“YOU CAN’T BE WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE”- BCU CHANCELLOR – Sir Lenny Henry delivers words of wisdom to School of Media students

Abigail Nruah and Anisah Vasta – 1st Year BA (Hons) Journalism

On Wednesday evening, Birmingham City University hosted an evening with Sir Lenny Henry, celebrating his position as the institution’s Chancellor. The event ‘Sir Lenny Henry in Conversation’ was held at the Birmingham Royal Conservatoire, and formed part of the University’s public lecture series called ‘CityTalks’.

The event consisted of a candid interview lead by the author and broadcaster June Sarpong, who asked about his personal journey as a comedian and the future he envisage for the media industry.

Prior to the event, Birmingham City University School of Media students were given the exclusive chance to ask questions and gain advice in a Q&A session held at the Curzon Building of the University.

Farai Mliswa, James Penders, Dejeana Williams, Leeford Dean, Tyler Banks and Callum Sale were some of the BA (Hons) Media and Communication and BA (Hons) Journalism students who all had the opportunity to ask about tips and advice on how to succeed in the world of media. Fellow School of Media students, Amy King, Ewis Law and Emma Bangura – all ably supported by Senior TV technician, Andy Tea and Visiting Tutor, Austen Duffy – captured it all on camera.

Sir Lenny Henry interviewed by Abigail Nruah

Sir Lenny candidly discussed his career as an actor, writer, comedian and activist and talked about the need for diversity and inclusion within the media industry. Meanwhile June Sarpong MBE, talked about her career as a TV presenter and recalled her best moments in her career, one being the Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Party.

We were given is an exclusive opportunity to have a one to one interview with the man himself.

Why did you see comedy as the best career route for yourself?

In my entire school career, I was always one of the few black people in the school, therefore, my mother told me that the way to advance in the British society, is to integrate. So, I was told to integrate with white people, and my way of doing that was to be funny. Often when I was receiving racial abuse from peers I realize that I couldn’t fight any longer, so I thought that maybe jokes were better; so if someone made a racist joke about me I will say something funny back and the people around will laugh and suddenly I had all these people by my side. Humour for me brought down barriers and I thought that if that was what humour could do then it was very powerful and that’s why I choose comedy.

Where you intimidated to go on national TV during an era where there were not much black or minority ethnic people in media?

When I was a kid, I saw black people on TV, but they were never from Britain. There were few in the drama, but even in the drama, black people we were always the subject matter, but never the people that went to solve the problem: we were the problem. As they say “ you can’t be what you can’t see”. I always thought that this was not a career that I can do because I didn’t see anyone like me from Britain doing this, and unless I was an American, I was not going to get near to where I wanted to be. But then my friends encouraged me to get upon stage at a local discotheque, and I would have never done it. If they didn’t say that I could do it and I was funny. I then was spotted by a DJ who said “You should be on

television”, and that’s how I broke through, and suddenly I was on TV doing a comedy act in front of 15,000 people who have never seen a black impressionist before, from Britain. I was 16.

Did reaching fame at a very young age, changed you?

I think it will change you, one of the things it did is that it took me out from my comfort zone I already worked in Dudley, Wolverhampton sometimes Birmingham, but suddenly I was in Leicester, Cornwall, Derby, everyone wanted to see the black kid that was doing impressions on TV. What it did was to make me step up my game because upon that time I was only doing 5 to 10 minutes, but customers were paying me to do half and hour 45 minutes, and I had to learn very quickly and generate more material to make people laugh. I had to learn and to collaborate.

Why do you think that in the 21st century, we are still fighting for with inclusion?

I am a diversity activist and all I know is that there is inequality and there is a lack, and somebody should speak about it. Everybody should speak about it. I started in 1975, and for the first 35 years of my career I never had a meeting with anybody that looked like me. For 35 years, I was always the only black person in the room, and I always had to translate or explain my culture to a predominant white group of people…and that can affect you. A white steering group mandated all of my humour, I had white scriptwriters, white producers, white associate who helped me make comedy that was acceptable to a mainstream audience.

Today we see some changes but it’s not enough, the numbers of diversity and inclusion in media organization in the country are still very poor, the numbers from when I started to know haven’t

changed much.

Sir Lenny Henry inspired students and wanna be media creatives everywhere to ‘Be the change’. BCU’s School of Media is taking us on the journey to living and breathing that mantra!

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