The star’s semi-autobiographical period drama about Jamaican immigrants moving to England in the 50s fails to get under the skin of its characters. It needs more grit
‘A lack of grit and texture’ … Rochelle Neil as Leah, Yazmin Belo as Hosanna and Saffron Coomber as Chantrelle in Three Little Birds.
Our grandparents are a mystery to us. Perhaps our parents are, too. They travelled vast distances to start new lives in strange continents – how were they so brave? They endured unhappy marriages and exhausting, demeaning work – how were they so resilient? They raised us not to ask impertinent questions, then died without explaining themselves. So how are we now to understand them?
Lenny Henry’s new period drama set in Dudley addresses some of these mysteries by telling the stories of three women who – like Henry’s own mother – left Jamaica in 1957 to find their fortunes in the supposedly welcoming “mother country”. That’s England, pronounced “HIN-gland” by God-fearing young ladies like Hosanna Drake (Yazmin Belo), the prim preacher’s daughter who has been lured aboard the boat by determined, resourceful Leah Whittaker (Rochelle Neil), as a prospective wife for Leah’s already Dudley-based brother, Aston Brahms (Javone Prince). Also along for the ride is a third Brahms sibling – flirty, flamboyant Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber) – who hopes to pursue her dreams of movie stardom via a nannying job with a family in Borehamwood.
Henry, the light entertainment legend turned media diversity champion, is now fully immersed in his mogul era and has already been involved in similarly themed, critically acclaimed series. There was 2019’s moving family drama Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle and 2022’s sensitive and wise My Name Is Leon. But this series – on which he serves not only as creator and executive producer but as writer of four out of six episodes – must be his most personal yet.
The plotlines, inspired by stories from Henry’s own family, illustrate experiences that many other immigrant families would recognise. The overt racism of the neighbours, painted on walls and shouted in the streets; the substandard yet overpriced accommodation; the roughly severed emotional ties to home. All this amounts to a particularly brutal kind of disillusionment for these Commonwealth citizens arriving – on their British passports, mind – to discover a total lack of maternal warmth in the mother country.
Regrettably, Three Little Birds is set too early to also offer a heartbeat-syncing soundtrack of ska and dub reggae – the genres on which Jamaica’s outsize musical influence is based didn’t really get going in the UK until the early 1960s, while the eponymous Bob Marley track wasn’t recorded until 1977. Instead, when someone throws a blues party in Notting Hill, it’s the US genres of boogie-woogie and ragtime the sisters dance to, forcing an unfavourable comparison with the transcendent Silly Games scene in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock. Even the chance to pay tribute to real-life Trinidadian pianist and chart-topping pioneer Winifred Atwell doesn’t fully compensate.
There is also a lack of grit and texture elsewhere in the drama. Plenty of promising supporting characters – including no-nonsense neighbour Mrs Biswas (Shobu Kapoor) and the landlord at the semi-integrated pub where a race riot breaks out (“This is a piggin’ nightmare … drink up, Beryl!”) – are neglected once introduced, like children born out of wedlock before the big move. It might seem wise to keep the focus on the three female leads – all the cast perform with a confidence that speaks to a happy, diverse behind-camera team – but Three Little Birds doesn’t just put these women front and centre; it puts them on a pedestal.
Their character traits and antics seem sanitised, as if derived from the letters a young person abroad writes home to worried relatives. There are reasons, for instance, why a woman might stay in a relationship with a man who repeatedly deceives and betrays her, as Aston does Hosanna, especially a woman living in a hostile new country without any family support to fall back on, but those reasons aren’t explored here. And what’s going on between Chantrelle and fellow nanny Siobhan (Michelle Fox)? Their curiously intense bond must surely be underpinned by simmering lesbian desire, yet this is either clumsily inadvertent or timidly underplayed.
Three Little Birds exhibits deep reverence for its characters, but it doesn’t really seem to know them. And while respect for the Windrush generation is entirely appropriate – especially after the profound disrespect demonstrated by successive home secretaries – it doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying, engaging television drama. We must respect our elders, sure, but wouldn’t it be better to understand them, too?