Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 19, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features Staying Power: An Interview with Baroness Floella Benjamin

Staying Power: An Interview with Baroness Floella Benjamin

Online Features Editor Bryan Knight Interviews Baroness Floella Benjamin on Race, 'Playschool', and her extraordinary career as a public figure.
5 mins read
Written by
Baroness Floella Benjamin [Photo Credit: Chris McAndrews]

Online Features Editor Bryan Knight Interviews Baroness Floella Benjamin on Race, ‘Playschool’, and her extraordinary career as a public figure.

Presenter. Author. Actress. Baroness. It is very difficult to summarise a person down to a single title. This task is made increasingly difficult when the person being described has lived a life as vibrant and varied as Baroness Floella Benjamin. 

Lady Benjamin spent her early years in Trinidad before coming to England in 1960. Having arrived in the ‘motherland’, she, like many post-war migrants from the Caribbean, was confronted with the harsh realities of an intolerant and racist Britain. Lady Benjamin recalled how “every day there was a fight, every day there was a feeling of rejection and you realised, living in here in Britain, you were no longer a person, but you were a colour”. Having moved to Beckenham, her family were met with hostility from neighbours who moved out of the area, verbally abused them, and even placed dog waste through letterboxes. “When we went to live there, they sent the police to arrest us because they said ‘black people don’t live here’”. 

She recalled having spent her teenage years trying to understand the racism she was encountering. At fourteen she encountered a “spiritual moment” which transformed the way she made sense of the world. She recalled having been in a fight with a playground bully when a voice reaffirmed her worth. “the voice said to me ‘Floella what are you doing? because of this boy’s stupidity, his prejudices, his ignorance – you’re going to get yourself into trouble. You can’t change the colour of your skin. If he has a problem with [it] then it’s his problem not yours. Start loving who you are”. 

We had to live in two cultures, in those early days. Caribbean at home. English when we went to school.”

Lady Benjamin spoke of her parent’s influence in her formative years. Her father, a musician, encouraged her to explore the world, whilst her mother reminded her that “education is your passport to life”. Lady Benjamin described being aware of her dual identity as a young girl and mastering the art of cultural code-switching. “we had to live in two cultures, in those early days. Caribbean at home. English when we went to school. My teacher told me if I wanted to stay in her class I had to learn to speak the queen’s English. So I learned to speak the queen’s English as well as carry on with my Caribbean culture: my food, my music, the dancing… I had the best of both worlds”. 

She went on to explain how she came to make sense of the racist environment in which she was thrust in. “I learned all of that when I had to walk the streets of Britain, having to know who is going to spit at me, who is going to be horrible to me. I had to work it out – that sixth sense. The resilience of going to a shop and not being served. Waiting, waiting, waiting maybe an hour. That gives you resilience. That gives you that staying power”

When I think something is not right I’ve always stood up and said so”

At sixteen, Lady Benjamin left school and started working at a bank, with the hope of becoming the first black female bank manager. She went to audition for a theatre show, during her lunch break, and was offered an acting role. Having taken a six-month leave of absence, she went auditioning and secured a string of other roles before breaking into television. Even in the early days of her career, Lady Benjamin maintained a fearless confidence that allowed her to speak up for what she believed. “when I think something is not right I’ve always stood up and said so”. She went on to recall a story from an early acting role. “The first part I got was playing a sixteen-year-old shoplifter and I told the writer, who was a top writer, Rosemary Anne Sisson, [that] ‘A sixteen-year-old black shoplifter would not say these words. I changed the lines. And they allowed me to do so”.

[Video Credit: Book Trust]

In the 1970s, she took on a job with the BBC presenting Playschool, an educational children’s programme. This became her iconic role, for which she is best remembered for. Her visibility on-screen was new to television. She became one of the first prominent black figures in British television. Lady Benjamin recounted the innocence of her young viewers. “Many of the children used to write and say ‘when I grow up I want to be you’ and they would send me pictures of themselves: blonde hair, blue-eye, ginger hair, freckles, but all they saw was Floella. Someone who loved them and they, in turn, loved me. They didn’t see the colour”.

Her time on Playschool certainly made an impact on the children watching, many of whom would follow in her footsteps. “I feel blessed and I feel loved. Every single day of my life, every day that passes by, I get a letter of love. An email came from Dermot O’Leary saying ‘you don’t know how much we love you, because you’ve been a role model for people like me. I’m Irish, so I know what it’s like to battle your way through but seeing someone like you has made me feel proud’.

In 2010, the children’s TV presenter entered the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat Peer and was granted the title Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. She dedicated the title to her parents, in honour of their perseverance during the unwelcoming early years. “I went to the cemetery and I said to both my mum and dad, who are now buried in Beckenham cemetery ‘I’m going to claim Beckenham for you’”. She went on to describe the significance of her appointment. “I now feel as if I’m standing on the summit of life’s mountain looking down at the valley of experiences [and] bringing all of that to the House of Lords. A place where four-hundred years ago the people who decided the fate of my ancestors [stood]. I’m now standing in that same place deciding the fate of the future. Who would have thought?”.  

