But he was good. And the career rolled on, driven by his vigorous good humour and sharp intelligence. TV comedy, standup, Tiswas and Comic Relief [below]: by the 90s he had achieved a status as the cheery, unresentful black British Midlands comedian who kept off politics, but whose very presence showed up the absurdity of anyone fearing or disliking black men. “I did what my mother always said – ‘Integrate! Fit in!’” Yet, he says levelly, “for 35 years I never once had a work meeting with anybody who looked like me. I was often the only black guy within five miles. And as a creative that means you continually have to translate and interpret ideas and experiences.


"And if you’re working class as well, it’s a double whammy.” That came later in the conversation, when we moved on to his present crusade about racial diversity in broadcasting. More psychologically important to Henry has been his breakthrough into straight drama on stage. “For years I kept turning down theatre – you’re not paid much, you’re stuck somewhere for weeks on end… I was bound up in that semi-rock ‘n’ roll world, touring and TV.

"I was a bit arrogant. People had told me years ago, when I was in [1970s ITV sitcom] The Fosters, that I ought to act. ‘Train, learn to use your voice, move, move, sing.’ I’d just say [cue a heavy Dudley accent], ‘Ya joking!’” But then came a Radio 4 programme What’s So Great About…? and he – who didn’t get Shakespeare – was hauled in to ask what’s so great about Shakespeare. And he was persuaded.

He had to do a speech from Othello. “Oh, a massive journey. Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides showed me, did ‘O for a Muse of fire’ from Henry V down the phone. It was extraordinary.” Henry was hooked enough to agree to play the Moor for Rutter. “The rehearsal process was completely new. In comedy, they trust the comic intuition to the performer, it’s like catching the moment, lightning in a bottle.

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"But we would rehearse for hours, asking the questions about every word, every feeling. I’d never done that before. And suddenly I was in it! Not like school. Shakespeare ought to be taught properly, to be dextrous, sexy, funny, exciting. You need to build on-ramps: take the boys for football then come in, still in sweaty strip, and do the Senate scene from Julius Caesar… It needs to be empowering!”

His advance in this new field has been extraordinary. There was the Othello for Rutter, then Comedy of Errors at the National, and then August Wilson’s great American classic Fences. I cheekily addressed him in The Times review with: “Lenny, three strikes and you’re in! … Henry joins the ranks of great stage actors. Troy Maxson is immense, volatile, eloquent and rarely offstage… a flawed and furious patriarch, noble yet sly, loving, damaged. He is magnificent.” And so he was, and everyone agreed. “As comedians, we tend to be living with our filing cabinet of jokes, always ten pages ahead, as long as the laughs are there it’s OK, but we aren’t in the moment. Onstage it’s about listening, reacting to lines that land on you. I’ve been very very humbled in rehearsal rooms, working with these people"

He had a notable glitch in his otherwise warmly reviewed role in Educating Rita, when he “dried” on the press night at Chichester in June, calmly apologised, and re-started the scene. “Alexei Sayle said, ‘You coulda done 20 minutes ad lib!’ but of course you mustn’t step out of character. Still, because I’m a comic, I didn’t feel bad about it! Barrie Rutter never made me feel bad when I made mistakes. He’d say tomorrow’s another night! “The stage is where you learn. I don’t see a career without it. The rehearsal room, all of it, has been mind-blowingly wonderful. I had to say yes. I thought, if I do another stand-up show, how creatively interesting is that going to be?”

But TV still matters to him: he named his production company after Douglas Road, where he grew up, and is writing more. He’s also crusading, as in last year’s barnstorming Bafta speech, for more diversity in casting “BAME” (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on screen and in writing, producing and directing. He’s on BBC director-general Tony Hall’s working party on diversity, and wants to promote “ring-fenced” resources in the same way money is ring-fenced for regions. “It’s a good thing. It says to the post-Windrush group that if they choose this employment, there’s a chance. There’s elbow room – something middle-class, Russell Group, white university kids take for granted. BAME kids get discouraged – too many glass ceilings to break through. You need to be able to pitch, and have ideas turned down. Commissioning editors do tend to say, ‘Mmm, have we already heard your story?’ as if there was only one story from each ethnic group.”

It’s not, he says, just a matter of, “another black or Asian person in Coronation Street or EastEnders. It’s about hearing different perspectives on life. Which is great. But as my MA tutor said [Henry’s now working on a PhD on diversity in media], ‘You don’t eat an elephant all at once.’ Yes, there’s a wall. But what happens is either so many people run at the wall at once that they tip it over, or someone pokes a hole in it, climbs through and drags others behind them. We’re testing the stresses in that wall.” He’s through the wall all right, and reaching back to give others a hand.


Danny and the Human Zoo is on Monday at 9.00pm on BBC1

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