It was the way Lenny Henry told them. In the 1970s he would say to audiences: “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.” Who could resist? Around the UK, young black teenagers were seen as folk devils, frequently expelled and relocated to “educationally subnormal” (ESN) schools, stopped and frisked by police for the crime of being out on the street. Henry, who was hardly old enough to take his CSEs when he appeared on the TV talent show New Faces impersonating Stevie Wonder and Frank Spencer, was more reassuring: coltish, eager to please, a mimic rather than a satirist.
Being cheery was a way to stave off the pains of growing up in a working-class household ruled over by a mother who whacked her children with fists, boots, branches, frying pans. At one point he called his home “the Ruins”. At night he and his three brothers “took it in turns to wet the bed – there were many times when I dreamt I was asleep in a submarine that had just been torpedoed”. At school there were meatheads who made monkey noises and picked fights. “Not this again,” Henry said to one of them. “Y’must really fancy me, cos you’re always tryin’ to get to me to roll around on the ground with ya.” “Shut y’mouth, coon.” “Here we go,” Henry replied. “You hit me, I hit you – we fall on the ground and hug. Why don’t we go and have dinner and a movie first? Cut out all the fighting?”
For a while, the comic stage offered a safe harbour. So many light entertainers from the 70s have been found guilty of abusing their fame, it’s a relief to read Henry paying tribute to the artistry and friendship of performers such as Bob Monkhouse, Leslie Crowther and Ken Dodd. Crackerjack presenter Don Maclean “would stalk the stage like a velociraptor – marking out his territory and spraying jokes at each point of the compass … I hero-worshipped him”.
I didn’t want to smash the oppressor, or kill Whitey. I wanted to smash box office records and buy my Mama a houseLenny Henry
Henry’s accounts of touring in a stage version of The Black and White Minstrel Show are finely recalled. He gets to meet girls, former matinee idols, the sequin-wearing magicians Anna and Maria – and their outsized parrot, Miggsy. His companions were, he says, “vagabonds, mountebanks and felons – constantly moving from town to town, wreaking havoc and then skipping town before daybreak to avoid hostile landlords, one-night stands or irate husbands”. That itinerary of broken-down cinemas and working men’s clubs (“wooden taps for the beer and ancient bags of pork scratchings and crisps and nuts pinned to the wall”) ground him down. As did his suspicion that the Minstrels were using him as a “political football” in order to avoid accusations of racism.
Prejudice was up front and proud in those days. West Indian kids yelled “White man! Yu is a white man!” at Henry because of his Dudley accent. Later, after he married fellow comedian Dawn French, members of the National Front stuffed burning rags through their letterbox. Yet looking at a photograph of himself from 1978, he notes: “I didn’t want to smash the oppressor, or kill Whitey. I wanted to smash box office records and buy my Mama a house.” And he also admits: “I do wish I stood up more against racism. I wonder if turning one’s back is really the answer.”
Being a mimic allowed him, for a few minutes each night, to become someone else. And to be applauded for it. But while mimicry can be subversive, a way to cock a snook at authority, it can also be mere parrotry, survival through self-cancellation. For Henry, “it was a pathway – it was integration writ large”. He says that when he joined Tiswas, the anarchic Saturday morning children’s programme on ITV, he suspected the cast pitied him for having spent so much time in conservative company.
Henry’s instability, his search for a voice of his own, extends to his prose. He can be chatty and colloquial, all banter and bonhomie, recalling teenage high jinks with dizzied abandon. He can also be a bit pompous (“I’ve slowly come to understand the complexities of displacement, loneliness and the need for companionship”) and overly citational (quoting Derek Walcott, Nelson Mandela, CS Lewis). In the final, misguided section of the book he shifts to mentor mode, dispensing advice on microphone technique to would-be comics.
He suggests he is readying two more volumes of memoir. That seems excessive. Who Am I Again? is raw, touching and all over the place. He says it’s not an autobiography, but a biography (“because I’m writing about someone I used to know”). He suspects he’s not black enough, not manly enough. Often he feels adrift, lost, in a “duvet of sadness”. The book ends with the question in its title left unanswered.
• Who Am I Again? is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.