It is 1957 and in Kingston, Jamaica, a ship is leaving port, its vast hull mottled with rust. On board are hundreds of British citizens, all of them bound for England, to which they’ve been encouraged to travel as workers, the shabby mother country still in the process of its postwar rebuilding. Our attention, however, is reserved for just three of this nervous but buoyant crowd: a trio of adorable – and excitable – young women. Leah Whittaker (Rochelle Neil) is on the run from a violent husband; her sister, Chantrelle Brahms (Saffron Coomber), dreams of being a movie star; their friend, Hosanna Drake (Yazmin Belo), hopes to marry their brother, Aston Brahms (Javone Prince), who’s already living in Dudley, and who will be there to meet them when their ship docks at Tilbury.
These girls are bursting with hope, but it’s an optimism that will last only as long as it takes to get a passport stamped. Notting Hill, where Aston has decided they’ll break their journey, is not only squalid, the streets piled with rubbish; almost the first thing Leah sees is a racist slogan. And while they’ll be spending only one night here – in the morning, they must drop Chantrelle in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, where she’s to work as a nanny for “a fine family” – this is time enough for disaster to strike. A party is thrown in their boarding house, the police arrive, and Hosanna, for no very good reason at all, is arrested. The trip to Borehamwood begins at the police station, where the others must await her early morning release.
And so it goes on. Lenny Henry’s new series, inspired by the Windrush generation to which his mother belonged, is nothing if not incident-packed. The father of Chantrelle’s small charges turns out to be a corridor creeper who doesn’t plan to pay her for the first month of her employ. Meanwhile, in Dudley, Aston takes Leah and Hosanna, now working in a factory, out for a drink, only for the pub to be set alight by teddy boys. The racism and the abuse never lets up – even at church. Hosanna is thrilled to find a grand place to worship, but after the service the vicar informs her that his congregation feels she might be better off elsewhere.
Is it too much? Has Henry fatally over-stuffed his saga? In truth, I’m not sure that he has, even if it does all feel a bit Catherine Cookson at times. I believe completely in the unrelenting foulness, even on the part of the vicar; a black friend of mine once told me a story about a church and her parents that matches his almost exactly. But there is, nevertheless, a problem here. Henry’s characters are so much in the service of his story (and, by extension, its message) that they seem more like types – even stereotypes, I’d say – than people. While I don’t think for a minute that writers should be allowed only to depict those exactly like themselves, Leah, Chantrelle and Hosanna do seem to me to be intensely male creations – something I find rather fascinating, politically speaking: women are somehow exempt from arguments about cultural appropriation.
Henry makes these three almost ridiculously saintly and stoical; when they’re allowed briefly to be sexy, we move into the realms of fantasy (he has Chantrelle reciting lines from Macbeth while trying on her employer’s fur coat). Hosanna, the daughter of a pastor, isn’t permitted quietly to have a faith; Henry has her proselytising unstoppably even at the most inappropriate moments, as if she’s quite stupid. But then, there’s something preachy all round here. When Leah does finally meet a decent white person, she can’t just be warm and friendly. She must make a little speech about how badly Jamaican labour is needed and appreciated. It’s as if she’s Barbara Castle, not the woman next door, out and about in her dressing gown.
The actors at the heart of this series are fabulous: you can’t fault their performances, tender and knowing. But they’re ill served by their dialogue. It doesn’t matter that Lenny has nothing new to say about the lives of black immigrants to Britain in this era; if he told the story well, that would be enough. This, though, is writing by numbers. All the good intentions in the world don’t stop a cliché being a cliché.
Three Little Birds
ITV1, 22 October, 8pm; available on catch-up
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War