Three Little Birds arrives on Britbox today and we were fortunate to speak with the series creator Sir Lenny Henry and its star Rochelle Neil ahead of the release.
Three Little Birds narrates the adventures of gregarious sisters Leah and Chantrelle, who hail from the St Anne’s district of Jamaica, and their virtuous, bible-loving acquaintance Hosanna, as they board a ship heading for a new life in Great Britain. Written by Sir Lenny Henry (Chef!, Broadchurch, The Long Song), this life-affirming six-part drama is inspired by Henry’s mother’s stories of leaving Jamaica in the 1950’s for Great Britain, which became her lifelong home and where she raised her family.
The series introduces a powerhouse of new British talent; Rochelle Neil (Amazon’s Das Boot, HBO’s The Never’s) as Leah; Saffron Coomber (Steve McQueen’s Small Axe) as Chantrelle and Yazmin Belo, making her screen debut as Hosanna. Supporting cast includes Javone Prince, Bobby Gordon, Arthur Darvill, Tierney Turner and Malachi Hall.
“Jamaica has such a cultural influence on the world in terms of music, in terms of culture,” Sir Lenny Henry told Global Grind. “This was a story that had to happen. It’s our parents story, it’s our aunties’ story, it’s our cousins’ stories. So when you talk about leaving this place of sunshine, seasoning and great food and great culture and going to a place where people don’t know who they are and question their identity and say ‘Why are you here?’ Dealing with patriarchy and racism and sexism and actually overcoming that. My mum had three jobs. My dad had two jobs. My dad wore pajamas under his suit because it was so cold in Great Britain. The streets were not paved of gold but they still stayed and they survived and I’m proud of that. And I think it’s a story worth telling.”
“I think it’s going to have a universal appeal because it’s a story of immigration but we humanize the story of immigration,” Rochelle Neil agreed. “I think when you think about immigrants they haven’t been humanized politically. To give a voice to such a pioneering generation that to me was so important. My grandmothers were formidable women. I’d put them up on a pedestal so it was lovely to get an opportunity to deep dive into their stories on such a very personal, minute level and make them personal and make them real.”
For Henry, it was important to offer up full portraits of what life was truly like for Jamaicans arriving to the UK in the 1950’s — not just in terms of their immigrant status, but also to reveal their everyday personal challenges and triumphs.
“My parents, they never told you what it was like to fall in love or fall out of love,” Henry revealed. “My mom and dad never told me anything personal until just before they died. My dad, before he died he had renal failure, but he talked nonstop about what he did in Jamaica, what he used to send, what it was like to plow a field on your own. My mom wanted to talk about work and about racism and about ‘NO Blacks, NO Irish, NO Dogs’ and about boxing a woman down on the streets for touching her wig. These are real stories. Then the broader thing was the broader research and I know Rochelle did this too. This wasn’t just my mom telling me stories and me putting it directly on TV. We did a lot of research to make sure these stories rang true so we want to make sure that our American brothers and sisters relate and that it resonates so I hope it comes across.”
Both Henry and Neil acknowledged that it was important they get the story right and not let down their loved ones and community.
“It’s such a gift to get a role that has a range,” Neil said of her character Leah. “When we meet her she is in the middle of trauma and then we see her blossom throughout the series so it was just a gift, an absolute gift to dive in and just make sure that I’m telling the truth and I can show my face again when I go home for Christmas because otherwise my Jamaican family are gonna be like (makes face). It felt very important to make sure I was just telling the truth and had the respect that she deserves, making it.”
“I wanted my family to be able to watch it and say ‘Well Done’ and thankfully we had a premiere in London and most of my family were able to come and say, ‘That was what it was like.’” Henry recalled. “I’ve had a lot of people of color and also a lot of white people say, ‘That’s what it was.”
Henry also spoke about how he wanted to ensure that the series didn’t just reflect struggle and hardship, but that it also included a multifaceted portrait of the Jamaican immigrant experience.
“It was important to me not to tell completely Black trauma stories,” Henry said.
“And also to get away from the ever so Strong Black Woman tropes,” Neil added. “She’s human. We see her make mistakes. We see her want things. Her hopes and her dreams and her desires and it just felt so lovely. And she’s fu**ing fabulous.”
Three Little Birds is streaming on Britbox February 1.