Rising to the Surface by Lenny Henry review – there’s nothing very funny about fame | Autobiography and memory

LEnny Henry has always received more than his fair share of criticism, from racists, whose opinion can be ignored, but also from liberal activist types decrying the regressive buffoonery of his early work and from comedy fans who just not find it funny. In his uneven second autobiography, after Who am I again? which covered his youth until 1980, Henry accepts most of this judgment.

“I failed at the top,” he wrote in a startling epilogue, quoting Beckett’s fragment on creative futility. He acknowledges that it took him more than 10 years to become half-decent and that he received more than his fair share of opportunities due to his television fame. “I didn’t really know how to sing or dance. I’d forget the middle jokes. I was falling or knocking over props (in front of Princess Anne!),” he wrote. As one of our most successful comedians, it makes you think how little he felt it. “I continued, because what was the alternative? »

It’s easy to forget he became a household name at just 16, after a breakthrough performance on New faces in 1975. His first gigs were in the now-defunct world of variety shows and seaside summer seasons; soon, he rubs shoulders with the rising stars of a new generation. As a working-class youngster from Dudley with Jamaican heritage, Henry was never fully embraced by either the working-class club circuit or the middle-class alternative scene. The opening sections of the book are the most engaging: its struggle to find its niche doubles as an account of the historic change in comedy itself in the ’80s, when acts such as Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton and French and Saunders moved the genre posts.

It spends much of what follows trying to figure out its original promise and what it has to offer. “The ‘potential’, like the artistic muse, must be courted with diligence, grace and perseverance,” he writes. He describes himself as lacking the public scrutiny of David Copperfield, the acting talents of Tracey Ullman, his co-stars in early sketches Three of a kind of, or the improvised genius of Felix Dexter, with whom he worked in the 90s. Yet, commercially, he is ahead of them all. After co-presenting Tiswas, Henry landed his own BBC show, toured internationally, co-founded Comic Relief with Richard Curtis and starred in his own Disney film (after Eddie Murphy’s departure). It’s a fascinating reversal of course: many artists find a voice, then spend years trying to get the world noticed.

This last experiment is a disaster: Henry is put on the “Disney diet”, the company nutritionist allowing him to take “air, rice cakes… and a glass of wine once a week”. He spends miserable months away from his family and from a woman who has put her own ambitions on hold to make a movie he knows isn’t funny. Much of this tale of life at the top is intentionally pessimistic. When they do come, the showbiz anecdotes are brief and lackluster, like seeing Spike Lee return to the Cannes Film Festival or being heckled by Van Morrison at a concert in New York.

There is, perhaps rightly, little about his relationship with ex-wife Dawn French. He mostly makes passing references to bad choices, when personal life loses out to show business, and there is no mention of his stint at the Priory following a tabloid scandal. But where he is open, he is nothing if not honest and self-critical; about her yo-yoing weight and lingering feelings of inadequacy.

As in his first book, there remains a sense that this journey is one of atonement. As a teenager, Henry was a performer on The black and white minstrel Spectacle, an “eternal shame” that has etched itself into his psyche. Its larger personas have been criticized by the black community for pandering to stereotypes. The burden of representation now seems unfair. For much of the 1980s, he was the only black person on television, “besides Trevor McDonald and Floella Benjamin, neither of whom was a stand-up comedian”.

Slowly, Henry moves away from the “screams and grunts”, is deterred from the musical career he covets, and drawn into a naturalistic style of acting. He has endless energy, a producer’s eye for talented collaborators, and uses his fame to create a more progressive future. No one should have to rise up against the odds. He hires various teams, organizes competitions to find new writers, creates a production company to tell stories that never exceed the old guardians. He may not be cited as an influence by young performers, but he paved the way for many.

Henry with his Three of a Kind co-stars, Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield, in 1983. Photography: Radio Times/Getty Images

Elsewhere, interviews with colleagues like Ullman and filmmaker Andy Harries are transcribed on a few pages. It looks half-baked. The joking tone comes off as a pointless attempt to soften the pain, of which there is a lot. The most moving passages concern the declining health of Henry’s mother, Winifred, whom he adores. When he was a child, she beat him hard and often, with belt buckles and pots in his face. When he brings this up with her, she says she did it to toughen him up for the setbacks of the adult world. When he confesses to her that he struggles to turn the plates of his fame, she orders him to be quiet.

To date, Henry has won television’s prestigious Montreux Golden Rose award, helped raise over £1 billion for good causes, diversified his industry and become a statesman. beloved of television. But what use will it be to a man? The lasting impression of the book is sad: the devoted son unable to forgive himself for being too busy to take his mother on one last trip to Jamaica.

“I let work take over. Silly sod,” he says, closing the chapter on his most prolific years with the realization that no accomplishment can ever be enough or a life path without regrets. From this perspective, success is no laughing matter.

Rhik Samadder is the author of I never said that I loved you (Big title)

To go back up to the surface by Lenny Henry is published by Faber (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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