Sir Lenny Henry on post-Windrush set series Three Little Birds: ‘I wanted to tell all our stories’

“My mum, my auntie and a mail order bride came to Britain in 1957,” says Sir Lenny Henry, the acclaimed actor, writer, filmmaker and comedian. “And I always think that’s like the beginning of a great joke. Three Jamaican women came to Britain to cause trouble, and oh boy, did they find it when they got here.”

Sir Lenny is speaking ahead of the release of his latest work, Three Little Birds – named after the Bob Marley song – a post-Windrush series that chronicles the experiences of three Jamaican women as they land in Britain and attempt to make it their home. The gulf between their expectations and reality is wide. Their welcome is signs plastered to windows that read: ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.’

Loosely based on Sir Lenny’s mother’s life, who emigrated to Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s with her two sisters, it is ultimately a spirited celebration of immigration, community and womanhood.

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It is the latest in a string of Sir Lenny’s creations for screen and stage on the Windrush era. Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle followed a generation of one family from their landing in 1948 to the scandal of being wrongly deported in 2018. Earlier this year, Sir Lenny made his debut as a playwright with a one-man show about the Windrush scandal, August In England. “But I wanted to go deeper than that,” says the 65-year-old.

Yazmin Belo as Hosanna, Rochelle Neil as Leah and Saffron Coomber as Chantrell in Three Little Birds. Photo: ©ITV.Yazmin Belo as Hosanna, Rochelle Neil as Leah and Saffron Coomber as Chantrell in Three Little Birds. Photo: ©ITV.
Yazmin Belo as Hosanna, Rochelle Neil as Leah and Saffron Coomber as Chantrell in Three Little Birds. Photo: ©ITV.

Russell T Davies, the prolific screenwriter and producer, and a friend and mentor of Sir Lenny’s, asked him what stories he wanted to tell. What did he want to say about the world?

“And I remembered I’d heard these stories from my mum, my aunties and my uncles about what it was like to arrive in Britain in the 50s, and what they had to overcome in terms of racism, sexism, oppression, the glass ceiling, the glass wall, the glass roof – anything glass, my family had to deal with it.

“So I said: ‘I want to write about the things that we had to deal with when we first came to this country,’” Sir Lenny continues. “And he said: ‘That’s a good thing to write about.’ The thing he kept reminding me about was that everybody – black, white, wherever you’re from, whatever sex or gender – everybody has moved from somewhere to go somewhere. And they’re usually trying to get away from something to get to something better.

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“And this was the initial premise of the series, based on stories from my family. It’s not my family per se. It’s mostly fictionalised. But I wanted to tell all our stories.”

Saffron Coomber as Chantrelle in Three Little Birds. Photo: ©ITV.Saffron Coomber as Chantrelle in Three Little Birds. Photo: ©ITV.
Saffron Coomber as Chantrelle in Three Little Birds. Photo: ©ITV.

Gregarious sisters Leah and Chantrelle and their devout friend Hosanna have vastly different reasons for leaving Jamaica. Leah, played by The Nevers’ Rochelle Neil, is escaping an abusive marriage, hoping to create a life in Britain and then bring her children over. Chantrelle – Tracy Beaker Returns’ Saffron Coomber – dreams of becoming a movie star. And Hosanna, played by Yazmin Belo of What Just Happened? is looking to start a family. Despite their differences, they band together to overcome obstacles.

“With all three of the women, they’re these characters that are taking hold of their own destiny and sort of rewriting their own journey,” says 34-year-old Neil. “And I feel that’s often the heart of the show as well.

“We’re also telling our own stories,” she continues, “which feels timely and I can’t think of many shows where the heads of department have all been people from the Caribbean community telling a Caribbean story.”

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Sir Lenny, who remains behind the camera in Three Little Birds, agrees: “It was the most diverse set I’ve ever been on, for sure. I’ve done a lot of shows and I’ve never seen so many black and brown people on a set. Every time I arrived on the set people would go: ‘This is my story.’ It was amazing. It was amazing that it touched a nerve with so many people. And I hope the series does the same.”

Each of the three leads felt connected to their characters in some way, able to take them off the page and make them their own.

“An easy entrance to Leah for me is that I had just had a baby when we started filming,” says Neil. “So immediately the thought of leaving her would have been insane. I had a lot of stuff mirrored in my own life. So it’s like I just have to tell the truth and this woman will arrive.”

“I feel so blessed that Hosanna was someone that I just came from,” adds Belo. “I can’t stress enough the direct mileage and the association that I have with Hosanna. My grandfather is a pastor, my mum is one of 11 children, and so just the Bible quoting and the sayings and her naivety to anything worldly or secular, and actually coming across aunties and uncles that reflect that.”

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“When I met Chantrelle on the page, she was just someone who inspires so much joy,” says 28-year-old Coomber. “Here I was meeting a woman who, at least on surface level, exists outside of shame, outside of apology, is actually more aligned with joy and freedom, curiosity, vivacity. It’s elements of myself that I think I don’t allow a lot.

“But that approach to life I think is so liberating,” she continues. “And so it was very liberating to have that in my work. But at the same time, my proclivity towards tragedy came in helpful because of the story arc. She’s not just one thing. What I love about Chantrelle is that she has many, many, many facets to her and many that are uncovered as the story goes on. Having life surprise her meant that I had the opportunity to explore the light and explore the shadows as well.”

“What I think is great,” says Sir Lenny, “is that you don’t get to know people unless you have the opportunity to walk in their shoes. So when you watch this, and you see those women on a boat, coming to a country they’ve never been, and when they arrive you see what they meet – which is, the streets are not paved with gold, that there are obstacles, that people are saying things to them that they don’t recognise – you’ll see that the overcoming is everything.

“And I think that’s something to learn. It’s about tenacity and having the courage to get over. We are a people that came somewhere, walked cold streets and got the job done. In Jamaica, we talk about sufferation all the time. Yes, there was sufferation. But there was also joy. And I hope that comes across too.”

Three Little Birds airs on ITV1 from Sunday, October 22.

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