Inspired by the late 1950s journey of Sir Lenny Henry’s mother to Britain, “Three Little Birds” is a heartwarming six-part drama series delving into untold tales of sisterhood, love, friendship, and the challenges and triumphs of building a new life in the so-called motherland.
The story centres on Leah Whittaker (portrayed by Rochelle Neil – known for “The Nevers” and “Guilt”) who grapples with her conscience over what she’s left behind in Jamaica. Fleeing an abusive marriage, Leah sends her three children to live with her mother while she embarks on a journey to Britain, determined to establish a fresh start before reuniting with them.
Leah, accompanied by her starry-eyed, glamorous younger sister Chantrelle (played by Saffron Coomber – recognized for “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” and “Strike”), sets off for England. They also bring along their devout Christian friend, Hosanna (enacted by Yazmin Belo – known for “What Just Happened”), whom they view as a potential match for their brother Aston (played by Javone Prince – credited for “Dodger”).
Leah, a trailblazer striving for a brighter future for her children, faces a journey fraught with guilt, fear, and fresh challenges in the unwelcoming new land. Driven by her determination to reunite with her children, it’s her quest to forge a new home that truly transforms Leah. In her newfound West Midlands community, she discovers companionship, love, joy, and the woman she was always meant to be.
Chantrelle harbours dreams of stardom, and her role as a live-in nanny to a respected British family near the famed film studios in Borehamwood seems like the ticket to the fame she craves. However, as the veil lifts, Chantrelle uncovers the harsh truth about this supposedly ‘respectable’ family, and realizes that the path to stardom is worlds apart from her reality.
Hosanna arrives in Britain with high hopes for her potential husband, but both are concealing secrets from their pasts that threaten any future they might share.
As each of the three women begins to find their footing, they must navigate unexpected and sometimes shocking trials. Will they hit rock bottom with a resounding thud, or will they finally soar?
“Three Little Birds” was filmed in The Midlands and commissioned for ITV by Head of Drama, Polly Hill, in collaboration with Nana Hughes overseeing production for ITV. The series will debut on ITV1 and be available for streaming on ITVX. Tiger Aspect Productions is behind the production of the six-part drama, written by Sir Lenny Henry and guest episode writers Carol Russell and Avril Russell, in association with his production company Douglas Road Productions. Both companies are part of the Banijay UK group. The series is co-produced by BritBox International, with Diederick Santer as Executive Producer. Banijay Rights is responsible for international distribution.
Directors Charles McDougall, Yero Timi Biu, and Darcia Martin will helm two episodes each, with Sir Lenny Henry, Lucy Bedford, Kate Crowe, Russell T Davies, Charles McDougall, and Angela Ferreira serving as Executive Producers, and Stella Nwimo in the role of producer.
Bradford Zone spoke with writer, creator, and executive producer Sir Lenny Henry.
Q: What is the inspiration behind Three Little Birds?
A: It was originally inspired by my family. All the stories of mum, and her sister and best mate coming to Britain, ten years after Windrush. Plus researched narrative too.
We looked at great photographs by Vanley Burke and Roy Mehta. Incredibly characterful shots of life in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in the Midlands at that time. (I also looked at post-Jim Crow photographs by Gordon Parks. Stunning). In essence, these tales are about immigration; of migrants arriving on boats, and then becoming embroiled in their lives in this supposed motherland where the work is meant to be better. However, on arrival, they discover that the day-to-day of dealing with life is difficult.
My brothers would tell me stories about how they’d have to walk around in pairs because you’d get attacked in the streets; a lady told me about people touching her hair on the bus and asking her what part of Africa she was from. There were other stories of verbal abuse and even physical altercations. However, at the same time, there were acts of kindness from unexpected quarters.
There was immense joy, a bustling, multicultural life, of a community doing its best to unite. There were all of these anecdotes I had heard that don’t just belong to me but are also a part of the fabric of our country and our people, and they apply to anyone who has ever travelled from one place to another in search of a new home, whether that’s now or then.
Q: Tell us about that process.
A: The initial heart of it was basically sparked by a conversation with Russell T Davies. I’d had a few knockbacks script-wise and was a bit down. Russell was my mentor and executive producer and worked hard to help me get this project across the line. I said I wanted his help with whatever the next attempt might be. And he very kindly asked, “Well darling, what is it that you want to write? What are you passionate about?” I thought about it and it all came out: I wanted to write about immigration and about Caribbeans coming to Britain in the 50s and what that must have been like.
Q: So how did you develop it from there?
