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Lenny Henry’s final appearance in legendary Comic Relief run cements his National Treasure status

Who can replace the irreplaceable Henry?  (PA)
Who can replace the irreplaceable Henry? (PA)

When Sir Lenny Henry bounded onto the stage in Salford on Friday evening and bellowed: “Red Nose Nation make some noise!”, there was no trace of melancholy to his customary infectious enthusiasm.

Still, the 65-year-old comedian could be forgiven for feeling a tug at his heartstrings.

It’s been 39 years since Henry and Richard Curtis co-founded Comic Relief in response to the famine in Ethiopia and Sudan, launching it on Christmas Day 1985, and he’s been an integral part of the charity’s annual Red Nose Day appeals ever since the very first one in 1988.

Now, after almost four decades of jokes, sketches and heartfelt appeals, he’s calling it a day. As was made clear in sketches early in the night featuring the cast of BBC sitcom W1A, Henry has proved himself irreplaceable.

A look back at some of the earliest Comic Relief footage captures him in his youthful, live wire prime. At the first Comic Relief “Utterly Utterly Live” fundraising event, held at Shaftesbury Theatre in April 1986, he strode on stage in black leather trousers and introduced himself as “Theophilus P Wildebeeste, the most fertile man in the universe”.

Parodying American soul singers like Teddy Pendergrass, Henry’s outrageous act saw him announce that he’d come to London to record songs like “How Can I Tell You I Love You When My D*** Is In a Blender?” before serenading a giggling audience member he’d hauled on stage.

It’s all a far cry from the family-friendly persona he’s perfected in the years since, and still shockingly funny. Later, he returned to the stage to deliver his impression of boxer Frank Bruno performing as Romeo, before the real Frank Bruno totters out onto a balcony in a dress and boxing gloves to play his Juliet.

Even decades after Bruno ceased to be a fixture of British sports television, its pantomime frivolity still raises a smile – and it was recently voted among Lenny Henry’s best ever Comic Relief sketches. You’ve never seen Shakespeare quite like it.

Of course, the fine balancing act Comic Relief requires is the ability to alternate between comedy and the serious subject matter of charitable appeals, and nobody was better at that than Henry.

Recent years have seen the charity scale back “saviour” films which see wealthy celebrities air-dropped into poverty-stricken homes and villages, but Henry had a knack for showing how the public’s donations really did make a difference, connecting with those he met across Africa and the rest of the world.

Looking back at the very first Red Nose Day broadcast, he told The Telegraph in 2013: “I went to Ethiopia for one section where we filmed a row of Ethiopian men in their tribal gowns.

“The camera panned along them and the voiceover said, ‘Please give us some money; poverty can affect somebody you might know.’ The last person in the row was me, dressed in the same tribal gown. For the first time it wasn’t just an image of a starving child with a big belly and flies crawling all over their face – it was somebody that the audience knew.”

One of the most emotional segments of Friday night’s Comic Relief saw a whole section of the live studio audience stand up to reveal that each of them is among the 100 million people who have been helped by Henry and Comic Relief’s work over the last four decades.

There followed video messages from Ethiopia and Uganda telling similar stories, including a pair of smiling twins who were born while Henry was visiting and are named “Lenny” and “Henry”. He can’t have been the only one fighting back tears.

During the W1A sketch, in which bumbling BBC staff pitch replacing Henry with Richard Madeley or even Sir Mo Farah, dressed up in full Theophilus P. Wildebeeste regalia, Henry let out a dejected moan. “I’ve sweated blood, and I’ve sweated through some really stupid suits,” he complained, but he can hang up his red nose feeling immensely proud of his enormous contribution to British life.

At that first show at Shaftesbury Theatre, Curtis said he hoped they’d raise a million pounds. They’ve since raised £1.5bn – plus another £37m on Friday night – and given us almost as many laughs along the way. If all that, not to mention a show stopping parody of Ryan Gosling’s “I’m Just Ken” (“I’m Just Len”), isn’t enough to guarantee Lenny Henry’s status as a National Treasure, nothing is.