I was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, in a a small town called Pointe-a-Pierre on the 23rd September 1949. My first memory of that wonderful sun drenched Caribbean island was when I was three years old and I treasure those memories. I came to Britain in 1960 and experienced a huge culture shock because I expected everyone to treat me kindly and with respect, but Britain was cold, unwelcoming, violent and bleak. I had to learn to live in two cultures fast if I was going to survive.
My beautiful mother showed all her six children masses of love which gave us confidence. She told us each day before we went to school that education was our passport to life and to go to school and learn everything the teachers told us. I did just that and loved my time at school because my mum set us that goal!
My dad was a jazz musician and a great philosopher. He opened our minds to the world and taught us how to think outside the box.
I always wanted to be a teacher but my parents couldn’t afford to keep me on to do my A Levels so I had to leave school at sixteen. I worked in a bank for three years whilst doing my A Levels at night school, I thought I could be Britain’s first black woman bank manager but I soon realised it was an impossible dream in those days. So I auditioned to go on a national tour of a hit musical. I hadn’t been to drama school so I got the bank to keep my job for me just in case I didn’t like being on stage. But I never went back!
I appeared in several stage musicals, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Black Mikado, and had a great time performing but I also wanted to be on television so I kept on auditioning until I got a break. It came with a drama called Within these Walls with Googie Withers. It was the chance I needed and after that I went on to appear in one drama after another working with some top directors and producers.
At the same time I was appearing in Playschool but no one recognised me as I wore a wig over my blue beads which was my trade mark at that time. I was the first person in Britain to wear beads back in the 70’s now it is an accepted fashion. I did Playschool for 12 wonderful years and loved every moment of it. Working for and with kids is the best job in the world. It’s also like an insurance policy they grow up being faithful to you.
I went to the Cannes Film Festival in 1977 with Black Joy which I starred in. That was an amazing experience, the crowd tried to get a piece of me literately, by grabbing my beaded plaits, something they had never seen before.
In 1987 I started my own television production company. After years of being involved in working on all different types of programmes I thought I would like to become a producer. I set up a company and was commissioned by Channel 4 to make ‘Tree House’. It was pretty scary: at one point Channel Four cancelled all children’s programmes and wanted to stop the production but thank goodness they saw sense and let us continue. The show had some amazing guests including Rick Wakeman, Roger McGough, Linda Bellingham and Bill Oddie.
From there my company went on to to make dozens of programmes some filmed in countries like Cuba, Barbados Trinidad and Jamaica.
The programme I am most proud of is Coming to England which is based on the book I wrote in 1995. It’s based on my life and is about what it’s like to be different, to come as a child from a different culture to a new country where you are rejected and have to face adversity day after day. How to survive and win through.
It won a Royal Television Society Award in 2004, which was great as it has a real affinity with children who study the book at school and watch the film on BBC Education.
When I get the chance to perform I remember why I came into show business. For instance when I do pantomime it’s wonderful to get the reaction from the audience, they certainly let you know if you’ve got it wrong or right.
In 1984 I did my first panto, ‘Puss in Boots’ in Camberley and my son Aston played little Puss. He did five pantos with me but my daughter Alvina never wanted to appear even though she is a great comedy actress.
When I sing I am in my element, I am transported to another planet. I started singing with my dad when I was a teenager. He had a jazz band and he got me to sing with his band which I loved.
I sang in the first episode of Bergerac in which I appeared in 1981. (Everyone thought it was Sarah Vaughan singing which was a great compliment!)
I also love performing with classical orchestras – I would have loved to have been a diva! I often perform ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and ‘Tubby the Tuba’ with some amazing orchestras all over the country. I have never but would love to do a recording of either of these, performing with large orchestras is out of this world.
My real passion is for inspiring children and young people and I have recently started Touching Success which aims to give young people the chance to meet role models who have achieved success in their chosen field.
I believe one should always give as much as possible to try and make a difference wherever or whenever you can. So for the last 25 years I have campaigned on behalf of children. I lobbied the last three Prime Ministers to have a Minister for Children to oversee the interest of children and young people until we eventually got one. And, over twenty years ago I pleaded with the publishing world to reflect our society in their books for children especially their picture books as up until then there were only white faces in books. I’m thrilled to say the publishers responded positively and since then there has been a significant change in their approach.
Diversity is an important issue for me and I believe we all need to have an informed understanding about the importance of it to be reflected in every aspect of our society, especially in our media which touch millions at any one given time. When diversity is embraced we become culturally richer.
I have had an amazing life so far, in 1999 Michael Aspel surprised me with his ‘Red Book’ in the Millennium Dome when it was being built, and some of that life was displayed before me.
My dad was put out of business as a jazz musician because of the advent of rock & roll and pop music. So in the 60’s he banned his children from listening to it. Ironically now 50 years later I am a ‘rock chick’ singing with a rock and blues band. Ken Follett the author has a band called Damn Right I Got the Blues and I am the singer . I do anything from ZZ Top to Tina Turner…. And I love it!
I had been told I was doing a piece for the BBC National Lottery programme and when Michael appeared and said the words, ‘Floella Benjamin …This is Your Life”, I was speechless, all could do was giggle. Two hours later when I had fully composed myself back in the studio, family, some from abroad, friends, school teachers and work colleagues were paraded before a dazed me!
My husband said he never wanted to go through that again as he had to lie to me on several occasions so that I wouldn’t find out the secret. It was only after the event that I could take it all in and enjoy what had happened.
Other amazing things that happened to that little girl from Trinidad who had to face adversity and rejection, was in 2001, 2004 and 2005.
In 2001, I received an OBE for my contribution to television. The same year I was asked to be a Governor of Dulwich College and to open a new wing of the College. My connection with the College goes back a long way. In 1963 my mother supervised the laundry for the boarders. Years later my son secured a place at the College and was there for 11 years. To have the inscription on the wall “This wing of Dulwich College was opened by Floella Benjamin, OBE” is a wonderful legacy for my mum and family.
In 2004, I received a BAFTA Special Lifetime Achievement Award again for my contribution to television.
In 2005, the most amazing thing that has happened to me was to receive an Honorary doctorate from the University of Exeter for having had an influence on British society through my work – just think me Dr Flo! This was great because I didn’t have the opportunity to go to university, I have only been through the University of Life and what a diverse life I have had so far.
But now I am installed as Chancellor of the University of Exeter and get the opportunity to touch future leaders and policy makers.
I love running and loved training for the London Marathon. I have completed ten London Marathons for Barnardos, When I was 50 years old, I promised to run ten for them …. Yes, I know I made the promise in a moment of madness, up until then the furthest I had ever run was 200m.
I was the President of the Ramblers and tried to encourage people from all walks of life to do what comes naturally to us..walk to keep fit, physically, mentally and emotionally. I really recommend walking and running to all women over 50, not only is it a great way to keep fit and have firm thighs, but it’s a wonderful way to get some ‘me time’, because you are free from all forms of communication. While I am running and walking I think up ideas for programmes and projects. I also write some super speeches in my head, the only problem is I can never remember them when I get home!
In 2004, I ran with the Olympic torch through Peckham, what an honour that was to be selected for such an historic event.
In 2008 I was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London and my first duty was to greet Princess Royal at the Law Society for a Lady Ratling celebration.
The achievement that gives me the biggest smile of all is being made a life peer and being introduced to the House of Lords as Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. See my Maiden Speech here.
I feel as though I am in a good place at the moment, happy and contented. Goodness knows what’s in store for me next… Whatever it is I am looking forward to it with a big smile on my face!
You keep smiling too. Remember … WINNERS SMILE… keep in touch.