This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.


At six foot three, Sir Lenny Henry is not, it’s safe to say, the obvious choice to play a hobbit. But thanks to digital wizardry, here he is in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel (arriving on Prime Video today), pointed prosthetic ears protruding through a woolly white wig, as Sadoc, leader of the nomadic, pre-hobbit Harfoot community.

Almost 50 years since he won New Faces as a teenager, Henry has been many things: sharp-suited stand-up, writer, actor, funk and soul fanatic, sitcom and sketch-show star – and a constant face of the charity he co-founded in 1985, Comic Relief.

But Sadoc exemplifies his current groove: playing the elder in must-watch ensemble dramas. Henry has been an allotment gardener in BBC Two’s recent drama My Name Is Leon, and he’s an extravagantly attired chief druid in another fantasy prequel, Netflix’s The Witcher: Blood Origin (expected later this year).

He’s rarely the lead these days, but that’s OK by him. “I’m a man of a certain age now; it’s just nice to still be asked to do things,” Henry reflects. “I feel gratitude every day that people still think I’m worth the time.”

More like this

The fantasy and comic-book fan has read Tolkien’s saga three times: as a teenager, in his 30s and to his adopted daughter Billie. He loves the novels’ world-building but is grateful that screen adaptations bypass the writer’s patience-testing longueurs. “We don’t have to name every single flower in the forest,” he quips.

Having already dropped into the worlds of Doctor Who, Harry Potter and The Sandman, is there any franchise left to tick off from his fantasy wish-list? “I’m a bit miffed I’ve not been asked to do Black Panther,” he deadpans. “I’m Black, I’m a panther. Where’s my phone call?”

Elsewhere, he says, it’s all “dads and grandads” for this 63-year-old; he’s even written himself a father role in his forthcoming drama for ITV, Three Little Birds.

In middle age, Henry’s been drawn to drama, from ITV’s Broadchurch to the BBC’s The Syndicate and The Long Song. Bar the odd animation voiceover or cameo, his last major comic role was Radio 4 sitcom Rudy’s Rare Records, which ended in 2012; on TV, the BBC One sketch show Lenny Henry in Pieces in 2003.

Is comedy a young man’s game, or did Henry have something to prove, to himself or others? He says the turning point was playing Othello in the 2009 West Yorkshire Playhouse production that transferred to the West End. “It was a different reaction than I was used to – people would go, ‘Oh, I get this, he’s doing Shakespeare.’ Before, there was a sense that I was just the first one to the dressing-up cupboard. I love comedy but it feels that the world takes drama more seriously.”

Sara Zwangobani as Marigold Brandyfoot (right) in The Rings of Power.
Sir Lenny Henry as Sadoc in The Rings of Power. Amazon Studios / Prime Video

Henry’s new, second volume of memoirs, Rising to the Surface, traces his 1980s and '90s imperial phase. Behind the comedy hits, he’s restless to add further strings to his bow, worried he’s not stretching himself enough and weighed down by being one of only a few Black faces on mainstream TV. It’s a reminder that in the public’s affections, he’s still Lenny, the multi-catchphrase, high-energy character comedian.

“I’ve given 35, 40 years to acting the fool and if a brilliant comic role came my way today, of course I’d do it,” he says. “It would be stupid for me to say [adopts a posh actor voice] ‘I only do drama now, darling.’”

Even today, people in the street tell him the best thing he ever did was TISWAS. “I was 19 when I did that! But for people to still say that proves that comedy shouldn’t be sidelined. Outside of perhaps Ronnie Barker or Phoebe Waller-Bridge, comic performers don’t get the respect they deserve – because it’s really hard.”

Wary of sounding “like an old codger”, he’s seen a change in how comedians get moulded into established entertainment formats. “Look at Mo Gilligan – his talk show is great, but back in the day, he’d have been given his own show where he’d get to do all his characters and talk to the audience,” he says. “Producers tend to slightly body-swerve what you do and try to repurpose it to service their idea.”

What chance, then, of Lenny Henry, titan of '80s sketch shows with Three of a Kind and his eponymous series, getting his TV break today? Well, maybe he’d be a TikTok star instead.

He loves the attitude of up-and-coming youngsters today, instantly uploading to social media their DIY lo-fi videos and skits that would get diluted by a multitude of editing, location and casting decisions if made for TV, and believes that, with the right technology, he’d have been doing the same.

