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Floella Benjamin: A Trailblazer in Children's Television

Updated: Jun 16

Windrush Month 2024 'Celebrating the Caribbean pioneers of the 1940s & 1950s' - exploring the lives and stories of the the early Caribbean people who came to Britain after the 2WW.

Floella Benjamin was born on 23 September 1949 in Pointe-a-Pierre, Trinidad and Tobago. She was one of six children, with an older sister, three younger brothers and a younger sister.

Her father was a policeman and a talented jazz musician, who decided to migrate to England to play jazz saxophone. Her mother later joined him along with Benjamin’s youngest sister and brother. While the four older children, including Floella, were left in the care of family friends who were secretly abusive to them. Benjamin and her sister often tried writing to their parents to tell them about the abuse, but the letters were always read, and censored before they were sent.

Two years later, her parents sent for all their children, and they travelled by ship to England. Floella was just ten years old when she boarded the Marques de Comillas with her siblings. They arrived at Southampton docks on 2 September 1960.

That early childhood experience was the focus of her first memoir “Coming to England,” which she wrote, she says “because there was nothing that reflected my experience.”

The family of seven initially lived in one room in Chiswick in West London before settling in the affluent London suburb of Beckenham, in Kent. Floella has talked candidly about the abuse she and her family faced whilst growing up with neighbours and at school.

“For the first four years of being in England. I fought almost every day. You never knew who would spit at you, or try to pee on you, or lift your skirt and say “Where’s your tail, monkey?” she said.

At school, Benjamin was an outstanding athlete, but she was prohibited from taking the running trophy home because of her colour. She recalls her mother’s advice to focus on her education, as it was the passport to success in England. Benjamin remembers realising that she had to double her work rate and had to be dually accomplished to succeed in England.[1]

The turning point in her life she, says, came in 1964 at 14, when she nearly killed a boy who was shouting racist names at her, as she walked to the shops in Penge High Street. She grabbed his lollipop and jammed it down his throat, watching him turn blue. Benjamin calls it her “spiritual moment”; the moment when she says she realised that violence was not the answer. She pulled out the lollipop and walked off proud. [2]

And the Benjamin family — high achievers all – made the classic immigrant journey so often held up by politicians of all persuasions. Working hard at school, gaining qualifications and entering the professions. [2] Her sister Sandra is a writer and author, and her brother Lester Benjamin was honoured in 2015 for his dedication to duty and services to Parliament over nearly two decades.

Floella’s ambition was to become a teacher, but her parents couldn’t afford the educational fees to keep her on at school at 16. So, she left school and spent three years working for a bank. Eventually, raising enough money to do her ‘A’ levels at night school, and passed her banking diploma with the intent of becoming the first Black female bank manager. However, realising that her dream would be unlikely to come true, she auditioned for a part in a touring musical called Hair. [3]

Used to singing on stage with her clerk and part-time jazz musician father’s band and organising dance nights for the West Indian Student Centre in London’s Earl Court, Benjamin responded to an advert in a newspaper in 1973 seeking non-professionals for a new musical tour. The show was “Hair,” famously controversial for its hippie onstage nudity. Going in her lunch break from the bank, you know all you need to know is Benjamin’s steely determination from the fact that she not only got cast but also rather presumptuously announced at the audition that she wouldn’t be taking her clothes off. [2] But she still got the role. It was during this time that she met her husband Keith Taylor, whom she now lives with in London together with their children.

Benjamin went on to get several parts in a variety of musicals including Jesus Christ Superstar and the Black Mikado. However, she was keen to break into television and made her debut on television in 1974 in an episode of Love Thy Neighbour. Her true acting opening occurred when she appeared as a prisoner in six episodes of the prison drama Within These Walls, which ran from 1973 to 1978. She also acted in the situation comedy Mixed Blessings (1978) and the drama serial Send in the Girls (1978). In 1976 she auditioned for the presenter role in Play School and got the part. Benjamin was the first person in Britain to wear beads in her hair in the 1970s – it was to become her trademark look. Benjamin was the first children's television presenter to appear on her show, pregnant. Playaway followed Playschool and Benjamin dressed up as a whole range of characters – from queens to witches – alongside well-known actors such as Brian Cant, Tony Robinson, Anita Dobson and Griff Rhys-Jones.

In 1977, she appeared in her first and only leading role in the UK Black film called Black Joy alongside Norman Beaton and Paul Medford. The movie was about a young man coming to live in a big city and learning to fend for himself. Benjamin was critically acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of ‘Miriam’ in the film, which was the British entry that year, the first Black-led film. By this time Benjamin had become recognisable by her beaded hair and was not best pleased when one photographer tugged at it when she walked down the red carpet.

In 1987, Benjamin set up a production company with her husband and was commissioned by Channel Four to write a children's programme called The Tree House. The programme was a huge success, and the company made other programmes for different places worldwide, including Cuba, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica. They produced children’s programmes Jamboree, Hullaballoo and an adaptation of her autobiography Coming to England, documentaries, cookery series programmes such as A Taste of Barbados, Caribbean Light and Caribbean Kitchen. [3]

Beyond her on-screen persona, Floella Benjamin has been a vocal advocate for children's rights and education. She was the vice-president of NCH Action for Children and Barnardos and was in the NSPCC Hall of Fame. And part of the ‘4Rs Commission’ which the Liberal Democrats established to look into primary education in the UK. She has voiced concerns about the lowering standards of children’s television and the increasing objectification of women because of the widespread availability of online porn to young children.

Floella's incredible journey from Trinidad and Tobago to becoming a respected figure in the British establishment is a testament to her unwavering determination. Just like the entire Windrush generation, she confronted and overcame the blatant racism prevalent in Britain, paving the way for those who came after. Recognised for her outstanding contributions to broadcasting with an OBE in 2001, she later became Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham in the County of Kent in 2010, making history as the first actress to be appointed as a peer in the House of Lords. In her inaugural address, she eloquently highlighted the significance of her childhood and the enduring legacy of her parents by choosing Beckenham as her title.



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