Three Little Birds, BritBox’s newest limited series, immerses viewers in the lives of three Jamaican women who immigrate to London in 1957. They’re motivated by the idea of a better future and more financial stability for themselves and their families. The miniseries premiered in the UK in October 2023, which is when the UK observes Black History Month.
Leah (Rochelle Neil) wants to make enough money to reunite her family in England. Her sister, Chantrelle, (Saffron Coomber) is a seamstress with dreams of stardom. Their friend Hosanna (Yazmin Belo) is a devout Christian who agreed to an arranged marriage with Chantrelle’s brother Aston (Javone Prince). The women are faced with the realities of living in a new country as soon as they step off the ship: the climate is completely different and the pace of life is too.
Although Leah, Chantrelle, and Hosanna are fictional characters, they represent the real stories of Caribbean immigrants who arrived in England after the landing of the first major voyage on the Empire Windrush in 1948. GBH Drama spoke to creator and screenwriter Sir Lenny Henry and actor Rochelle Neil about bringing this history to life on screen, and what they hope audiences take away from the series. Henry has had a very long career in entertainment. Classic Britcom TV fans likely still remember him playing the titular role in Chef, while younger viewers may recognize him from Doctor Who. This series is his first-ever venture into screenwriting, and Doctor Who showrunner and writer Russell T. Davies assisted Henry with the early stages of developing Three Little Birds.
“This was very hard work to bring to the screen, but I love that people just leaned into it and said, ‘you know what? This is our story’,” Henry said. “It's not just this one particular family. Let's tell it the best way we can.” Henry’s mom was part of the Windrush generation, so he was able to draw from her real stories when creating the show.
The characters of Three Little Birds encounter a darker side to 1950s Britain that other period dramas set in the same decade sweep under the rug. Leah, Chantrelle, Hosanna, and their friends and family face many macro and microaggressive forms of racism. White supremacist gangs tell them to “go back to Africa'' even though the British Empire forcibly transported enslaved Africans to Jamaica and the other Caribbean Islands. Landlords refuse to rent apartments to Black people, forcing them to rent properties that are poorly maintained. Those who suffer minor or major financial setbacks are susceptible to payday loan sharks connected to organized crime. Even the Anglican Church enforces racism by refusing to welcome Black parishioners.
While all of the women face these larger issues, each of them also has personal struggles to overcome. Leah left her kids with her mother because she could not trust her abusive husband to care for them. She left Jamaica without legally finalizing a divorce or separation but is still determined to build a new future.
“The most difficult thing in the filming process was right at the start and it was just permitting myself to go for it,” Neil said. “The story means so much to me. It's close to my family heritage. I just really didn't want to F it up. That was, I had to sit myself down and give myself a real talking to and say, ‘Rochelle, you wouldn't have this opportunity if you weren't capable. Get on with it.’ And the moment I did that, everything was just joyous.
“Leah comes to Britain and it's almost like she feels like she becomes this powerhouse, but she was already a powerhouse,” Henry said. “She loved her kids and she was living under this shadow of living with her husband and all the difficulties. Not everybody was having these problems, but there was a lot of it going on due to patriarchy and just the difficulty of being in a relationship where … you're thinking, this isn't what I signed up for. It was a joy for everybody involved in the edit — in putting the show together — just to see Leah going, ‘why aren't we earning enough money? Come on. We're going to get together and put some money together and we're going to do this ourselves.’ This is very similar to my mum. My mum had three jobs. If we do season two, Leah's going to have three, four jobs.” Neil added “by the time you get to episode six, Leah’s taken her life by the balls and she's going for it. And it was wonderful to get to explore that as an actor.”
Chantrelle takes a position as a nanny and quickly discovers the white family she works for cannot be trusted. The father confiscates her passport and illegally withholds her pay. Meanwhile, Hosanna had agreed to marry Aston sight-unseen, but after their meeting, she realizes their personalities may not be entirely compatible. For starters, Aston isn’t as keen on going to church. There’s also the fact that he has not told her everything about his life before she arrived. Hosanna can return to Jamaica if she chooses, but this would mean leaving her friends behind. Hosanna also believes her estranged father may be living in England, so there is the possibility of making amends with her past before starting her future.
“I remember talking to my mum and it was about work, it was about money, it was about running away from their old life and problems,” Henry said. “Some immigrants would arrive at Tilbury, they'd tell their family they were going to be in London, and then they'd go to Manchester because they were running away.”
Although these characters experience racial trauma, there’s also room made in their storylines for the joys of love, friendship, and personal fulfillment. There are weddings, dances, and social gatherings to attend. Leah and Hosannah both invest in a partner scheme where the participants contribute a portion of their paychecks regularly and each person in the scheme takes turns collecting the total sum of the contributions. Along the way, they meet white people who are willing to learn or don’t buy into the racist propaganda to begin with. Despite all of the hurdles they face, the bonds of their friendship never break.
The Windrush Generation of immigrants from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom after World War II has been spotlighted directly or indirectly in previous series and miniseries. Small Island, which aired on MASTERPIECE in 2010, features a young woman who leaves Jamaica for England on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Small Axe, an anthology series co-produced by BBC and Prime Video, spotlights the political, social, and personal lives of both the children of the Windrush Generation and newer arrivals in the 1960’s through 1980’s. And several plot lines on Endeavour and Call the Midwife feature characters from the Windrush Generation.
Three Little Birds not only fills in the timeline gaps its predecessors left, but also touches on social aspects of the Caribbean immigrant experience that other series do not mention, such as arranged marriages and separated families while one parent works to secure housing and passage. Some viewers may wonder why the characters do not get involved in protests or other civic actions to resist racism, however, it can be argued the addition of those elements would mimic other shows rather than letting Three Little Birds tell its own story.
Across the episodes, the series does not lose sight of how the survival of the Windrush Generation continues to impact British society today. The series also indirectly highlights the ongoing injustice of the British Home Office stripping citizenship papers from some Windrush Generation residents. These stories of survival in a society where the odds are stacked against you are easily relatable to the wider Black diaspora. “America's kind of like our big brother in a way, and African-American culture influences UK in more ways than we even probably realize,” Neil said. “I think the difference between Black Brits and African-Americans is that slavery wasn't on the ground in the UK as much. But in terms of the racism and stuff, I'd say it was pretty on par.” The shared history of reconstructing culture lost after the end of slavery is the theme that connects Afro-Caribbean history with African American history. Three Little Birds is essential viewing for anyone who wants to center Black British voices this month and hereafter.
The first three episodes of Three Little Birds are currently streaming on BritBox with the remaining three episodes premiering on Thursday, February 8th.