The Midlands-born comedian-turned-actor revealed the death of his mother was the turning point that encouraged him to go back to school. But it was Hull-born actor and director Barry Rutter who inspired him.
After being honoured with a special award at the 2016 Baftas, Sir Lenny shared the stories that led to his success in a documentary Sir Lenny Henry: A Life On Screen.
Describing his mother’s death in 1998, the 58-year-old said: “It was like somebody had pulled the rug away from your entire world and so I was just a bit off piste thinking ‘what am I gonna do?’ And I decided to go back to school.”
Sir Lenny achieved a BA Hons degree in English Literature through an Open University course, although he did not enjoy studying Shakespeare and had to force himself to listen to the plays on his daily commute between London and Reading.
But it was not until he described Shakespeare as a “middle class, Oxbridge thing” on the radio that his mind was changed by actor Mr Rutter. Mr Rutter told him: “I’m the son of a working class fisherman, your dad worked in a factory, we’re both working class lads – Shakespeare is for us as well as them.”
The documentary celebrates Sir Lenny’s long and successful television career and also sees the comedy star open up about his family history, which he touched on in his semi-autobiographical 2015 TV film Danny And The Human Zoo.
Sir Lenny said he “always felt a bit different” as a child because he was raised by a man who was not his birth father, due to his mother having an affair after moving from Jamaica to the UK. He said: “My parents had come over previously to find work and to start a new life and my mum came over first because my Uncle Clifton said ‘you can earn money here, up to 30 shillings a week’.
“There was a sense of disconnect because my dad was still in Jamaica. She fell in love with somebody when she was here and I’m the result of that.
“So when my Dad came up from Jamaica, negotiations had to be negotiated, otherwise things weren’t going to work. What was amazing was, my father raised me as his child but I always felt weird, I always felt a bit different.”
Sir Lenny added that his account of his childhood in the film was true where his mother was concerned. He said: “The stuff about my mum was true, which was tricky ‘cause my family had to make a decision about whether this was all right to do and I think there’s still things to be worked out about that. You know, not everyone likes having their business chatted about in public.
“I’d known about my upbringing for a very long time and I just thought it was time, you know. I’m over 50 – if I can’t say my birth father is different to the person that raised me then, you know, what good is being an adult?”
Sir Lenny Henry: A Life On Screen airs tonight on BBC Two at 9pm.