Last night we were privileged to have the esteemed ITV London newsreader Ronke Phillips interview Sir Lenny Henry CBE at the offices of leading law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.
Lenny kicked off the evening by going back to his childhood in Dudley and telling the audience how he made his first foray into performing by doing impressions of Elvis Presley in his local nightclub. One of seven children, Lenny spoke about growing up in a family of Jamaican immigrants, yet living in a predominantly white area.
Having launched his career in television via the talent Show “New Faces” Lenny said “in every job, there’s grunt work. A lot has to happen before they let you fly the jet. It’s not just about being famous, the key is presenting yourself in a professional way – be consistent.”
As his career progressed, Lenny responded to feedback from others and learnt from his mistakes, reminding the group that “you don’t have to do it all on your own – you can ask for help.”
As Lenny made the transition into serious acting, playing in Shakespeare’s Othello and in a Comedy of Errors, he said: “just because you’re funny, doesn’t mean you’re a fool.”
Lenny encouraged our interns by saying “the internet has made a democracy of broadcasting. You’ve got a lot more opportunity now. You only need to pick up a pen and pad and start writing. Get creative. The means of production have passed into the hands of the people.”
Lenny emphasised the value of education and was proud to have done his two English GCSEs over a twelve week period over the summer holidays; “I had years of feeling inferior to the other writers in the room. My only way of not feeling like that was to study. If you’ve read a book about something or have studied it, you have a better chance of fighting your corner.”
He is now doing a PhD which is exploring the representation of black people in the media. Lenny claimed that in thirty years of working with the BBC, he never once had meeting with a black or Asian commissioner, and only a handful of times with a woman. The only black people he ever met were on the door, doing security.
Speaking on creating more multicultural creative industries, Lenny said: “There’s more that makes us the same than makes us different.”
He continued by urging our intern to persevere, saying: “You’ve got a right to do whatever you want to do. If you’re qualified and you’ve worked hard, then go for it. Do what you want to do, but if you commit, then really commit. If you’ve got ideas and creativity, they should not be able to discriminate you because of what you look like. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
His final valuable words of advice to the group were: “You shouldn’t be scared of failure. Don’t call it failure, call it a learning experience. Nothing can stop you.”
Ronke rounded off the evening by challenging Lenny to answer some quick fire questions in just ten seconds each. He responded as follows:
• Favourite Song: Superstition by Stevie Wonder
• Favourite Book: Germinal by Emile Zola
• Favourite Box Set: Breaking Bad
• Favourite Film: Richard Pryor live
• Favourite Car: Classic 66 Jag Convertible
• Favourite Comedian: Richard Pryor
• Favourite Word: Education
• Favourite Football Team: West Bromwich Albion
• Favourite Place: London and New York City
• Favourite Adjectives for a perfect world: Democratic, Educated, Inclusive
You can catch the first ten minutes of this interview via our Facebook page.
We were delighted to be joined at the event by two groups of Year 10 pupils, from the Archer Academy in East Finchley and Deptford Green School in Lewisham. This kicks of our schools programme in partnership with the Stephen Lawrence Trust, which will see Creative Access alumni visiting their old schools and talking about working in the creative industries.
We are hugely grateful to Sir Lenny Henry and to Ronke Phillips for their time and inspirational words.
Thank you also to Herbert Smith Freehills for their generosity in hosting the evening.