Lenny Henry’s Three Little Birds has been described by ITV as a “triumphant” and “life-affirming” Windrush drama, celebrating immigration and community. I’m not so sure, because in the first half of this innovative, soap-like miniseries, there’s precious little that feels remotely triumphant.
Cathartic, yes; life-affirming, not so much. Three little birds (I assume a reference to the Bob Marley song), all in their twenties, come to England from Jamaica in 1957. They arrive about a decade after the first wave of the Windrush generation, and thus are able to settle with an established Caribbean community to help them, and before the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act removed the automatic right to settle in the UK as a British (empire) subject.
Chronologically, this was the group to arrive, bewildered, just in time to experience the early waves of crude discrimination and race riots in west London and the Midlands.
There’s Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber), an adventurous type who dreams of being a film star. In stark contrast to her is Hosanna (Yazmin Belo), a proud Christian and daughter of the local pastor back home (a cameo for Lenny Henry, who wrote the show with Russell T Davies). Hosanna clutches her family bible to her chest on raucous nights out as if it were a kind of morality shield. She’s over in the UK looking for a hubby.
Most serene of the trio is Leah (Rochelle Neil), who has no choice but to escape grinding rural poverty and a drunken abusive husband, and who leaves her three kids behind with their gran in the hope of bringing them over later on.
All are immensely sympathetic characters, played with a vivid sensitivity. They thus represent what a pollster might term a “representative sample”, and there are lots of insightful glimpses into the lifestyle of the community at the time – the house parties with music from home because they were unwelcome in the pub, the informal “partner” savings schemes, the patois, and that terrible anguish about why, tough as life was in the British West Indies, it seemed like paradise compared to freezing, dull, grey England.
An awful lot of Three Little Birds makes one ashamed to be British – and so it should. Anyone with a sense of racial justice, or just common decency, ought to be appalled. The Windrush generation were treated badly – cold-shouldered by their neighbours, their local boozers, and even the churches they were made to feel were not for them. The series is extremely effective in conveying that routine cruelty that was meted out to those who came to make a better life in Borehamwood or Dudley.
The people who came to this country in that era had tremendous spirit – any migrant must possess that quality, by definition. They also had great resilience and a fine work ethic, contrary to the racist mythology – they did the jobs the locals didn’t fancy, and for less money. For their efforts they were given a hostile reception, and subjected to the kind of open, hurtful abuse that would now be illegal – and is mercifully, at least as my memory serves me, less commonplace and blatant these days.
We all know about it, and have witnessed it one way or another, but somehow seeing vicious, violent racial attacks on screen, and it all taking place within the cosy world of post-war England, as it’s often been portrayed in TV dramas (Call the Midwife, the Miss Marple mysteries, Heartbeat), makes it all the more jarring. This was indeed a world where a pub could have every window smashed in by the Teds, just for serving Black customers. Only for reasons of taste and decency are the racial epithets and the racially aggravated injuries toned down in Three Little Birds. It’s a small mercy for the viewer.
So Sir Lenny’s semi-autobiographical tale starts as a rather depressing and sometimes disturbing watch. Seeing the girls’ naive dreams – that they’ll soon end up having high tea at the Ritz with Queen Elizabeth – being crushed is almost too much to bear. All through the episodes there is a terrible sense of foreboding, just knowing they will end up in overcrowded slum housing, working for a pittance, being spat at, told to “go back to Africa”.
In Chantrelle’s case, she ends up in a state of genteel slavery as a skivvy for a prosperous middle-class family. She is patronised and bullied by the white housewife, and molested by the creepy husband. Hers is an especially heartbreaking story. There’s a lot unresolved in the early episodes, which makes one want to see all the more if the “little birds” ever get to fly as time goes by.
The drama, as I guess was intended, makes one ponder how we can live in a country, decades later, where people in public life, and many more lurking in the more vexatious corners of social media, feel free to declare that multiculturalism isn’t working, and that “mass migration” was a “failure”. If so, you have to ask whose fault it is. Lenny Henry gives us an answer.