Sir Lenny’s new ITV drama is inspired by his mother (Picture: ITV/Danika Magdelena/Shutterstock)
This year, the 75th anniversary of Windrush was commemorated, paying homage to the generation of people who travelled to the UK from countries in the Commonwealth in the hope of finding exciting opportunities overseas.
Sir Lenny Henry’s new ITV drama Three Little Birds, which is released tonight, tells the story of three women who came to England from Jamaica, inspired by the real life men and women who did so for decades.
In the series, the protagonists of the cast – Leah (Rochelle Neil), Hosanna (Yazmin Belo) and Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber) – quickly learn that life in Britain is not at all as they hoped it would be, as they’re faced with racism, discrimination and prejudice.
Metro.co.uk recently spoke to creator Sir Lenny and three leads about the project, the importance of honouring the stories of their ancestors and their aspiration for audiences to relate to the tale.
Sir Lenny also revealed what he hoped his late mother would have thought of the six-episode show, and how much it meant for him to witness Rochelle, Yazmin and Saffron bring the fictional tale inspired by reality to life.
Lenny, what did it mean to you to watch these amazing actresses tell the stories of your mother and other Black women who followed similar journeys to forge new lives in the UK?
You can’t know how moving it was for me. These stories are inspired by my mum and dad and my uncles. But it’s a fictionalised narrative drama, because my family are incredibly litigious and if I say it’s inspired by them, they’re gonna want money. So I just wanted to create a narrative that was moving and honest and truthful in terms of what it must have felt like.
What’s interesting is, all of these people were young – they came over, and some of them were kids. Some of them were like, 20-something, they were young. So imagine us lot rocking up in a new country and having to start again. I wanted to have that feel about it. What these wonderful ladies do is that they embody the characters in such a way that says, “This is what it was like, watch this.” And it’s extraordinary.
Rochelle, Saffron and Yazmin, what was it like to be led by Lenny on this project?
It was a dream come true because Lenny’s very empowering. He was very encouraging and it can be very intimidating, getting a role that’s based on Lenny Henry’s mother, like what? He was very much like, “Run with it. Go with it. This is your show. Tell the truth. Boom.” So I felt very empowered. Very, very empowered.
The scripts were just… I’ll never forget reading them. I remember looking and going, “There’s just all of my dreams on a page.”
To meet everyone and to meet essentially my sisters of being able to tell this story that is so close to my heritage and my heart, to work with Sir Lenny Henry, who was such an integral part of my upbringing, who would bring my mother to tears creasing, laughing, watching and from young – I get emotional thinking about it now. I can’t believe it. And yet we’re here. I’m so grateful.
Rochelle’s character, Leah, leaves her three children behind with her mother in Jamaica in the hope that she’ll be able to bring them to England once she’s settled (Picture: Anthony Rampton/ITV)
I only know Lenny being an icon, but my parents saw the come-up. So throughout the whole process, they were more concerned about how Lenny was doing than my role.
Lenny has a really brilliant ability to make people feel so familiar to him, despite never meeting him apart from this project. All the daunting scenes that I would be pent up about, we’d go through and he’s just kind of like, “As long as you’ve got the words and you know exactly who you are, let’s just play.” [I felt] really blessed in that sense.
There’s a brilliant mix in this show of fun and humour and really hard-hitting moments. What were some of the most challenging moments to film?
There was one particular scene that I didn’t expect but really took me aback. It was a scene where we were en route to said place I cannot say, and we came across two white men that were just trying to give us a hard time in order to get to where we needed to go, and just how real the entire thing felt until it was time to call cut… Reading it on page and bringing it to life is one thing I think that I’ll never forget how brilliant [that was].
The actor for that was like a masterclass. He was brilliant and it was so subtle and his performance was so understated, and we were just like, “I feel this big.”
Yazmin stars as Hosanna, a devout and pious Christian who joins Leah and Chantrelle on their journey to England to meet their brother, a potential husband for her (Picture: Anthony Rampton/ITV)
In terms of microaggression it’s interesting because the people of colour have to deal with acting in a way where you’re reacting to oppression and racism and sexism and stuff like that. But many of the white actors who have to play allies as well as antagonists, had to deal with stuff too. It’s almost like a, “Can I be racist? Can I say this malevolent thing and make it true? And if I make it really true, what does that make me?”
I’m really heartened that in the scenes where extreme ranges are meant to be played, the minute the camera says cut, people say, “Was that alright? Was I too bastardy? Do I have to go up in bastardy or down in bastardy?” They were really kind and I admire that. I admire the entire cast actually. There was a lot to do, and it was a lot.
Lenny, you’ve spoken about how your mother provided inspiration for this show. What do you think she would have thought of it?
I would hope she’d be moved by it, because it’s not her story, but there are some stories that she told me that I’ve tried to recreate. I want my family to be moved by it, and I want them to laugh and I want them to remember.
It’s not just about my family. It’s about everybody. My mum would have I think liked it, but I want people in middle England to go, “I relate to that. I understand about doing things for your family that perhaps you wouldn’t do normally.”
