Taking inspiration from the late 1950s migration of Sir Lenny Henry’s mother to Britain, “THREE LITTLE BIRDS” is a heartwarming six-part drama series delving into the untold tales of sisterhood, love, friendship, and the challenges and triumphs of starting anew 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 regarding what she’s left behind in Jamaica. Leaving her abusive husband behind, Leah sends her three children to live with her mother as she embarks on a journey to Britain, determined to forge a fresh path for herself and eventually reunite with her children.
Accompanying Leah on this journey is her younger, starry-eyed and glamorous sister Chantrelle (played by Saffron Coomber – known for “Small Axe: Lovers Rock” and “Strike”). The duo also brings along their devout and Christian friend Hosanna (played by Yazmin Belo – from “What Just Happened”) who they consider a potential match for their brother, Aston (Javone Prince – from “Dodger”).
Leah, a trailblazer yearning to carve out a brighter future for her children, faces guilt, fear, and fresh trials at every turn in this unwelcoming new land. Motivated by her steadfast determination to reunite with her children, it is the process of establishing a new abode for all of them that truly transforms Leah. In her newfound community in the West Midlands, Leah discovers companionship, love, happiness, and the woman she was always destined to become.
Rochelle Neil, the actress portraying Leah, shared insights about her role and the series in an interview with Bradford Zone.
Q: Could you please introduce your character to us?
A: Leah is the sister of Aston played by Javone Prince and Chantrelle played by Saffron Coomber. She comes over from Jamaica after her brother requests that she bring him a wife, but we find out it’s also to flee a very abusive, toxic marriage. The original plan is to leave with her kids that doesn’t go to plan and so she ends up leaving on her own. Then she is on a mission to create a better life for herself and save up enough to bring her children over.
Q: What journey does she go on during the series?
A: Over the six episodes, you watch her blossom. When you meet her, she’s very, very guarded. She’s very smart, but quite a calculated woman. She’s had to suppress a lot of herself, her dreams, her emotions for a very long time just to survive. Throughout the course of the series, you see her really grow and have almost the teenage-hood that she didn’t get to have because she was married quite young. She’s tough, but it’s more a sense of survival. I actually think of her as being a bit of a softie. Often the softest people come across as closed off because they have so much happening in their lives. Leah needs to allow herself to say, “Okay, let me see if I can find a husband and find happiness”. When you meet her like, she’s not wearing a lot of makeup and stuff. But she really blossoms, does our Leah.
Q: Did this story immediately chime with you?
A: Absolutely. It’s one of the first scripts I’ve ever read where I thought, “This is my family’s story.” My dad was born in Jamaica and his mum and dad came over and then the kids arrived two years later. So they spent two years setting up home here. One of my dad’s earliest memories is the lights at Heathrow. He was about five and he doesn’t really remember his life in Jamaica. My mum was born here, but it was the same thing. My nan came over with a friend, my Auntie Bernice, and my Auntie Tiny, her older sister. It’s insane how similar their stories are to Three Little Birds. It’s like my exact lineage. My dad’s mum also wrote her memoirs, so I’ve had so much firsthand about her life in Jamaica growing up in the culture and going to church. She trained to be a seamstress as well. How lucky am I to have a script land in my inbox that is just so close to home for me and my family! It’s a joy.
Q: What did you learn from the experiences of your own family?
A: When I spoke to my grandparents about me over here, they told me survival was a bigger thing than self-protection. They didn’t really have the same vocabulary that we have for our emotions and our mental health. It was very much like, “Get on with it. I need to keep a roof over my head. I need to keep food in my belly. I need to keep my kids alive and healthy.” Happiness hopefully will come. But that was never the goal.
Q: Were you daunted by the fact that Leah is inspired by Lenny’s mum?
A: Yes. When I was first cast, it was really intimidating. It’s Sir Lenny Henry, and you’re playing a character inspired by his mama. And God love him, he’s just been really generous and gracious in giving me full rein to play Leah. He has seasoned the pot. If there was ever anything I questioned – “It’s interesting that she’s making this choice” – he would sit down and discuss that with me. He’s been incredibly encouraging and incredibly empowering and just said, “Go and fly. I trust you. I think you’re great. Have fun.”
Q: How did you find the scenes where Leah is subjected to racism?
A: I remember doing one scene where I was struggling not to cry. But Leah doesn’t cry. Like my grandparents, she is very proud. In my nan’s memoir, she wrote about racism as if it was a mental illness. She said, “I feel sorry for people who think like that.” The way she described it was really lovely. She was like, “God made the world in so many different shades. How many different flowers are there? How many different animals are there? They come in all different shapes, sizes, textures, hues. So why would people only come in one correct shade?”
Q: How have you found the 1950s costumes?
A: They’re fab! I wish they could come back in some way. When you go out these days, everyone’s in their trackies and their trainers and their leisurewear, which is just glorified pyjamas. But the outfits back then were wonderful. In her memoirs, my nan wrote about how you had different outfits depending on what you were doing. So you wouldn’t just pop to the shops; you would get ready to pop to the shops. When you came home, you would change back into your skivvies, but you would never leave your house in that way. You would always wear your Sunday best to go to the bank or the doctors or pop around to see a friend. It was an event. Everyone had a little hat or gloves or and would clean their nails, making sure everything was just pristine. It was lovely.
Q: What do you hope that audiences will gain from watching Three Little Birds?
A: I really hope they find it warming. We do very much tell the truth and show the racism and the prejudice and the cold and the acclimatising. But for all that, it’s a joyous drama. I do feel like it has a very universal multicultural appeal because there is a cast of other races other than just Black people. And so I really hope people are entertained, and I really hope it starts conversations in households about that time I hope they think about the good, the bad and the ugly.