Lenny Henry: Arts vital for a child's sense of inclusion

23 September 2018, 14:10 | Updated: 24 September 2018, 07:19

Sir Lenny George Henry, CBE, is a British stand-up comedian, actor, singer, writer, and TV presenter.

For National Inclusion Week, which runs from 24-28 September, Sir Lenny writes about the importance of the creative arts to a child's upbringing and sense of inclusion, fondly remembering his first childhood trip to the theatre.

I go to the theatre a lot now. I even get asked to support things like Children in the Arts, which is an initiative headed up by Prince Charles.

I went the other day and it was a big media morning of talented individuals including Benedict Cumberbatch, Meera Syal, Myleene Klass and her kids, Lord Lloyd Webber, and the director general of the BBC - all talking about how important drama studies are in the school curriculum, while the government is doing its damnedest to cut the majority of funding and making school arts activity a self-selecting/self-paying extra curricular set of activities. It is to weep.

And good people are saying good and sensible things about children and the arts - it just feels like no one really cares. And the problem is that the creative arts are a huge boost to the GDP of Great Britain.

In January, the Guardian said the creative industries were "worth £92bn to the UK economy".

"The sector returns more golden eggs to the Treasury than the automotive, oil, gas, aerospace and life science industries combined, and for every £1 invested in subsidy the government gets £5 returned in taxes."

So why is the government cutting back on the creative arts in schools? Why this insistence on STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and maths), this rejection of the arts?

The truth is, this was always going to happen. When I was at Blue Coat secondary modern there was little or no attempt to cultivate dramatic aspirations during the school day.

Sure, we were tasked with reading aloud or taking part in an assembly; we even did a school concert the year I had successfully auditioned for New Faces. But the only drama I remember taking part in was when Mr Kipper (the English teacher) would have us in the hall for a double period and make us run around pretending to be characters we had seen on television or at the pictures.

When we were kids, there were not many chances to pop into a performance of Hedda Gabler or the Doll's House. The fact is, theatre didn't play a massive part in my parents' lives. They spent every hour God gave putting food on the table and clothes on our backs. They were not also going to pop us in for a matinee of She Stoops To Conquer at the Wolverhampton Civic. They weren't made of money. So, no theatre.

But one year, mum's factory subsidised a massive trip to the Birmingham Alexandra Theatre - suddenly, a whole bunch of kids and a parent and some teachers would be allowed to watch a pantomime.

In our case it was Charlie Drake starring in Robinson Crusoe. It sounds odd now but this act of inclusion was powerful. Drake was one of the biggest stars on television at the time.

He had hit records and was also the lead actor in a television show called The Worker, where he would torment the poor desk clerk at the labour exchange with the fateful words "Where's Mr Whittaker?" while dragging said clerk over the counter by his lapels.

He shared top billing with a three piece called New World. They had recently had a hit with Tom Tom Turnaround and had won a talent show called Opportunity Knocks on several occasions. One of them had an Afro - bliss.

Every second of the coach trip from Dudley to Birmingham was evocative and memorable. Mum made hard dough bread sandwiches with corned beef and fried onion. There was sweet bun and cheese and a boxed drink for afters. In my case, that was all devoured by the time we got to the roundabout by Dudley Zoo.

The rest of the journey was spent with my head almost glued to the window as we watched the accompanying traffic aquaplaning through massive puddles on our way to Brum. This first trip to the theatre was important for me; I would see so many things that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

The arrival and disgorging of passengers outside the theatre. The black clad staff who collected us from outside and led us towards the warmth of the foyer. The programmes and badges, and ice creams and pick-and-mix on sale in the foyer. Mum steering me away from the theatre's sweets and reminding me that she had Grays Herbal Tablets in her handbag. The yelling, screaming, crying and shouting as we were all expertly led upstairs into the cheaper portion of the theatre. The lights go down and BOOM, CRASH, BANG, WALLOP we're in the midst of a massive storm. There's a boat, a beleaguered ship's crew beset by the storm and then WHAMMO! the terrifying rumble of thunder as the ship is wrecked and the crew are hurled into the sea.

I was hooked. Whatever happened next couldn't possibly top this opening - but strangely, Charlie, the New World, a ventriloquist, a man dressed as a woman (the dame?) and various others - made the whole thing strangely inescapable, irresistible, inclusive and fun. Huge fun.

My point, and I do have one, is that access and inclusion are vital to a child's upbringing. We didn't have structured drama lessons at my school. If we had, I think each class would have been indelibly printed on my brain.

Curricular arts and drama classes embody an organised principle amongst children: they learn how to organise, design, collaborate and participate on a level which creates a mode of thinking that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

:: End working class prejudice rather than focusing on social mobility

Including working-class children in an arts-based curriculum ensures not just a new influx of artists, actors, dancers and directors - but also produces a more viable work force, imbued with a structured approach to life borne out of inclusion, participation and creativity. These things matter, whatever our leaders tell us as they point to the bottom line.

The creative arts are much more than an easy-to-lose option in our children's school day - they should be immovable items, something cherished and valued by parents, teachers and employers alike.

Inclusion matters and so, too, do the creative arts - let's not lose sight of that.