Interview with Sir Lenny Henry

Birmingham City University’s new chancellor talks about his experiences as a mature student, how education is a right, and why the British public rock

February 9, 2017
Sir Lenny Henry
Source: Nick Robinson

Sir Lenny Henry is best known for co-founding the charity Comic Relief. Aside from his careers in comedy, music, writing and presenting, he has played leading roles in productions of Othello and The Comedy of Errors. He is currently studying for his PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Sir Lenny was knighted in 2015 for services to drama and charity, and in December 2016 he was installed as chancellor of Birmingham City University.

Where and when were you born?

Dudley, West Midlands in 1958.

How has this shaped you?

My mother showed by example that food doesn’t just magically appear on the dinner table. These things are earned and worked for; nothing comes for free. I was also raised to look out for others and to be at least reasonably kind. The West Midlands gave me that yearning for big cities that has never gone away. The first time I went to Birmingham, I was blown away. The first time I went to London, my brain exploded. Don’t ask what happened when I first went to New York…

What motivated you to take on the role of chancellor at Birmingham City, having not worked in the higher education sector before?

I grew up with the belief that education was not intended for the likes of me. It wasn’t until 1981 that I was brave enough to embark on my GCSEs. It was tough going, but I got through it. I was 46 before I got my first degree with the Open University and, while a comparative latecomer to higher education – whose career hardly relied on securing a BA or an MA after my name – that experience changed my life. It opened my mind to more possibilities, new thinking and different perspectives.

What were your immediate thoughts when you were offered the position of chancellor?

Birmingham is where I did my New Faces [talent show] audition; it was where I came to snog at Snobs [a nightclub]; it is where I had lamb chops for the first time at Rackhams [department store]…and it is where I had a lot of fun. So to be chancellor of Birmingham City University is a huge honour. But it also feels like I’m at home, so that is why it is cool to be here.

What will be your priorities in the role?

Taking on the role is a superb opportunity for me to pursue three passions – Birmingham and the West Midlands, the creative arts, and giving life-changing opportunities to young people from a wide range of backgrounds. This role is also a chance for me to give back, to contribute something to the generation of young people leaving school now, and to those people coming back in to education – mature students – who, like me, missed out on the chance when they were younger.

What event divided your life into “before” and “after”?

My mother passing away was a devastating event that pulled the cosmic rug from beneath my feet and made me question every single aspect of my existence.

How has going to university changed your work as a performer?

I certainly think that I question things more with regard to my work since furthering my education. I still go for energy and excitement, but I am more likely now to work on themes, characters, historical research and structuring as much as funny stuff. As an actor, I want to research as much as is necessary; that impulse probably stems from my university experience.

What keeps you awake at night?

Donald Trump suggesting that Nigel Farage might represent the UK as the British ambassador to the US had me in a cold sweat for a while there…

For a long time, you have criticised the British media for its lack of diversity. Are you concerned by growing resistance to tolerance and integration in the UK?

I think the diversity debate has opened up now; people seem a lot more willing to discuss what can be done about inclusion and diversity for all. This is a good thing. Of course, the people who are the main victims of exclusion and non-diversity will continue to say that “it’s not changing quickly enough”, but protest or activism always takes its own time. I think as long as we all stick together and push real hard at the pointy end, we can make a change.

You have been critically acclaimed for your Shakespearean performances. Which Shakespearean character do you most closely identify with?

Othello is a wonderfully complex character – a man who proclaims “Rude am I in my speech” and then proceeds to regale the court with a tale most roundly told of his childhood slavery and subsequent adventures in some of the best dialogue ever written. [He is] a fierce general who becomes childlike once he believes that his beloved has betrayed him. [Playing him] holds many charms for an actor; for me, the opportunity to play a great man brought down was too hard to resist.

Which achievement are you proudest of?

The Comic Relief Billion [when the charity surpassed £1 billion raised over 30 years] was a huge moment in all our lives, proving once and for all that the British public absolutely rock.


Claire Ozanne has been appointed the new principal of Heythrop College, University of London. She will take over from Father Michael Holman later this year. A professor of insect ecology, she has been deputy provost of the University of Roehampton since 2010. Heythrop is the oldest constituent college of the University of London, and Professor Ozanne will oversee its closure at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. “I am delighted to join such a respected institution. For over 400 years, Heythrop has been one of Britain’s leading international centres of excellence for philosophy and theology,” she said. “This will continue with the same commitment and drive for the next two years.”

Colin McInnes is taking up the role of vice-chair of the UK National Commission for Unesco. Professor McInnes is based at Aberystwyth University, where he is director of the Centre for Health and International Relations, and he holds a Unesco chair in Aberystwyth’s department of international politics. Since 2014, he has been a non-executive director of the UK National Commission, with particular responsi­bility for social and human sciences. Professor McInnes said: “Unesco does not simply set global standards across education, the sciences, culture and communication, promot­ing excellence and working to preserve what is best: its key mission is to promote peace
in the minds of people everywhere.”

Annette Cast – deputy principal of Newham College of Further Education – will join the University of East London in the post of dean of the Royal Docks School of Business and Law.

Court Clayton has begun his new role as director of development and alumni relations at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, moving on from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

Katie Price has been named head of library services at Queen Mary University of London. She moves on from her position of associate director (collections and research support) at King’s College London.


Print headline: HE & me

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