A comedian who has made nurturing new talent his mission has been bestowed with an honorary fellowship. Goldsmiths College, University of London, in New Cross, gave the award on Monday to Sir Lenny Henry, who started his career as the teenage sensation of a talent show.
He won the heats of ITV’s talent show, New Faces, at the age of just 16 in 1975. He then went on to star in London Weekend Television’s sitcom The Fosters, set in Peckham, with Norman Beaton as his dad. At its peak, it was watched by 21 million viewers.
His career as a comic was given a huge boost in 1978 by Saturday morning show Tiswas, where he impersonated Trevor McDonald.
The 59-year-old Midlands-raised actor has also headed the cast of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors at the National Theatre at the South Bank, and as Othello in a Trafalgar Studios production.
He told the students at the ceremony: “Your time here will have made you stronger. Whatever outcomes you have from your time here you will be more bolshy, more in people’s faces. You’ve done all this work and have got so much to say.”
He also called for more representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people in the media and creative industries, saying his own PhD research had informed his campaigning on the issue.
He said: “The more you study, the more you find out what you stand for.”
Sir Lenny said at a recent talk at the BFI, also on the South Bank: “I don’t reflect on my career because that would mean you were just about to be dead. You have to be careful of that.”
Of becoming a knight in 2015, he added: “Someone suggested I was about to be mugged by an old lady with a sword. My friends said bring something back, like a napkin.
“It’s great to be there. They need more of us there.”
Sir Lenny said he started telling jokes to protect himself. “When I was getting beaten up by racists I could not fight at all, so I would make jokes,” he said. “They waited until I got some thumps but people said ‘leave him alone, he’s all right’.
“People wanted to hang out with me. And my mum would invite them in. It was an extraordinary experience of racial integration.
Sir Lenny Henry said of the future: “There is a need for an alternative narrative. I want to tell the other stories. That’s what my production company is about.
“I thought I wasn’t supposed to be on TV. My mum by example made me realise nothing happens without effort. You work hard and you never give up. She did three jobs – made cakes and worked in a shop.”