Three Little Birds, the drama series now playing on BritBox, chronicles the lives of three women from Jamaica who migrated to the U.K. in the 1950s and encountered unacceptance in the country—despite being British citizens. The series, which first premiered in the U.K. in 2023, is the brainchild of British actor-writer Sir Lenny Henry.
With the show making its American debut, Henry, a known British treasure, wanted to tap into what British Jamaicans faced dealing with racism in the fifties. “It's the idea of moving from a place of poverty, deprivation and domestic violence to a place where you have a passport and you might get the chance to have a better life, make some money, buy a house, take care of your kids," he says. "There was a resistance to Black people in the country. Because we were visibly other, there was a lot of resentment. Anyone who left their mother country to come to a new place will get what this story is about. This is our immigrant story."
The racism felt in the 1950s for Black people on American and British shores can be commonly understood. "Jamaicans came from a colony to the mother country because we had British passports. And then, when we arrived, it was almost as if we weren't being welcomed. We were seen as different and rejected. My mom was chased down the street by White people saying, 'Where is your tail? Jamaica, what part of Africa is that?' People didn't know about Jamaica. They didn't know where we were from or what we contributed to British society."
Chronicling historical racism, Henry says, “This show was made for everybody. We all have this story to tell." He based his on his family.
"The inspiration was my mother's stories. But I've got quite a big family,” he declares. "My mother's stories were amazing. There was a period before she passed away in 1988 when she shared a lot of them and talked about Auntie Pearl, my sister Beth and my brothers Seymour and Hilton, and what it was like for them to come to this country. I wanted to portray what it was like for these people who walked those cold streets in the 1950s to find a new way of living."
Rochelle Neil plays Leah Whittaker, a woman who flees her home country to create a better life for herself and her kids. The actress had the opportunity to learn about the Jamaican migration through the series. “The script itself was packed. Sir Lenny, he did a lot of research; the script was packed with so much goodness,” she reveals. “I always describe this show as if we were cooking; everyone was coming in just adding their own flavors, spices and heritage.”
She also pulled from her own family. “My grandmother wrote a memoir, so I had a firsthand account of her life growing up in Jamaica, her and my granddad moving over and dealing with the good, the bad and the ugly. I had a solid resource to start my prep to make sure I was in the right mindset and the right headspace."
Neil was a new mom while shooting the series, so she could relate to the character she was playing.
“I always say roles come to you at a time in your life when they make the most sense. I wasn't surprised that I booked a job rooted in motherhood and her mission to get her children over to the UK and to have an amazing life for them because that's where my head was at."
"My little one was about seven months old when we started filming. As a new mom, I felt that primal energy, fear, love and devotion you feel, so I came packing. Sir Lenny was so gracious and gave me a lot of freedom and lots of encouragement to really grab her. And though his mom inspired the character, it's so many people's stories."
Watch Three Little Birds, now playing on BritBox.