“I began by making my friends laugh, so if I was 14 and had a phone and my mates around me, we’d be thinking of funny, stupid stuff and uploading it. It might take a bit longer to get known, but I’d be there on my phone and computer.”

There is a smidgen of comedy in his Rings of Power role. Initially at least, Tolkien’s hobbit-type characters offer light relief from the saga's portentous plotting. But Henry was attracted by the Harfoots’ strength of character and will to survive – particularly Sadoc, whose past experiences inform his prophecies of the challenges ahead.

Having “the little guys” play their part in conquering evil is, he says, the heart of Tolkien’s stories – “the sense that people who shouldn’t be able to fight back actually do fight back with bravery. They’re not going to be crushed by the system, they’re going to figure in the big picture.”

Lenny Henry in The Long Song
Sir Lenny Henry in The Long Song

That humanity is there in Henry’s more personal work, from BBC Four’s Soon Gone: a Windrush Chronicle to My Name Is Leon and the recent BBC Two documentary Lenny Henry’s Caribbean Britain.

On ITV’s Three Little Birds, he credits his script editor and executive producer Russell T Davies for pushing him to dig deep into its stories of Caribbean families in 1950s Britain. “I wanted to write a version of my mum’s story, but a fictionalised, parallel journey,” Henry explains. “Russell said: ‘Write that.’ I realised that ‘write what you know’ doesn’t mean ‘write what happened’. You can write about anything, applying your own lived experience. It doesn’t have to be your truth – it can be a truth. I’ve tried to invest as much of my truth and experience as I can, without telling any of my family’s stories. I don’t want to get in their faces and upset them.”

The It’s A Sin and Years and Years creator is the latest in a long line of Henry’s collaborators. In his book, Henry details how the likes of writing partner Kim Fuller, producer Paul Jackson and Comic Relief co-founder and film director Richard Curtis helped Henry produce his best work. It’s touching, too, to see Lenny credit his ex-wife, Dawn French, with helping him to trust his instincts.

“The best stuff happens when you’re in a room with someone or a small team and the energy fizzes,” he says. “I love that sense of communion, that collegiate vibration of everybody striving for the same thing and topping each other’s jokes.”

And he says that even with its immense scale and record budget – around £200 million for the rights and £382 million for season 1 alone – The Rings of Power is one such collaborative project. Amazon hopes to build on the legacy of Peter Jackson’s films with this prequel series, drawing on Tolkien’s “legendarium” of poems, story outlines, maps, languages and characters. Unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime, the story of the forging of the 19 titular rings resurfaced in works approved by his son Christopher, and the epic series aims to fill in the gaps to bring 9,000 years of Middle-earth history to life.

Henry filled long periods of waiting around on set with music. “I was on The Masked Singer in one of the filming breaks, so I’d perfected songs by Robert Palmer, Tina Turner and Cameo – ever seen a hobbit singing Word Up?” he cackles.

For now, he’s enjoying diving into the music of the late 1950s for Three Little Birds, promising a riot of calypso, doo-wop, early ska and R&B. Like the tales it soundtracks, the music promises to further Henry’s mission for British TV to become more inclusive and tell more authentic, diverse stories. To this end, he welcomes The Rings of Power’s diverse casting, and laughs at the absurd doublethink of certain fans who can be affronted by this while accepting talking dragons.

“It should look a bit like the world we live in today. All these performances are earned and it’s great that women have a more pivotal role than in previous stories. Galadriel is a badass – even more of one as it goes on.”

Amazon has bet the farm on The Rings of Power, which is set to run for five seasons. Henry’s a busy man – will he be back after season 1? His lips are sealed. “I don’t want to spoil it, but five years is what it’s going to take to tell the complete story, and I’m proud to have been asked to take part. It was hard work – particularly the hobbit feet – but I really did enjoy it.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episodes 1 and 2 are available to stream on Prime Video from today Friday 2nd September you can sign up now for a free 30-day Prime Video trial. Check out more of our Fantasy coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.


The latest issue of Radio Times magazine is on sale now – subscribe now and get the next 12 issues for only £1. For more from the biggest stars in TV, listen to the Radio Times podcast with Jane Garvey.