Lenny Henry on going back to his roots with Three Little Birds

Lenny Henry on going back to his roots with Three Little Birds

By Roz Laws,
Tuesday, 21st November 2023
Lenny Henry (Credit: Vivienne Bailey)
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Lenny Henry’s new drama for ITV was inspired by his family’s arrival in the UK in the 1950s. Roz Laws reports

Sir Lenny Henry admitted he was unusually nervous before the Midlands premiere of his latest TV drama, because his family was in the audience.

Among those at the RTS Midlands screening and Q&A for Three Little Birds were his relatives, including his sisters and nieces. Introducing the six-part ITV drama – inspired by the stories of his mother, Winifred, about moving to the UK from Jamaica – he said: “I am chuffed to be here, but I’m really nervous. I want people to know it’s been a labour of love. I hope Mum would be proud, but this is for everybody. This isn’t just black history; it happened to all of us.”

The drama was created and written by Henry, who also has a minor acting role. It’s made by Douglas Road Productions, which Henry founded nine years ago and named after the road on which he grew up in Dudley, 10 miles from Birmingham.

It follows sisters Leah and Chantrelle and their friend Hosanna as they leave Jamaica in 1957 to start a new life in England. Chantrelle stays in London to be a nanny while the other two move to Dudley to join Leah’s brother.

It is humorous and heartbreaking. The women are excited to sail to the land of Elizabeth Taylor and Yorkshire pudding, but the reality is much darker. They are met with hostility and racism, with signs saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs”, and graffiti urging, “Wogs out”.

In fact, the creatives revealed that they played down the violence and oppression faced by the post-Windrush generation in this pre-watershed drama.

The director, Charles McDougall, told the RTS audience: “We held back. Lenny said that everything in real life was much, much worse than our script. We had to monitor and limit the swear words we used.”

Henry said: “My brothers were attacked in the street going to work every day. I experienced racism on my way to school and bullies beating the crap out of me. If you lashed out because someone called you a name, you could be fighting all day.”

Director Darcia Martin added: “We want viewers to empathise with the characters without feeling lectured. We don’t want to alienate people.”

The drama was shot on location in Birmingham, Dudley and the Dominican Republic, while interior sets were built inside a former Ikea store in Coventry.

McDougall told the RTS audience: “The hardest thing was finding a ship. We thought we were going to have to use a green screen until we found an old party ship in North Wales. It was rusting away and very dangerous, but we painted it and floated it.”

Producer Stella Nwimo said of the show: “I felt it was important to have diversity in our crew from the top down.” Henry added: “It was a really inclusive set. We had a black guy wafting the smoke, which I’ve never seen before. The catering crew even made us jollof rice along with Irish stew.”

Asked whether he hopes Three Little Birds will help people to understand what it’s like to be an immigrant, Henry said: “That’s a lot to put on a TV show. I hope it resonates with people and helps them to imagine what it’s like to come here.

“The fact that people are still having these experiences now is shocking to me. I want people to enjoy the drama but also to think about these things.”

The Three Little Birds ­screening and Q&A, hosted by Suzanne Virdee, was an RTS Midlands and Create Central event, held at the IET Austin Court in Birmingham on 19 October. The producers were Kully Khaila and Rachael Ward.