‘I’m here today because I love you.” That’s how Floella Benjamin, the children’s TV presenter turned advocate for children of all ages, usually begins. Sometimes she says those exact words. Sometimes, like today, she doesn’t have to. Thirty years in children’s TV, first as a presenter on Play School and later as head of her own production company, has made Benjamin adept at communicating not only with children but with the inner children of adults. It’s a skill that can make encounters unexpectedly emotional.
“Caring,” she says, that’s the secret. “And meaning it. On Play School, I said, ‘Hello, are you all right?’” She pauses, but maintains eye contact, and suddenly I’m four again, sitting cross-legged and too close to the TV, as her benevolent face smiles out at me. “I’m giving the child a moment to answer back,” she explains. “Because many of the children watching were living in children’s homes, or weren’t loved, or were being abused, and they needed somebody. I made them understand that I loved them.”
The feeling is plainly mutual. This Friday, Benjamin will receive the lifetime achievement prize at the Women in Film and Television awards. It is only the latest in a long list of honours that includes an OBE (2001), a special lifetime achievement Bafta (2004) and Freedom of the City of London (2018). Tom Hanks is starring in a film telling the semi-mystical story of Mister Rogers, Benjamin’s US equivalent, so perhaps her own Hollywood biopic is next?
“You’d have to embellish it a bit,” says Keith, her husband of 40 years, who occasionally chips in with supportive words and specific dates. “We always say our life is boring.” Well, it isn’t boring, but certain scenarios do seem to recur. These days, when Benjamin isn’t on stage accepting an award at some fancy gala, she’s hidden in a quiet corner afterwards counselling and embracing a stranger, who may be sobbing. Except they’re never really strangers – they’re her “Play School babies”, all grown up now, with responsible, high-flying careers, yet still hungry for Benjamin’s approval. “Most of the ministers in parliament are my Play School babies,” she says with satisfaction.
This is a matter of both pride and practical use in Benjamin’s position as a Lib Dem peer in the House of Lords, Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. The Beckenham part has special significance. It was in this London suburb that her parents, whom she calls Marmie and Dardie, eventually settled, after arriving from Trinidad and sending for 10-year-old Benjamin and her siblings. The racism began before they’d even moved in: “They sent the police to arrest us – to say black people don’t live here. My mum said, “You know something, we’re going to live in this house!” And we lived there for 40 years.” After her peerage was announced in 2010, Benjamin visited her parents’ graves in Beckenham cemetery. “I said, ‘Marmie, Dardie, I’m going to claim Beckenham for you!’”
Benjamin turned 70 this year, but her parents still come up regularly in conversation, because her upbringing is so central to who she is. It’s what gave her purpose: “I always say, ‘Childhood lasts a lifetime. [My parents] gave me so much love, poured it into me all my life. So what better thing to do than to hand it back out?”
She hasn’t always felt that love returned, however. Growing up, she was subjected to racist bullying and, on one memorable occasion, ridiculed by a teacher because of her Caribbean accent. “She said, ‘If you want to remain in my class, you have to learn to speak the Queen’s English.’” Benjamin was upset but, on the advice of her mother, complied. Some years later, she called upon the episode to escape an attempted sexual assault. “I turned and said to him, ‘How dare you! You guttersnipe!’ I morphed myself into my teacher, because I knew how she’d made me feel.”
Benjamin’s anecdotes about her schooldays are typical of a nuanced-yet-practical approach to tackling racism, one that is sometimes misconstrued. Adapting is not about feeling ashamed of her roots – it’s the opposite. “I’m never afraid of expressing my true me,” she explains, “and people take it or leave it. But I also learned from that teacher what I needed to do if I wanted to engage with people. Anywhere I go in the world, I can become.”
As chancellor of Exeter University during the 2012 Diamond Jubilee, she was charged with giving the Queen a guided tour. “We had a great time together. She told me stories about her family and shared ideas about life, children, food, everything. And I thought I’d share my story with her. I said, ‘You know, ma’am, when I was in Trinidad, I used to stand and sing God Save the Queen. I was told I was part of the Motherland. When I came to Britain, it wasn’t like that. I had to face so much adversity in Britain and so many barriers. But do you know? I don’t hate anybody, I don’t have any resentment in my heart.’” Her Majesty was moved, apparently. “She said to me, ‘When I’m speaking to you like this, it reminds me of when I was speaking to Nelson Mandela. He had the same philosophy.’”
So the woman who was reprimanded for not speaking “the Queen’s English” went on to speak English with the actual Queen. Such is the trajectory of Benjamin’s life. “Every day I say, ‘Take me, show me, lead me, I’m yours,’” she says, turning her face upwards and closing her eyes, as if to bathe in the sunlight of another blessed day. Does she never feel defeated? “Nothing gets me.”
Even the Windrush scandal couldn’t shake her faith in happy resolutions. Perhaps because, for a Caribbean-born British woman who lived through the 1960s, evidence of government hostility to immigrants is not “news”. When the first stories of deportations broke, Benjamin was already struggling to get funding for a Windrush-themed garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.
“They couldn’t see the importance of it. Why should they? It wasn’t part of their schooling. So when the Windrush scandal happened, suddenly everybody knew! Everything happens for a reason. People were falling over themselves to be our sponsor and we won a gold medal. We had white, middle-class people coming up saying,” — she adopts her teacher’s voice again — “‘Oh, here’s the Windrush garden! I know all about Windrush!’ If people had understood the history, we wouldn’t have got to where we are.”
On other issues, too, Benjamin is a reformer, not a revolutionary. Beginning with a polite enquiry as to why Play School’s story illustrations only featured white children, she has had several big successes. Most recently, she secured an amendment to encourage broadcasters to commission more quality children’s programming and she’s even sanguine about the rise of unboxing videos (people opening packaged products while describing what they find).
“If children want to go and watch things on YouTube, fair enough. But I think if they’ve got quality programmes on the main channels, they’ll be watching those. Every moment matters to the child under seven. So if you’re giving them rubbish, they’re going to accept rubbish in life.”
Still, Benjamin understands that not everyone was blessed with a Marmie and Dardie like hers. Which is why, even after four decades of passionate campaigning, there is still much work to be done on the causes closest to her heart: media diversity and children’s welfare. “Of course I find it frustrating,” she says. “I weep sometimes when I’m at home, but I’ve got a wonderful husband who knows just what I’m going through and how I’ve been trying to point out the lack of diversity. I’ve been told, ‘Shut up, you’ll never work again’, ‘Back off, who do you think you are?’ I’ve been told all of that – but I know eventually it will turn.”
Floella Benjamin will receive the EON Productions lifetime achievement award at the Women in Film and Television awards 2019 on 6 December.