Lenny Henry's long road to a PhD

Lenny Henry Lenny Henry left school at 16 without O-levels - and is now beginning a PhD

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There can't be many academic careers that have been inspired by a Cannon and Ball seaside show.

But comedian Lenny Henry's long march towards starting a PhD - he already has a masters degree - began 29 years ago as a response to spending a long Blackpool summer season with the double act.

Contemplating that there must be more to life, Lenny Henry, at the age of 22, began the process of re-starting his education, which had been put on hold by his comedy career.

"It always felt like unfinished business," he says.

Lenny Henry is going to be the host of this year's UK Teaching Awards - and he talks passionately about the opportunities and missed chances of education.

He'd failed his 11-plus exam and gone to a local secondary school in Dudley, which he left at the age of 16.

So while he was performing two shows a night in Blackpool, the rising comedy star began studying for his O-levels, through a college in nearby Preston.

'I never was an idiot'

On stage each day he was doing comedy impressions for holidaymakers - and then in his spare time he was reading Yeats, Tennyson and Shakespeare, as he fast-tracked his way through English literature and language.

"It was brilliant - I was doing this weird literature thing, feeding my brain."

Start Quote

When I came to London, everyone I met had been to university, everyone had a degree, I was really jealous, I wanted to punch people out.”

End Quote Lenny Henry

When it came to taking his exams, he says it baffled the other candidates: "What's the bloke from Tiswas doing sitting in the back of the exam room?"

As his career in comedy developed, he found himself surrounded by comedians who had been to university and became even more aware of what he'd missed. Education was a conversation from which he felt excluded.

And it raised hackles over the assumptions that were made about him.

"I've got a thirst for knowledge that is slightly counter to the person that people see on television... dressed as Beyonce.

"I'm not an idiot, I never was an idiot," he says.

"I was very chippy about education - I always wanted to be more knowledgeable. When I came to London, everyone I met had been to university, everyone had a degree. I was really jealous, I wanted to punch people out.

"They talked about having a Geoff Hurst [a first class degree] or a Desmond [a 2:2 degree]. I used to say 'What's that?'"

Tiswas to Shakespeare

Lenny Henry talks of his mother as an inspiration for his interest in learning - and says how disappointed she was that he hadn't stayed in education longer. Her death in 1998 prompted him to "re-engage with education in a serious way".

Lenny Henry Lenny Henry as a 12-year-old schoolboy in Dudley

Playing a head teacher at the time, in the Hope and Glory television series, Lenny Henry signed up for an Open University degree in English literature.

He talks with huge enthusiasm about the pleasure of studying, the support of tutors and the sense of beginning to satisfy his intellectual curiosity.

Rather than more typical celebrity hang-outs, he spends time in the British Library.

And he directly links this experience to giving him the confidence to take on the role of Othello. "I would never have done Othello last year. That's a fact," he says.

Appropriately for the slow-burn of his academic career, his performance won him a best newcomer award, at the age of 51.

After being awarded his BA, he still wanted more - saying he "missed education" - and took a masters degree in screenwriting at Royal Holloway, University of London, achieving a distinction.

Tough times

The final leg of this journey up the academic Everest is his PhD, a four-year project which he is about to begin at Royal Holloway, studying the representation of black people in the media.

Lenny Henry as Othello The degree course gave him the confidence to play Othello

"The idea of me getting a PhD is the most unlikely thing ever to be mooted by anyone in the world. It's like the Krankies turning out to be rocket scientists."

As host for the teaching awards - the annual teachers' Oscars - he's been looking back at his own school days in the 1970s.

He describes his West Midlands secondary school, which has since shut, as a conveyor belt for factory workers.

"We were never encouraged to do O-levels, university was never mentioned."

There was racism - he says for one term he had a fight every single day because of racist name-calling.

Teachers were also allowed to use corporal punishment, such as hitting pupils with a plimsoll or a stick.

"There were lots of people who went to my school who should have gone to university - that's what I think. A lot of people were ignored. A lot of people in my family were very smart, but didn't go to university."

But he talks warmly about the inspiring teachers - in particular a science teacher, Mr Brookes, who first encouraged him in his comedy by letting him use a reel-to-reel recorder to rehearse funny voices.

Such teachers can have an influence that can reach long beyond the classroom, he says, unlocking ambitions.

"We all bloom towards the sunlight."

The Teaching Awards 2010 UK ceremony will be held on Sunday 31 October at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London and is broadcast on BBC2 at 6pm.

Lenny Henry BBC online comedy sketches

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