Saffron’s character, Chantrelle, has aspirations to become a movie star (Picture: Anthony Rampton/ITV)
Imagine leaving your kids with your mum and then you go someplace else because you’ve got to work. You know that there’s working class people in this country who can relate to that. It’s a universal thing. Lots of people have had to give up being with their children to go and earn money so that they can be with their children, and that’s a dichotomy. So I think that anybody who’s been through these things, wherever they’re from, whatever colour they are, whatever gender they are, hopefully will be able to relate to these stories.
Even though it’s set in 1957, I do feel like there’s a lot that resonates even to today. Taking your own destiny by the horns and forging your own path, I think is a universal story.
What kind of research did you do to transform into your characters?
I had just had a baby so there was a lot there that I had for free, really. The fear that comes with motherhood, the fierceness that comes with motherhood, the things you would do for your child, the sacrifices you would make – that all or nothing intensity was helpful.
Then after that, my grandmother wrote an autobiography which I was able to read, so I had a first hand account of her life growing up in the countryside in Jamaica and moving to Kingston, meeting my grandad. She came over in the 60s, my dad was born in 59 and he was five when he came over.
I was very lucky, I had a lot of firsthand things in her own words. It humanises that generation for me very much, because you sort of put them on this pedestal of being strong, god-fearing men and women, pioneering men and women, but it was a lovely opportunity to be like, “You’re a girl who fell in love and moved to a different country in search of a better life, a different life.” How lucky I felt. It felt very cathartic getting to ask those questions because I never had before.
What is the Windrush Generation?
This year marked the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush carrying hundreds of passengers to Britain on 22 June 1948, including more than 800 who hailed from the Caribbean.
Travelling from Jamaica to England, the ship has become symbolic when describing the many individuals from Commonwealth countries, predominantly in the Caribbean, who came to live in the UK between 1948 and 1971.
The Windrush scandal, which was exposed in 2018 by The Guardian, occurred when people who had been living and working in the UK for decades – the majority of them members of the Windrush generation – were denied legal rights, with some even being wrongly deported.
A compensation scheme was announced in December 2018. However, by November three years later, it was estimated that only 5% of victims had received any compensation for what they had suffered.
Just before I started this project, I did a project called Coming to England. It was based in Trinidad, but it was around the world of Windrush and there was a lot of extensive research that we got to do prior. So I felt quite blessed coming into this.
But also, the storytelling that I grew up with innately, because my mum wouldn’t allow me to sit down without her being like, “So when we came, this is what happened.” Being able to hear those stories, taking it for granted then, I wanted to dig back in when getting projects like this. [I’m] feeling really blessed that I have people close to me that can draw from experiences, but also my mum journals really, really intensely. I’ve got books and photography books.
One of the processes that I took with me – music’s been such a big part of my life. These were the sounds, these were the melodies, these were the voices that I had grown up and rolled my eyes at, but actually were the soundtracks of so many women, Black Caribbean, Jamaican women’s lives and music plays such a big part in this. I had a whole soundtrack on my phone, music that I wouldn’t necessarily listen to. It was all real and intense, but it wasn’t hard to find in terms of proximity.
Unfortunately my grandparents aren’t here anymore, my mum isn’t here anymore. So for that kind of resource. I have my aunties and my uncles and such.
For me, I like to watch documentaries. I tried to find as many documentaries as I possibly could, one of which Lenny hosted. I wanted to deep dive, I wanted to get as specific as possible. There are some excellent resources online – there was a woman that I found online, her personal diaries were made available, which was just indispensable.
Sir Lenny plays Hosanna’s father in the drama (Picture: ITV)
Because Chantrelle is the woman that she is, I was watching a lot of old films. Stuff to do with Mae West and Dorothy Dandridge… I tried to be interested in the physicality. The sensuality of Dorothy when she’s looking at Harry Belafonte – she’s just so playful!
To see women existing during that time, to learn about the stories of these icons through the golden age of cinema, I was like, we never stopped being women. Just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean that they’re any less sensual or real or flirtatious. So for me, collating, going through the scripts, getting inspiration from that music and from these icons, the starlets, I’m like, “What would Chantelle adopt? What does she think is really womanly?” I really enjoyed working with that, as well as the heritage side as well.
What impact do you hope that this show will have on viewers?
I think we’ve lost a little bit of the understanding of loving on one another openly and serving one another, and actually in the hopes of being served, but also because you want to serve. I think engaging with humanity and learning to serve one another, is what I feel.
I hope people see themselves even if they don’t physically see themselves, because I don’t feel like this is just a Black story or just a Black British story – it’s a British story. I really hope when people watch this show, they’re like, “I see myself, I see my nan. It might not even look specifically like my nan but that’s my grandmother. Or that’s my granddad or that’s my town or that’s my food or that’s my banter.” I hope people see themselves.’
I think, to steal a Lenny quote, but just a reminder that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. The mere fact that we get to make this and tell these stories, stories that are otherwise swept under the rug or ignored or trivialised.
Our ancestors went through so much so that we could be here doing this, and I think it’s really easy to stay separate in terms of history, to kind of assume that a certain person’s story has nothing to do with you. But it does. It has everything to do with everyone and I hope people are able to recognise that and celebrate that.
Three Little Birds begins tonight at 8pm on ITV1, with new episodes airing weekly and also available to watch on ITVX.
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‘Our ancestors went through so much so that we could be here doing this.’