A new warts-and-all drama by Sir Lenny Henry gives a frank and often disturbing account of life in Britain for the Caribbean immigrants who followed Windrush.
The Comic Relief legend, now celebrating 50 years on our screens, was inspired to write Three Little Birds by his family.
“They’re all the stories of Mum and her sister and best mate coming to Britain, 10 years after Windrush,” revealed Sir Lenny.
The six-part drama, beginning on ITV tomorrow, will be complemented by a documentary on Thursday charting Lenny’s rise from obscurity in the West Midlands to national comedy treasure.
Household names, including David Tennant, Ben Elton, Alesha Dixon, Richard Curtis and Sir Trevor McDonald, comment on his 50 years in the spotlight.
And Hollywood superstar Whoopi Goldberg champions the man she declares “a real-life superhero”.
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In the new drama, Sir Lenny admits he doesn’t pull any punches on how the new arrivals were treated: “These are tales about migrants arriving on boats, becoming embroiled in this supposed motherland where work is meant to be better.
“However, on arrival, they discover the day-to-day of dealing with life is difficult.
“My brothers would tell stories about how they’d have to walk around in pairs because you’d get attacked in the streets.
“A lady told me about people touching her hair on the bus and asking her what part of Africa she was from. But at the same time there were acts of kindness from unexpected quarters. There was immense joy, a bustling, multi-cultural life, of a community doing its best to unite.”
He reveals he had help from Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies: “The stories were very much me vomiting out what I wanted to write, and Russell helping me organise my thoughts for the first episode.
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“From that I went away and wrote a script. And then, suddenly, ITV just said, ‘We want to do it straight away’.”
Sir Lenny said his mother inspired the main character of Leah: “The spirit of my mum lives in Leah (Rochelle Neil), who is like John Wayne but in a skirt.
“She doesn’t take any crap from anyone and knows her stuff. She will fight for her friends and her family.
“Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber) is the flighty clown who wants to be a movie star, that’s her motivation for leaving Jamaica. When she gets here, she realises there are no movies for a good-looking person who can recite plays but happens to be black in 1957.”
Much of the theme, said Sir Lenny, is the “celebration” of dealing with adversity.
He adds: “You really do feel the struggle. I think it’s going to take people on an amazing ride.”
- Three Little Birds, ITV, tomorrow, 8pm; Sir Lenny Henry: One of a Kind, ITV, Thursday, 9pm
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