Sir Lenny Henry has said his jokes about the lack of black people on television became serious over time and the question of why there were so few people who looked like him in his industry became increasingly important to him.
The actor, comedian and activist is the subject of an ITV special, titled Lenny Henry: One Of A Kind, in which he is celebrated by famous friends including Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis.
Reflecting on his early comedy routine in the programme, he says: “I had this whole nine-minute routine about black people on TV and why aren’t there more of us.
“That developed into a thought process. It stopped being about jokes and became a thing that I did think.
“Why is it when I go filming, there’s no people of colour behind the camera?
“Why is it when I go into a meeting there’s never anybody that looks like me? The ‘why’ became really important.”
He added: “Quite often, people from a working-class background or people of colour go ‘Oh well, that’s not for me because I don’t see myself doing that’.
“I swear if I’d met a black director of photography when I was at school, I’d be a director of photography now. Because these things inspire you to do those things.”
Sir Lenny has stepped behind the camera for his new Windrush series Three Little Birds, for which he wrote the scripts.
He said: “I love the idea of creating new work and making things happen in an inclusive and equal way. So Three Little Birds is kind of that.”
He added: “Three Little Birds is a drama series set in the 1950s and it’s about three black women from Jamaica coming to Britain 10 years after Windrush.
“This isn’t my mum’s story, by the way, it’s fictional. But it is inspired by mum and sort of everybody’s story.
“My mum was always very funny about the Windrush. She came over in 1957 and said ‘Well, there was no camera crew for me. Nobody sung a calypso for me’.
“My mum was 30-something when she came here and had a lot of experiences of people saying horrible things to her and having to survive.
“And although this isn’t her story, the people I’ve talked to, their stories are pretty similar. You come here, you feel the cold. I don’t think my dad took his pyjamas off for the whole time he was in England.”
He continued: “To do your first series that you made up is an incredible privilege. It’s very emotional because it wasn’t there before.
“This is something you’ve put into the world. If you’ve made something happen, it’s a big thing.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do Three Little Birds is my huge pride in my family.
“They literally did see signs in the window saying ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’.
“My brothers were attacked on the streets by Teddy Boys when they were going home from work.
“The fact that we survived all that – the racism, the bullying, the name-calling – and ‘hintegrated’, as my mum used to say, is a miracle.
“I wanted to salute them because they taught me how to be better and how to overcome that.”
Lenny Henry: One Of A Kind is on ITV on October 26 at 9pm.
Published: by Radio NewsHub