey to becoming a British icon.
There was a sense of anticipation as the audience came into the Alexandra Palace Theatre and took their seats facing a stage with nothing but two chairs and a coffee table in the centre. For one night only, live on stage, Sir Lenny Henry was to discuss his rise and fall and rise again during the 80s and 90s. A night to celebrate the release of Rising To The Surface, the highly-anticipated sequel to his best-selling memoir, Who Am I Again.
Rising To The Surface sees Henry take the reader through his professional comedy career. It starts back in 1975 when the then 16-year-old from Dudley won the talent competition New Faces. Described as “Charming, vulnerable, perceptive and jaw-dropping funny” the book is likely to take fans of the comedian on an emotional rollercoaster.
Sir Lenny Henry is more than your average comedian he is also a writer, radio DJ, TV presenter, the co-founder of Comic Relief, and an award-winning actor. In 2015 he was awarded a knighthood for services to charity and drama, he also has a PhD in media arts.
His formal education is impressive enough and something that 16-year-old Henry could not have predicted. However, the education that Rising To The Surface focuses on is the one he gained in the school of hard knocks on the comedy circuit, in the writing rooms and on the tv shows of the world that he found himself in at a young age.
During the evening Henry talked openly about his youth, from the time his mother told him: “You need to integrate” with the people of his hometown Dudley, to when he skipped school to audition for New Faces. He reminisced over the racist treatment he received in the working men’s clubs where he performed and how he had wished he knew how to write comedy then.
The now legendary writer noted that he came up with the famous joke, “Enoch Powell says he wants to give me £1,000 to go back to where I came from. Which is great, because it’s only 20 pence on the bus from here to Dudley”, without understanding the impact of what he was writing at the time.
The evenings’ conversation was led by best-selling author and historian David Olusoga who asked questions and nudged the ever-entertaining Henry in the right direction. Refocusing him every time he went off track and into another funny story that strayed from the questions path.
Over the years Henry has strayed from the path a lot, mainly because he kept changing his mind about what path he wanted to follow. A pivotal moment that Henry recalls in his book was when the BBC brought in hundreds of writers to get material for the show, Three of a Kind. Henry recalls telling the room that “I didn’t want my race to be the butt of the joke. I wanted the attitude to Black performers to change. It was time that we were makers of the joke, not simply the taker.”
“I didn’t want my race to be the butt of the joke. I wanted the attitude to Black performers to change.”
Talking about being a maker of change, “I wanted to be archetypal, not stereotypical,” said Sir Lenny Henry, which summed up the theme of the evening nicely. Speaking on the lack of people of colour in the creative industries for him to look up to, Henry chatted about how diversity had improved and how he himself requested diverse crews on his projects.
Confessing that he sometimes felt guilty that he could not reflect everyone back at themselves in his work, Henry explained how important representation was for each generation to see people like themselves and say, “That could be me”.
As the evening came to a close, Henry paid tribute to all those who had paved the way before him. Focusing also on the people who have become known in recent years for using new technology like YouTube to say: “I don’t need a place at your table, I’ll build my own table.”
Although the representation of diverse backgrounds has improved within the film and television industry in recent years, there is still a way to go. Henry who is currently starring as a hobbit in the Amazon Prime Series, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, discussed the racist backlash the series has received. Jesting that in fantasy some people can accept Elves and Dwarfs but deem a Black character as unrealistic.
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The book, Rising To The Surface, is a great read and Melan Magazine recommends it for fans of Henry or the curious who are less acquainted with his career. The evening was tremendously funny as well as informative and thought provoking. Sometimes even a little too relatable for people of colour who grew up in the UK.
With his already extraordinary legacy and still so much to come in upcoming projects, it’s clear that Sir Lenny Henry has much more to say. Book three pending?
Rising To The Surface is available to buy now in all the usual places. Buy it here.