Floella Benjamin: I still get asked, ‘What are you doing here?'
Former children's presenter and life peer Floella Benjamin talks to Hannah Stephenson about overcoming racism, and laying the foundations for the next generation...
FROM Windrush child to TV presenter and life peer sitting in the House of Lords, Baroness Floella Benjamin is a testament to the power of positive thinking.
The Trinidad-born mover and shaker – who many remember for her blue-beaded hair and dazzling smile, which won the hearts of millions of young viewers on Play School and Play Away in the 1970s and Eighties – has always been an optimist.
Her joy for life and infectious enthusiasm has been a formidable driving force, which has seen her entertain and educate countless children, bang the drum for a variety of campaigns and raise awareness on diversity.
She’s run marathons and supported charities, sat on boards and chaired Bafta’s children’s committee. All with a smile and endless energy.
If someone tries to block her goals, she takes a curveball approach.
“I don’t criticise people. I just know they haven’t seen it the way I see it but eventually they will. With that philosophy, you don’t have hatred or resentment in your heart. To have that positivity in life helps with your wellbeing and your mental state of mind, rather than sitting in a corner shrivelling up like a prune. That’s why I look so good coming up to 73. I just brush it off.”
Most recently, four years’ work as chair of the government’s Windrush Commemoration Committee came to fruition, as she witnessed the unveiling of the National Windrush Monument at Waterloo station.
Today, she recalls: “I arrived at Waterloo Station aged 10, at Platform Nine. Who would have thought that little 10-year-old girl, 60 years later, would be in charge of putting up a national monument to celebrate the resilience, the joy of coming to Britain to help rebuild Britain?
“We came with pride and dignity, and even though we were treated badly, we battled on. That’s a major achievement for me.”
She’s still smiling, despite the racial abuse she has suffered over the years, the career obstacles and the heartache of three miscarriages, and explains all in her new autobiography, What Are You Doing Here?
“The book isn’t about racism, it’s about showing people how to have a positive stance on life. It just so happens that many of the things I had to go through were because of the colour of my skin,” she stresses.
One of six children, Floella and three of her siblings were left in Trinidad with foster parents, while her ‘Marmie’, ‘Dardie’, a jazz musician, and two younger brothers made the journey to the UK in the late-1950s to seek a better life for the family.
“What they left behind was utter love and confidence in who we were. We could cope because we knew we were loved,” she recalls.
When little Flo eventually arrived in Britain 15 months later, it was a shock – one room in a bedsit, with a double bed for the six youngsters.
At school, children would touch her hair and giggle. They couldn’t understand her Caribbean accent. They’d taunt her with, ‘What are you doing here?’ and call her names she didn’t understand. But she stood her ground and they never saw her cry.
She was spat at, shopkeepers avoided serving her, dog mess was pushed through the family’s letterbox and racist messages daubed on their house wall.
She recalls waiting on a station platform with her sister when some men in a passing train saw them, unzipped their flies and tried to spray them with urine. On another occasion, she saw her brother beaten up.
“It [racism] was almost an everyday occurrence. You walked along the street and you never knew who was going to insult you.”
Initially, her fear turned to rage and then to physical violence. “Fighting physically was the only way I could feel better about the injustice of my treatment,” she writes. “I would lash out, fight and defend myself. I wasn’t going to be a victim. I was going to be a winner.”
The rage lasted for four years, ending when she was 14 and had an epiphany after shoving a lolly down a taunting boy’s throat, only pulling it out when he started turning blue. At that moment, all her parents’ teachings and love shone through to show her the right way to go through life. It was a spiritual moment, she recalls.
Her smile became her armour.
“My smile was going to show people that I’m not a victim. I’m proud of who I am and if people didn’t like the colour of my skin, it was going to be their problem, not mine. I tell this to children – to feel proud of who they are,” she says now.
At 17, she was beaten up so badly that she lost a front tooth. The bouncers at the bowling alley where it happened just stood there and watched, she recalls.
“Now, people who were horrible to me when I was growing up often write to me and beg for forgiveness. There’s nothing to forgive because it made me strong.”
She says racism is more subtle today.
“What happens is very subtle. You get that look. That’s why I called the book, What Are You Doing Here? I still get asked that question when I’m in certain circumstances. When I became the Chancellor of the University of Exeter, I was the first black woman chancellor in this country.
“At my first chancellor’s event, somebody in the room said, ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’ and not in a pleasant way but in a derogatory way. I was really grateful to Exeter University for choosing me, not because it was politically correct but because I was the best person for the job.
“Another time, I remember when I got a job on a board, somebody said to me, ‘Well, they’ve only got you because they are being politically correct because you are black’. I responded, ‘It’s only because you are white that you are where you are today. Now it’s my turn’. And I smiled.
“Rather than having an argument or trying to justify my existence, I put the ball back into their court.”
Her acting and broadcasting career – she appeared in theatre musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, became a well-known children’s TV presenter on Play School and Play Away and has had numerous film and TV roles – has been followed by years of campaigning for causes ranging from greater diversity at Bafta to the welfare and education of children, and better mental health support for people in reality shows.
She began her children’s TV career when the industry was still predominantly white. “It didn’t occur to me that I was the only black person here, but I was going to make sure that when I did get the opportunity, I’d open the doors for other people to come in. I was going to show them what was missing.”
As far as the film and television world is concerned, she keeps plugging away for diversity.
“My first challenge was in 1974 in [prison drama] Within These Walls and I said, ‘Why can’t we have more black, Asian and Chinese people playing professionals?’ Everywhere I go and everything I do, I try to get people to be all-embracing. When I see a change, I smile, because I know I’ve laid those foundations.
“I remember when Greg Dyke said the BBC is ‘hideously white’ and we’ve got to change [when he was director-general in 2001], there was no foundation,” she continues. “My job – people like Lenny Henry and Marcus Rashford are also doing it – is making fundamental change that is concrete and in place.”
She’s been with her husband Keith Taylor for 52 years, married for 42. They met when he was stage manager for the touring production of Hair and they have two children, Alvina and Aston. The couple have had their share of heartbreak when she suffered three miscarriages, but out of the devastation she is trying to make change for good.
“In parliament, I have a private members’ bill to have a certificate of loss, so that if you do have a miscarriage or stillbirth, there’s some sort of certificate to say that you’ve actually experienced it, if you need to have time off.
“Everything happens for a reason,” she continues. “The reason I had to go through that was to try to help other women and men.”
Made a Lib Dem peer in 2010 and a Dame in 2020 for services to charity, Baroness Benjamin shows no signs of slowing down and is still a self-confessed workaholic.
“I’m an achievement junkie,” she admits. And the smile says it all.
What Are You Doing Here? by Baroness Floella Benjamin is published by Macmillan, priced £16.99. Available now.