Who was Adam Henson's famous comedian grandfather?

Fred Astaire, his sister and dancing partner Adele, and Leslie Henson

Fred Astaire, his sister and dancing partner Adele, and Leslie Henson - Credit: reproduced courtesy Adam Henson

Farming life in the Cotswolds with the Countryfile presenter

How often have we heard the phrase ‘history in the making’? It’s a bit of a media cliché, but for once we can genuinely claim to be witnessing history as it unfolds this summer.

In the thousand-year epic of the British monarchy, there’s never been a Platinum Jubilee. At 96 years of age, not only is Her Majesty the Queen the oldest ever monarch, she’s also the first to reign for 70 years. Over the last two centuries there have only ever been seven previous royal Jubilees, and three of them have been for our present Queen; the Silver in 1977, Golden in 2002 and Diamond in 2012. It’s a remarkable achievement by a truly dedicated monarch.      

The Henson family have long been supporters of the monarchy, going back to the days of my grandfather. He was an actor and entertainer called Leslie Henson who was incredibly famous in the 1930s and ’40s in films and on the stage where he became friends with the likes of Stanley Holloway, Fred Astaire and Laurence Olivier. His other claim to fame was his role entertaining the troops during the Second World War. In fact, he was the co-founder of the organisation which rallied concert parties at home and abroad, making stars of people like Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock and Terry-Thomas.

It was called the Entertainments National Service Association, better known as ENSA, although some hard-to-please soldiers joked it stood for ‘Every Night, Something Awful’. Leslie also happened to be one of King George VI’s favourite comedians and I know he was asked to entertain the royal family at Windsor Castle on occasions. But he was also honoured by a wartime visit that came out of the blue, and something which turned out to be a ‘first’ in our present Queen’s early life. When Leslie was appearing at London’s Saville Theatre in the summer of 1942, the royal family surprised Leslie, and everyone else, by attending a performance totally unannounced.  

Leslie Henson with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother

Leslie Henson with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother - Credit: reproduced courtesy Adam Henson

As the special guests made their way to the royal box to watch my grandfather on stage, the audience rose to their feet and burst into spontaneous applause. According to press reports the next morning, it was the first time that Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret had ever been to a West End theatre for an evening show.  

After the war, the King presented Leslie with a set of platinum, gold and diamond shirt studs and cufflinks as a personal gift. And it was those very cufflinks that my Dad wore in 2011 on the day he was presented with the MBE by Princess Anne at Windsor Castle. Not long after that, I was incredibly lucky to be invited to Buckingham Palace for a royal lunch. What a thrill! I didn’t really know what to expect, but perhaps I was being a bit naïve in thinking there would be dozens of people there, invited almost en masse.  

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How wrong I was. There were just a handful of us, and I couldn’t have been more surprised when I realised that I would be seated next to the Queen. What on earth was I going to say to the most famous woman in the world? I needn’t have worried, because she put me at my ease by wanting to talk about the things we have in common; a love of horses, dogs and the countryside. It was the most magical, memorable conversation of my life. And as we mark her 70 years of service, what else is there to say besides Congratulations, Ma’am! 

Follow Adam on Twitter: @AdamHenson

Cotswold Farm Park, 01451 850307; cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk