Sir Lenny Henry on how his Windrush drama was inspired by his family

Sir Lenny Henry on how his new Windrush drama was inspired by his own family, and why he hopes it will make you laugh… and cry: ‘The spirit of my mum lives on in this show’

  • READ MORE:  Lenny Henry reveals his beloved late mother emigrating from Jamaica and the ‘appalling’ Windrush scandal inspired him to write ITV drama

The era of mass immigration heralded by the Empire Windrush’s journey from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948 changed our history. 

Its impact is still felt today; it’s given us everything from the Notting Hill Carnival and champion athletes including Linford Christie to some of our favourite celebrities including Sirs Lenny Henry and Trevor McDonald.

So it feels odd that it’s taken so long for a drama like Three Little Birds to reach television screens. Based on Lenny’s own family story, this tale of excitement and danger, romance and racism is an important slice of social history.

‘These stories are all of ours,’ says Lenny, who collaborated with It’s A Sin and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies on the six-part series. ‘I want it to give people feelings. If it makes you smile, good. If it makes you cry, good.’

The plot focuses on three women who travel from Jamaica to England in 1957 in search of a new start. 

Sir Lenny Henry has said that Three Little Birds is based on stories about his mum and his family, his uncles, his aunties and his friends. Pictured L-R: Hosanna played by Yazmin Belo; Leah played by Rochelle Neil; and Chantrelle played by Saffron Coomber

There’s Leah (Rochelle Neil), who is inspired by Lenny’s own mother Winifred. She’s running away from an abusive husband but is determined to make enough money to send for her three children, who are living with her mother back in Jamaica. 

Leah has travelled with her little sister Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber), who’s mainly interested in fulfilling her dreams of stardom. 

The third little bird is their friend Hosanna (Yasmin Belo), the religious daughter of a pastor.

‘It’s based on stories about my mum and my family, my uncles, my aunties and my friends,’ Lenny says. ‘I’ve met so many people whose story this is. I wanted to salute them all. The spirit of my mum lives in Leah, who’s like John Wayne in a skirt.’

All three leads have Jamaican heritage. ‘In my many years of acting I’d never received a script that reflected my heritage in any way, let alone this closely,’ says Guilt star Rochelle. 

‘The stories were so insanely close to those of my grandparents and dad I thought Lenny had been following my family around for the past 50 years.’

For Yasmin, it ‘felt like I was living the stories I’d been told growing up’. Meanwhile, former EastEnders actress Saffron says it ‘hums in your bones because of its familiarity’.

It’s no surprise that England is not what any of the immigrants expected. A house they turn up to stay in has a ‘No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ sign in the window and throughout the series we see racism, riots and hatred. 

At times it’s not an easy watch, but it’s not all misery – because that’s not how Lenny remembers it.

Sir Lenny (pictured) collaborated with It’s A Sin and Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies to create the six-part series

‘I lived three miles from Smethwick where Tory MP Peter Griffiths got in after a campaign associated with the unofficial slogan, “If you want a n**ger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” I lived near where Enoch Powell made the “Rivers of Blood” speech. We exist in a time of overt racism,’ he says. 

‘But these people came and walked these cold streets and survived. They made friends, had allies, had relationships here.

‘People were funny. I wanted the show to have some snap to it, because I don’t remember people being depressed all the time.

‘We don’t show everything that happened. My brothers would tell me how they’d have to walk around in pairs because you could get attacked in the streets. 

‘One lady told me about people touching her hair on the bus and asking her what part of Africa she was from.’

Lenny admits seeing his family’s history come to life on set left him sobbing, but he feels now is the best time to tell this story. 

‘We live in a world where we’re poised between comedy and tragedy all the time. They say the best comedy is tragedy plus time, so we’ve come to a time now when we can look back. And we can find the funny and the tragic all in the same place.’

  • Three Little Birds starts on Sunday at 8pm on ITV1.

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