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Eric Morecambe made me rethink my act, says Sir Lenny

Sir Lenny Henry has told how the late Eric Morecambe encouraged him to always be proud of who he is.

Sir Lenny Henry
Sir Lenny Henry

The Dudley-born star said that as a young up-and-coming comedian, he modelled himself on 70s comic Charlie Williams, who was famous for his self-deprecating humour.

But an encounter with Morecambe convinced him to rethink his approach, and be proud of his background.

Sir Lenny also reflected on how his attempts to integrate with his peers in the Black Country as a youngster led to him losing part of his Caribbean identity. He said when he was making a name for himself as a young performer in the 1970s, he tended to make himself the butt of the joke.

LENNY HENRY, A MARCH 1974 PIC WHEN HE WAS 16 NAND HAD LANDED A SPOT ON TV'S NEW FACES. HE IS PICTURED AT BLUECOAT SECONDARY SCHOOL IN DUDLEY

“As a young performer in the 1970s, I performed in front of mainly white audiences and my material consisted mainly of impressions and self-deprecatory jokes where my race was often the punchline,” he said in an article for the Guardian.

“I had watched Charlie Williams on The Comedians TV show, and learned from him.

“He was the most prominent black comedian in the country and told jokes like: ‘If you don’t laugh I’ll move in next door to you – that’ll bring your rent down.’

“My 16-year-old self said: ‘If it’s good enough for Charlie, then it’s good enough for me!’”

nostalgia pic. Shrewsbury. (probably) Ernie Wise, left, and Eric Morecambe, the famous comedians. The location is likely to be Shrewsbury because the date on the back of this Shropshire Star picture taken by Bob Craig is April 20 or 21 (bit difficult to read), 1971, and another, different, picture of Morecambe and Wise was used on page one of the Shropshire Star on April 20, saying they were seeing the sights of Shrewsbury. I can't find evidence of this particular picture here having been used though. Library code: Shrewsbury nostalgia 2011.

But he said his attitude change after meeting Morecambe during a Royal Command Performance on the Isle of Wight, adding: “The late, great Eric Morecambe approached me and said: ‘You’re really, really good, but you don’t have to do that material for anybody’.

“Eric didn’t have to say any more. I was young enough to blame my decisions on integration, but old enough to know that my natural and inclusive sense of humour had momentarily deserted me.”

He recalled a moment when he was about nine years old, when his mother told him to become like other children in Dudley.

“My mum got me and my siblings together and said: ‘You have to integrate. You must go among the people in Dudley and talk like them, talk to them, mingle with them, eat their food. Try not to box them down’.”

But he said his efforts to blend in came at a price, and he lost part of his identity.

Sir Lenny Henry

“It was like Superman’s parents saying just before he left Krypton, ‘Son, when you arrive on Earth don’t use any of your superpowers. Not the flying or the super-strength and don’t even think about using the X-ray vision.’

“It was the 1960s and I did what mum said. I integrated, I fitted in, didn’t create any waves, but there was a price to pay. I was becoming more and more British by osmosis which, I guess, would suggest that I was becoming less Jamaican.”

He said that when he visits Jamaica today, locals immediately recognise him as an Englishman before he even spoke.

“I don’t even have to open my mouth for a passing stranger to nod and say, ‘Y’alright Englishman?’”

But he said while his mother was keen for her children to integrate she did not always take her own advice, saying: “My mum was a proud Jamaican. Being Black in postwar Britain was a constant battle and Mum was never one to easily back down, especially when it came to protecting her family.

"My mother moved from a place she dearly loved, having to give up so much more than sea and sun to build a life for her family in cold, grey England. Like so many other Caribbean people before and after her, who faced constant hate and adversity, she wasn’t going to back down or walk away from her shot at happiness.”

Sir Lenny Henry

Sir Lenny, who has been working on a new television series Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain, said he was keen to explore what life was like for the post-Windrush generation in the mid-1950s.

“I wanted to understand why my mum wanted us to integrate rather than celebrate who we are,” he said.

"Integration is so much easier than constantly having to fight. The Windrush generation fought hard so their children wouldn’t have to. Nothing was going to sway mum from her plan. We were not going anywhere."

He recalled the satirist Lance Percival performing comedy calypso on a fake Caribbean accent on the popular television show That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s.

"As strange as it was, Percival’s populist parody of calypso’s original intent was proof that Caribbean culture had seeped into mainstream British society. This was only the start.

"Caribbean influence is everywhere – in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the slang we occasionally use in casual conversation. I think Mum would be over the moon with that state of affairs. I know I am."

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