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

<span>Photograph: Comic Relief/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Comic Relief/Getty Images

Lenny Henry has always received more than his fair share of criticism, from racists, whose opinion can be discounted, but also from liberal activist types decrying the regressive buffoonery of his early work and comedy fans who simply find him unfunny. In his uneven second autobiography, following Who Am I, Again? which covered his early life up to 1980, Henry accepts most of this judgment.

“I failed upwards,” he writes in a startling epilogue, citing the Beckett fragment on creative futility. He acknowledges that it took more than 10 years for him to become halfway decent, and that he received more than his fair share of opportunities because of early television fame. “I couldn’t really sing or dance. I’d forget the middle bits of jokes. I’d fall over or knock props over (in front of Princess Anne!),” he writes. As one of our most successful comedians, it’s sobering how little he has felt it. “I kept going, 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 early gigs were in the now vanished world of variety shows and seaside summer seasons; soon, he was working alongside the rising stars of a new generation. As a working-class youth from Dudley with Jamaican heritage, Henry was never fully adopted by either the working men’s club circuit or the middle-class alternative scene. The book’s early sections are its most engaging: his struggle to find his niche doubling as an account of the landmark shift in comedy itself in the 80s, as acts such as Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton and French and Saunders moved the genre’s goalposts.

He spends much of what follows trying to understand his early promise and what he has to offer. “‘Potential’, like the artistic muse, must be wooed diligently, gracefully and persistently,” he writes. He describes himself as lacking the audience control of David Copperfield, the acting skills of Tracey Ullman, his co-stars in early sketch show Three of a Kind, or the improvisational brilliance of Felix Dexter, with whom he worked in the 90s. Yet, commercially, he outstrips them all. After co-presenting Tiswas, Henry lands his own show on the BBC, tours internationally, co-founds Comic Relief with Richard Curtis, and stars in his own Disney movie (after Eddie Murphy walks away). It’s a fascinating reversal of trajectory: many artists find a voice, then spend years trying to make the world take notice.

He may not be cited as an influence by young performers, but he paved the way for many

The latter experience is a disaster: Henry is put on the “Disney diet”, the company’s nutritionist allowing him to have “air, rice cakes… and a glass of wine once a week”. He spends miserable months away from his family, and a wife who has put her own ambitions on hold, to make a film he knows isn’t funny. Most of this account of life at the top is wilfully downbeat. When they come, the showbiz anecdotes are brief and un-glitzy, such as seeing Spike Lee’s back at the Cannes film festival, or being heckled by Van Morrison at a New York gig.

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

As in his first book, there remains a sense that this journey is one of atonement. As an adolescent, Henry was a performer on The Black and White Minstrel Show, an “everlasting shame” that has seared itself into his psyche. His broadest characters were criticised by the black community for pandering to stereotypes. The burden of representation now seems unjust. For much of the 80s, he was the only black person on television, “apart from Trevor McDonald and Floella Benjamin, neither of whom was a standup comedian”.

Slowly, Henry edges away from “yelling and gurning”, is dissuaded from the music career he hankers after and coached into a naturalistic acting style. 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 against the odds. He hires diverse crews, runs competitions to find new writers, sets up a production company to tell stories that never get past the old gatekeepers. 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
Henry with his Three of a Kind co-stars, Tracey Ullman and David Copperfield, in 1983. Photograph: Radio Times/Getty Images

Elsewhere, interviews with colleagues such as Ullman and film-maker Andy Harries are transcribed for a few pages. This feels half-baked. The jokey tone comes off as an unnecessary attempt to soften the pain, of which there is much. The most moving passages concern the declining health of Henry’s mother, Winifred, whom he adores. When he was a child, she would beat him hard and often, with belt buckles and cooking pots to the face. When he raises this with her, she says she did it to harden him to the setbacks of the adult world. When he confesses that he is struggling to spin the plates of his fame, she orders him to shut his mouth.

To date, Henry has won the prestigious TV award the Golden Rose of Montreux, helped raise more than a billion pounds for good causes, diversified his industry and grown into a beloved elder statesman of television. Yet what shall it profit a man? The book’s lasting impression is a sad one: the dutiful son unable to forgive himself for being too busy to take his mother on a final trip to Jamaica.

“I let the work take over. Silly sod,” he says, closing the chapter on his most prolific years with the realisation that no achievement can ever be enough or life path free of regret. By this account, success is no laughing matter.

• Rhik Samadder is the author of I Never Said I Loved You (Headline)

Rising 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