A: Russell and I sat down and broadly worked out what would happen. He’s really good fun to be with. The stories were very much me vomiting out what I wanted to write, and then Russell helped me to organise my thoughts for the first episode. From that, I went away and wrote a script. And then, suddenly, ITV just said, “We want to do it straight away.” I began writing episodes. We had two brilliant writers, Carol Russell and Avril Russell, who inputted across the series too. I also worked with Lucy Bedford and the team at Tiger Aspect, Angela Ferreira at my production company Douglas Road (who executive produced) and our incredible directors – Charles McDougall, Yero Timi Biu and Darcia Martin – and producer Stella Nwimo brought the whole glorious thing to life.
We had an incredible crew of diverse talent too which was super important. I remember at the read-through being surrounded by all these brilliant cast and creatives of colour and that is something that is sadly still very rare in our industry and important. This is the first drama that I have written and created so I’m really proud of it.
Q: How would you describe the three main characters?
A: I suppose, though she’s a fictional character, the spirit of my mum lives in Leah (Rochelle Neil), who is like John Wayne but in a skirt! She is a stoic. She doesn’t take any crap from anyone and she knows her stuff. She will fight for her friends and her family. Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber) is the flighty, will-o’-the-wisp flibbertigibbet – the clown who wants to be a movie star, that’s her motivation for leaving Jamaica. When she gets here, she realises that there are no movies with a calling for a dramatic and good-looking person who can recite plays but happens to be Black in 1957. Lastly, Hosanna (Yazmin Belo) is essentially a mail-order bride, but she has secrets. She’s had her fare paid, but there are other reasons for her being here. Everyone’s got a secret.
Chantrelle particularly goes on quite a dark journey. And Leah is just trying to make a new life and trying to get through every day. So, it’s tough, but they have each other. And hopefully, that will resonate with everyone.
Q: We hear you have a small part in the series, can you tell us about that?
A: They kept asking me if I was going to be in it. At a certain age as a performer, you start thinking, “Well, I could be the dad or the granddad.” So here I’m a dad of one of the characters, but you will have to watch to find out who. It has been really good fun. I thought, “What kind of dad is he? Is he a dishonourable dad, is he a truth teller, is he a liar?” Creating him has been great because it means I can write against type. It’s boring just playing a character you can do. So, I wanted to write about somebody that I’ve never really played before. He’s a preacher, and he’s good at his job. But, as usual, there are secrets, and it all comes out in the wash.
Q: How would you characterise the tone of Three Little Birds?
A: The best dramas have comedy and tragedy. As Charlie Chaplin said ‘comedy is tragedy plus time.’ I think what’s interesting is that looking at the 1950s from the 21st century, there are things to laugh at – silly things, like the way people wore their trousers and how they still had those military moustaches 10 years after the war. They were a few years post-rationing and yet everywhere was still a bomb site. Then there was also the racism and the sexism, and the homophobia and the imperialism, and all of that people had to deal with. “No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs”, “Blacks go home”, “Keep Britain White”. All of that was going on, but what was great was that people still raised their kids, people sent their kids to school, people put food on the table every night, they were living their lives. And I think Three Little Birds is a celebration of that.
Q: Can you amplify that?
A: It celebrates that kind of immigrant stoicism, which means, “Yes, this chair has springs coming out of it. Yes, there are mice. Yes, there’s hardly anything in the cupboard. But you will be fed, it could be a biscuit or a piece of bread, but there’s margarine, and you will have somewhere to sit, you will have somewhere to sleep, and it will be comfortable, even if it’s a bit damp.”. All of those things. My mum absolutely did that. It was an honour when I was able to buy her a house and say, “This is your house”, because leading up to that point, things had been very, very difficult. The people who came here, they were told the streets were paved with gold, and they weren’t. So, this drama has got tough times, and there’s also tragedy in there. But there is humour as well. It’s going to make you laugh and move you, too.
Q: Do you see it as a celebration of your mother’s generation?
A: Yes, but it’s still a story and it’s not just relevant to that generation – it’s a celebration of strong Black womanhood, about people moving from one place to another, about community and adversity. What’s great is that young people will ask, “Wow, was it really like that?” And the older ones will go, “Yeah, it was. You need to watch this. This is what we had to put up with when we came here.” Even watching a little trailer, it’s very resonant. You really do feel the struggle. I think it’s going to take people on an amazing ride. And not just five Jamaican people in their living room in Dudley – this is for all of us, black, brown, white – everyone all over the country – because the post Windrush happened to everyone and we need to celebrate that.