When the comic and actor Lenny Henry attended the first writers’ meeting for his early-1980s sketch series Three of a Kind, he and his co-stars, David Copperfield and Tracey Ullman, were asked to speak about their vision for the show. Copperfield stood up and said he wanted it to be as funny as possible. Ullman said she didn’t want to play a sexy secretary, a nagging wife or any other female stereotypes that were a staple of the era. Henry, who had appeared on The Black and White Minstrel Show in the 70s, stated that he didn’t want his race to be the butt of the jokes: “I wanted the attitude to black performers to change. It was time that we were the maker of the joke, not simply the taker. Enough was enough.”
Rising to the Surface is the second instalment of Henry’s memoirs that began with 2019’s Who Am I, Again? Where that book covered his formative years, beginning with the arrival of his parents in Dudley, in the West Midlands, from Jamaica, and concluding in the late 70s as he began to establish himself in the entertainment business, this covers his rise to fame, starting with the children’s show Tiswas and going mainstream with the BBC’s Three of a Kind. In 1984, he was given his first solo series, The Lenny Henry Show, which ran on and off for 20 years. We learn how, in that time, he also co-founded Comic Relief with Richard Curtis; met and married Dawn French; toured as a standup; was the subject of a South Bank Show; wrote children’s books; and, most unexpectedly, recorded backing vocals for Kate Bush’s album The Red Shoes. There was also a failed attempt to conquer Hollywood with the comedy True Identity, in which Henry plays a crook who disguises himself as a white man to escape the mob. The script was terrible and he loathed the lack of autonomy. “In my mind I felt myself careening downhill towards a large wall in a car with no brakes,” he recalls. The film duly tanked.
All this is relayed with characteristic exuberance and self-deprecation, though there is irritation at being the only Black comedian on British television with his own show in the 80s and 90s: “I was just like Christopher Lambert in that film Highlander – ‘There can be only one.’” In his first memoir, Henry questioned his reluctance in his youth to stand up to racists, a hangover from what he calls his mother’s “h’integration project” where he was told to fit in at all costs. But here we see him using his position to help others, founding a production company and a writing programme with the aim of creating vehicles for Black comedians.
Between the anecdotes and showbiz stories, there is a seam of melancholy too. Henry’s ambitiousness has a frantic quality; he never stops wondering if he could be doing more, or better, and reflexively says yes to everything. As a result, he misses out on his mother’s last years, and spends long periods away from French and their daughter, Billie. In the epilogue, he imparts what he regards as his greatest wisdom: “The work never really goes away. It’ll be there when you get back. So go spend time with your family.”
• Rising to the Surface is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.