Puppets from the BBC children’s series ‘Playschool’

Both during her career and as a peer, Lady Benjamin has championed causes concerning children’s welfare and matters of diversity and inclusion. “when I was on Playschool, back in 1983, I campaigned to get a minister for children. Because I realised [that] children don’t have a voice, they don’t have a vote, and we very rarely put children first in this country. I was told “no no no”. She went on to campaign for seatbelts on school buses and encouraged British broadcasters to increase the production of children’s programmes. “I’m a campaigner and I’ve always been a campaigner”. Lady Benjamin explained how she grew up around political activity. “My grandfather used to be the deputy prime minister of Antigua, so there’s politics in my DNA [and] my father was also a union man here in Britain”.

One issue of great concern for Lady Benjamin is black people’s participation in this county’s politics. “I try and encourage people from BME (black and minority ethnic) backgrounds to join their local parties, to speak out, to join the council”. She went on to argue “If you don’t like something that’s happening. There’s no point being a car park protestor or sitting in your front room. You’ve got to get out there and campaign and speak, because someone will listen. You’ll be amazed [at] how many people will feel the same way”. Lady Benjamin spoke of the importance of the upcoming election. “I think this election coming up, it can make a difference. People of colour can hold the balance because they can say to the politicians ‘what are you going to do for me?” [and], even more so, put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates”.

You can’t make changes unless you’re sitting around the table”

Lady Benjamin spoke of her dismay at the defeatism she had witnessed in certain sectors of the black community. she described how some black people had turned down honours due to the attached colonial legacy. “They won’t take it because of the word ‘Empire’ and what Britain stood for. Those are the days gone by. I’d love to see all of that changed. I’m working with the powers that be to change the title and that will happen eventually. But for now, you need to take the title”. She continued to argue her point, stating “You need to be vocal, to be visible for people to know what you stand for. And that’s how we make changes. Glance back at your history and move forward. Change the world. You can’t make changes unless you’re sitting around the table”.

Another big moment came back in 2006 when Lady Benjamin became Chancellor at the University of Exeter. During her ten-year tenure, she became famous for hugging graduates and instructing them to “change the world”. She explained why she adopted hugging as her signature gesture. A graduate had sent Lady Benjamin a letter saying that she had not initially planned on attending the graduation day because of tough family issues, but when she went and received a hug, she felt comforted and reassured of her beauty and value. In that moment, she “realised the importance of hugging those graduates”. 

Baroness Benjamin at the House of Lords Alumni Reception

Lady Benjamin described the dynamic partnership she had with the University’s senior management. “I have to thank Steve Smith, the Vice-Chancellor, for that, because he went on a limb. He had empathy with being an outsider and I think outsiders stick together and become partners. I loved my partnership with [him]. We understood the importance of social mobility and breaking down barriers. I loved my 10 years at Exeter”. Whilst representing the University, she championed social mobility and sought to find new ways to encourage minority students to pursue higher education.

Stand up for those who are being treated in an unjust way and say ‘this is not good enough. We will not stand for this. We want our university to be a place where all feel comfortable”

During our interview, the discussion turned to the infamous Bracton Law society scandal, in which Exeter University students were found to be exchanging racist, sexist and xenophobic messages on a society group chat. Lady Benjamin expressed her hope that white students “stand up for those who are being treated in an unjust way and say ‘this is not good enough. We will not stand for this. We want our university to be a place where all feel comfortable”. She went on to state the importance of adopting her ‘three-Cs’ which are consideration, contentment and confidence. Exeter, she said, “should be colour-blind. Don’t see any colour, you just see the person”. The important task, as she argued, is “Not focussing on the racism, but focussing on how you make the changes [to] open people’s minds”.

H.M.T. Empire Windrush

In 2018, a commemoration committee was established in response to the Windrush Scandal which saw black British citizens falsely deported under the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. Former Prime Minister Theresa May appointed Lady Benjamin Chair of the committee and gave her a million-pound budget in order to commission a Windrush monument.  Lady Benjamin explained how, before the scandal, she had consistently fought for such a recognition of the post-war Caribbean migrants. She stated that the monument was of importance as it enabled that generation “to see [that] their history is being celebrated and for the wider society to celebrate black history and feel part of it. Everybody in this country is part of the Windrush story”. 

Every disappointment is an appointment with something better”

In my final question to Lady Benjamin, I asked what the biggest misconception about her was. “I don’t think people know how deep I am. I think people see me as a smiling, bubbly person and maybe they see me as fluff, something that hasn’t got any substance to it. Until they meet me. Whenever I speak, people say ‘my goodness I wish people could hear you because you are so spiritual’… I think people see me as candyfloss maybe. When you work with children people very rarely take you seriously. When speaking to the baroness, one cannot help but be mesmerised by every word she says. She has the ability to make one instantly feel at ease. She has lived a life many could dream about. Her story is not only special due to its testimony of honour and determination, but also because within it lies a story about the making of a multiracial Britain. My biggest take-away from our discussion is a message she passed on to me as a guide for life: “every disappointment is an appointment with something better”. 

[You can check out Baroness Floella Benjamin’s podcast ‘From The Heart With Floella Benjamin’ on Global Player]

You may also like

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign Up for Our Newsletter