Winds of change
Lenny Henry, creator and writer of ITV drama Three Little Birds, and star Saffron Coomber reflect on the real-life stories and experiences that inform this six-parter about three young women who leave Jamaica to start a new life in 1950s Britain.
“Supporting artists, would you please go to the church now to practice your boogie-woogie dancing?” the assistant director cries out.
This is a wild guess, but that’s probably not a phrase heard very often in the tiny Midlands village of Maxstoke, near Solihull.
But the boogie-woogie dancing of the supporting artists – who are all immaculately dressed in their Sunday best – forms a key part of the wedding scene that is being filmed for Three Little Birds in Maxstoke Village Hall.
Lenny Henry’s powerful and uplifting six-part ITV drama focuses on the Three Little Birds of the title who, as part of the Windrush Generation, have come over to the UK, the so-called “mother country,” from Jamaica in the late 1950s to make a new start in life.
The quaint wooden hall in Maxstoke has been impeccably dressed for a Jamaican wedding. The room is enlivened by vivid yellow walls and spot-on period details. The festive tables are decorated with pretty doilies and white flowers in pails. Meanwhile, the finest crockery has been brought out for the occasion and is patiently waiting for the guests on the sideboard.
Three Little Birds, which is made by Tiger Aspect Productions and coproduced by BritBox International in association with Henry’s company, Douglas Road Productions, traces the fortunes of the three young women who arrive full of hopes and dreams, many of which are sadly destined to be shattered.
Leah (played by Rochelle Neil, The Nevers) wrestles with her conscience after escaping from an abusive husband in Jamaica and promising her three children that they can follow her once she has found her feet in the new country.
She is accompanied by her wannabe movie star younger sister, Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber, Small Axe: Lovers Rock). The two are chaperoning their devout friend Hosanna (Yazmin Belo, What Just Happened), who is being lined up as a potential bride for their brother, Aston (Javone Prince, Dodger).
As each of the three women attempt to settle in Britain, they have to hurdle unforeseen and often upsetting obstacles. Will the Three Little Birds crash land or fly towards a new-found freedom?
Henry also appears as Hosanna’s father, a charismatic pastor named Remuel, and looks fabulous in a goatee, white suit and patterned bow tie.
Sitting down in the dining tent next to the village hall, the actor and writer explains that the drama, which is distributed by Banijay Rights, is inspired by his late mother’s journey to Britain during the Windrush era – and she is mirrored in one particular character. “The spirit of my mum lives in Leah, who’s like John Wayne but in a skirt,” he says. “She is a stoic. She doesn’t take any crap from anybody and she knows her stuff. She will fight for her friends and her family.”
Even though the story of Three Little Birds is very specific, it also has a universal dimension. “The whole point of this series is to say, ‘Look at what those guys had to overcome’,” continues Henry, who is also executive producer on the project.
“People can relate to it. If your parents came from somewhere else to a mother country, wherever it was, I hope you’ll recognise the adversity they overcame. Whether you’re Jamaican or Guyanese or Ukrainian, you will identify with the idea of coming from the other country and the pros and cons of being in a new country.”
Henry, who after a long career as a much-loved comedian has had a successful second act as a ‘serious’ writer and actor, goes on to list the difficulties faced by recent immigrants. “You can’t get the stuff you used to eat at home. People are funny about the smell of your food when you’re cooking. You can’t get credit. You can’t buy a house. People say dodgy things to you, even if they don’t really mean it. They say it out of ignorance.
“They don’t know the country you come from. They make out they can’t understand your accent, even though you probably speak better English than they do. ‘What’s that you’re saying, love?’ So there is a bit of that going on. It’s overt or covert racism and ignorance.”
The writer, who grew up in Dudley as the fifth of seven children of Jamaican immigrants, continues: “This is still happening, so I hope it’ll be familiar to people. This is everybody’s mum and dad’s stories because white people are in it too, of course, as we have to coexist and live together. So I hope that people will watch it and recognise something.”
Viewers of Three Little Birds, which launched on ITV1 yesterday, may also recognise the immense contribution immigrants have made to this country.
Looking resplendent in the outfit she is wearing for the wedding scene, Coomber observes: “People forget that Great Britain, as we understand it, has come to fruition because of people venturing to this tiny island. The UK is an amalgamation of so many different cultures over millennia. Even if people want to propose certain ideas about keeping Britain this, that or whatever, they still have to acknowledge Britain has taken this from that place and that from another place.
“If we wanted to talk about it properly, there would be a recognition of that. We are not just one thing. So much of what people enjoy here is influenced by people taking that leap and coming over and having the grace to share their culture.”
Another reason Three Little Birds will strike a chord is because, like life itself, it blends the comic and tragic. “The best dramas have comedy and tragedy,” Henry says. “As Charlie Chaplin said, ‘Comedy is tragedy plus time.’ 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.
“But 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.”
However, “what was great was that people still raised their kids, they sent them to school, they put food on the table every night, they were living their lives. And I think Three Little Birds is a celebration of that,” he says.
“The people who came here were told the streets were paved with gold, and they weren’t. So this drama has got tough times, and there’s tragedy in there. But there is humour as well. It’s going to make you laugh and move you, too.”
Henry hopes people will see Three Little Birds is honouring his mother’s generation. Even so, “it’s still a story and it’s not just relevant to that generation,” he notes. “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.’”
He adds: “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.”
Coomber reflects on what viewers might be saying to each other at the end of Three Little Birds. “I genuinely hope they are saying either, ‘Oh my Lord, that’s my gran and that’s my uncle,’ or ‘Wow, I didn’t know that happened. Let me find out more.’ I hope it’s something people will talk about for a very long time indeed,” she says.
“I really hope audiences are inspired to action, to joy, to laughter and to share this astonishing story with other people.”