‘Three Little Birds’ interview: Rochelle Neil plays Leah in ’50s Windrush drama

Three Little Birds begins on ITV tonight!

Set in the late 1950s, the six-part mini-series comes from writer Sir Lenny Henry (The Long Song, Chef) and the producers of The Good Karma Hospital.

Three Little Birds is inspired by Henry’s mother’s journey to Britain as part of the Windrush generation.

The new period drama follows Leah Whittaker, who tussles with her conscience about what she has left behind in Jamaica.

Running out on her abusive husband, Leah packs her three children off to live with her mother whilst she travels to Britain determined to make a new life for herself and to bring her children over once she has settled there.

Leah travels to England with her younger sister Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber), chaperoning their Christian friend Hosanna (Yazmin Belo), who they have chosen as a potential bride for their brother Aston (Javone Prince).

Leah is a pioneer who wants to build a better future for her kids but every step of her journey is dogged by guilt, fear and fresh challenges in the hostile mother country.

Spurred on by her determination to be reunited with her children, it is her journey of building a new home for all of them that’s truly transformative for Leah.

In her new community in the West Midlands, Leah finds friendship, love, joy and the woman she was always destined to become.

Three Little Birds premieres in the UK at 8pm on Sunday 22 October on ITV1, with all six episodes streaming on ITVX.

The series is set to debut on BritBox in the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Nordics in 2024.

Here, actress Rochelle Neil (The Nevers, Guilt) chats playing Leah and her journey, loving the ’50s costumes, and how it felt to play a character inspired by writer Lenny Henry’s mum:


Could you please introduce your character to us?

“Leah is the sister of Aston, played by Javone Prince, and Chantrelle, played by Saffron Coomber.

“She comes over from Jamaica after her brother requests that she bring him a wife, but we find out it’s also to flee a very abusive, toxic marriage.

“The original plan is to leave with her kids that doesn’t go to plan and so she ends up leaving on her own. Then she is on a mission to create a better life for herself and save up enough to bring her children over.”


What journey does she go on during the series?

“Over the six episodes, you watch her blossom. When you meet her, she’s very, very guarded.

“She’s very smart, but quite a calculated woman. She’s had to suppress a lot of herself, her dreams, her emotions for a very long time just to survive.

“Throughout the course of the series, you see her really grow and have almost the teenage-hood that she didn’t get to have because she was married quite young. She’s tough, but it’s more a sense of survival.

“I actually think of her as being a bit of a softie. Often the softest people come across as closed off because they have so much happening in their lives.

“Leah needs to allow herself to say, “Okay, let me see if I can find a husband and find happiness”. When you meet her like, she’s not wearing a lot of makeup and stuff. But she really blossoms, does our Leah.”


Did this story immediately chime with you?

“Absolutely. It’s one of the first scripts I’ve ever read where I thought, “This is my family’s story.”

“My dad was born in Jamaica and his mum and dad came over and then the kids arrived two years later. So they spent two years setting up home here.

“One of my dad’s earliest memories is the lights at Heathrow. He was about five and he doesn’t really remember his life in Jamaica. My mum was born here, but it was the same thing.

“My nan came over with a friend, my Auntie Bernice, and my Auntie Tiny, her older sister. It’s insane how similar their stories are to Three Little Birds. It’s like my exact lineage.

“My dad’s mum also wrote her memoirs, so I’ve had so much firsthand about her life in Jamaica growing up in the culture and going to church. She trained to be a seamstress as well.

“How lucky am I to have a script land in my inbox that is just so close to home for me and my family! It’s a joy.”


What did you learn from the experiences of your own family?

“When I spoke to my grandparents about me over here, they told me survival was a bigger thing than self-protection.

“They didn’t really have the same vocabulary that we have for our emotions and our mental health.

“It was very much like, “Get on with it. I need to keep a roof over my head. I need to keep food in my belly. I need to keep my kids alive and healthy.”

“Happiness hopefully will come. But that was never the goal.”


Were you daunted by the fact that Leah is inspired by Lenny’s mum?

“Yes. When I was first cast, it was really intimidating. It’s Sir Lenny Henry, and you’re playing a character inspired by his mama.

“And God love him, he’s just been really generous and gracious in giving me full rein to play Leah. He has seasoned the pot.

“If there was ever anything I questioned – “It’s interesting that she’s making this choice” – he would sit down and discuss that with me.

“He’s been incredibly encouraging and incredibly empowering and just said, “Go and fly. I trust you. I think you’re great. Have fun.””


How did you find the scenes where Leah is subjected to racism?

“I remember doing one scene where I was struggling not to cry. But Leah doesn’t cry.

“Like my grandparents, she is very proud. In my nan’s memoir, she wrote about racism as if it was a mental illness.

“She said, “I feel sorry for people who think like that.” The way she described it was really lovely.

“She was like, “God made the world in so many different shades. How many different flowers are there? How many different animals are there? They come in all different shapes, sizes, textures, hues. So why would people only come in one correct shade?””


How have you found the 1950s costumes?

“They’re fab! I wish they could come back in some way.

“When you go out these days, everyone’s in their trackies and their trainers and their leisurewear, which is just glorified pyjamas. But the outfits back then were wonderful.

“In her memoirs, my nan wrote about how you had different outfits depending on what you were doing. So you wouldn’t just pop to the shops; you would get ready to pop to the shops.

“When you came home, you would change back into your skivvies, but you would never leave your house in that way.

“You would always wear your Sunday best to go to the bank or the doctors or pop around to see a friend. It was an event.

“Everyone had a little hat or gloves or and would clean their nails, making sure everything was just pristine. It was lovely.”


What do you hope that audiences will gain from watching Three Little Birds?

“I really hope they find it warming. We do very much tell the truth and show the racism and the prejudice and the cold and the acclimatising.

“But for all that, it’s a joyous drama. I do feel like it has a very universal multicultural appeal because there is a cast of other races other than just Black people.

“And so I really hope people are entertained, and I really hope it starts conversations in households about that time I hope they think about the good, the bad and the ugly.”


Sir Lenny Henry’s memoir Who Am I, Again? is available on Amazon.