Lenny Henry rues fate of black TV dramas after Three Little Birds axed

<span>Lenny Henry says he plans to turn Three Little Birds into a book.</span><span>Photograph: David Vintiner</span>
Lenny Henry says he plans to turn Three Little Birds into a book.Photograph: David Vintiner

Lenny Henry says “many black dramas” are being axed after one series, with his Windrush ITV drama Three Little Birds becoming the latest victim.

Henry said he would turn Three Little Birds into a book instead as he had stories planned out for the characters for a second series.

A decade on from his rallying Bafta speech, which called for more diversity in the creative industries, he told the Guardian he was concerned about a trend for new shows being given “just one shot”, as TV faced cuts caused by a downturn in advertising and commissioning.

He said: “These days, it seems that many black dramas only get one series, there are numerous examples of this – and sadly, Three Little Birds is just one more in that same category.”

Henry added it was now difficult to get TV dramas away unless there were big names attached and warned the industry needed more investment in diverse, lesser-known talent to make them “the stars of tomorrow”.

Related: ‘I watched it and burst into tears’: Lenny Henry on his poignant, hilarious ode to Windrush

He said he was “very sad” that West Midlands-based Three Little Birds – which was a testament to his parents’ generation and their experience of immigration in the 1950s – would not return, particularly as, “we had the most diverse and inclusive team working on the show”.

“We were only just getting to know Rochelle Neil, Saffron Coomber, Yazmin Belo and Javone Prince and their stellar performances as Leah, Chantrelle, Hosanna and Aston: the audience reaction was amazing and I had some really good storylines planned for their characters.”

He thanked “everyone at ITV for commissioning Three Little Birds in the first place” and said he was, “very proud of our achievement – we’ve won awards and put out real stories that speak to a lot of people”.

“But the reality is these days, the TV market is very tricky to navigate unless there are big names attached to a project. A show will often get just one shot and if it doesn’t meet broadcaster expectations – that’s it – it’s likely cancelled after one series. We sadly don’t give shows the opportunity to grow with the audience, like we did 10/15 years ago, which probably is down to how we consume things.

“I would really like to see some longer-term investment in lesser-known and diverse talent, in order to make them the stars of tomorrow. These things take time.”

Henry added: “I plan to take the characters from Three Little Birds and create their further adventures in a book. Meanwhile, moving forward, I’ll just have to pitch TV projects starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Judi Dench. Wish me luck!”

An ITV spokesperson responded: “It was a very difficult decision as we really wanted to commission another series of Three Little Birds, but unfortunately the audience didn’t come to the drama in the numbers that we’d hoped for.

“Everyone who watched the series really loved it, and for that reason we’re really disappointed we can’t make another series happen.”

They said ITV had “loved working” with Henry, the producers Tiger Aspect/Banijay and the actors “and hope to work with them on another commission soon”.

The news comes despite Three Little Birds being in the top 50 most-watched shows when it premiered in October 2023, with almost 3 million viewers, according to television ratings agency Barb.

It was the only diverse drama in the top 50 and just 192,000 viewers behind the Line of Duty writer Jed Mercurio’s ITV crime thriller Payback – which is also not returning.

ITV is under pressure to deliver ratings in a tough market but it is understood Three Little Birds, like another ITV black-led drama Riches (which is also not returning due to lower-than-hoped ratings), did well in the US on streaming services BritBox and Amazon respectively.

The popularity of black drama was shown by Top Boy winning this year’s Best Drama Series Bafta, having been axed by Channel 4 but revived by Netflix.

There are fears that with TV production cuts leaving about 70% of freelancers out of work, diversity will suffer.

The Film & TV Charity’s ceo, Marcus Ryder, told the Culture, Media and Sport committee last month that “there is a real fear” among diverse TV workers “they will disproportionately feel the brunt” of cuts.