One of six children, Floella Benjamin was born in Trinidad, but was brought up in England. After leaving school at sixteen she spent three years in the world of banking and accountancy, but the staid Chief Accountants Office of Barclay’s Bank just didn’t suit her effervescent personality and she soon found her way into the world of showbusiness.
Over the last forty-seven years she has had a diverse and varied career in several sectors of the entertainment industry as an actress, presenter, writer, independent producer, businesswoman and media regulator.
It all started in 1970 when she appeared in several successful West End shows including ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘The Black Mikado’ with Michael Denison and ‘The Husband in Law’ with Kenneth Williams. She then progressed to television drama, one of her
notable early roles was in six episodes of ‘Within These Walls’ with Googie Withers.
She went on to work with some of Britain’s top directors including Richard Eyre, Martyn Friend, Richard Stroud, Martin Campbell and Jim O’Brien. Many drama, comedy, current affairs and magazine programmes followed, including ‘The Gentle Touch’, ‘Angels’, Kids, ‘Bergerac’, and several Plays for Today. She was also a regular presenter of lifestyle programmes such as Channel 4’s ‘A Houseful of Plants’ and BBC ‘Daytime Live’
In 1977 she appeared in her first and only leading role in the feature film, ‘Black Joy’, and she was critically acclaimed at the Cannes film festival for her portrayal of ‘Miriam’ in the film, which was the British entry that year. Thirty years later in 2007 she played cameo roles in ‘Run Fatboy Run’ and ‘Rendition’ with Jake Gyllenhaal
However she is best known as the iconic presenter of the BBC’s legendary children’s programmes, ‘Playschool’ and ‘Playaway’, through which she became a household name.
Floella has also worked on numerous radio programmes, from children’s education and entertainment shows to adult drama. She hosted her own current affairs programme on Radio London’s ‘Black Londoners’ for several years.
Floella has written and appeared in numerous educational, and entertainment videos and continues to narrate many commercial audio books and story tapes.
She has done hundreds of voice-overs for television and radio commercials
including Haze air freshener, Aero chocolate, Playskool, Mattel, Farley’s baby food, Kitekat and Anchor butter.
She has appeared in several pantomimes and Christmas shows including,
‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’.
She has appeared as narrator with a number of major classical orchestras, including, The Northern Symphony Orchestra, The East of England Orchestra and The Welsh Chamber Orchestra in performances of well loved, classical and contemporary pieces including, ‘Carnival of the Animals’, ‘Peter and the Wolf’, ‘Barbar the Elephant’, ‘The Snowman’, ‘Paddington Bear’ and ‘Super Ted’. She also appeared with The Ulster Orchestra and presented a series of six concerts in Northern Ireland, where she narrated ‘Tubby the Tuba’ and performed one of Aaron Copland’s ‘Old American Songs’ as well as introducing
several well known classical pieces. The concerts were televised by BBC Ulster.
In 2016 she narrated the world premier of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ at the Jersey Opera House, with the Jersey Chamber Orchestra.
Floella has written over 30 children’s books including, ‘Skip Across the Ocean’, ‘My Two Grannies’, ‘For Goodness Sake’ a guide to choosing right from wrong for children and young people, plus a definitive guide to Caribbean Cookery.
Her first novel, ‘Sea of Tears’ was published in 2012. She has also written many articles for magazines and in- house journals and has had regular columns in ‘Parents’, ‘TV Times’ and ‘Good Idea’.
Her best selling book ‘Coming to England’, published in hardback in October 1995, recounts how she and her family moved to England from their home in Trinidad. The book has also been published as an educational edition and is being used to teach modern history in schools and universities. Pan-Macmillan re-published the book as a 20th anniversary edition, which was selected as a Guardian ‘Book of the Year 2016’ and Times Book of the Month. Published in October 2020 is the picture book version of ‘Coming to England’ for 3 to 5 year olds. The stage musical of ‘Coming to England’ is expected to open in 2021.
The follow up to ‘Coming to England’ – ‘The Arms of Britannia’ was published in 2010 and covers her teenage years in London.
In 1987 Floella turned some of her boundless energy to setting up her own
television production company with her husband Keith Taylor. Since then she has produced hundreds of programmes, primarily for the audience she loves best……..children.
‘Treehouse’, her first production was a thirteen part series for Channel 4. She was then commissioned to produce a series of 131 pre-school programmes for BSB entitled ‘Playabout’. The series has sold in Asia and the Middle East. Her Channel 4 production ‘Hullaballoo’ (26 part series) has sold in numerous countries worldwide and won a major award in the USA – ‘Parents Choice, Best Children’s Video’, the first UK children’s programme to do so.
Her cookery programmes ‘Caribbean Light’ with chef Anton Edelman and ‘Caribbean Kitchen’, have been a great success both at home and abroad. ‘Jamboree’ her pre-school CITV programme claimed over 50% of the viewers in 2000. She has also produced
‘A Taste of Barbados’ a for Carlton Food Network which highlights the food and cultural diversity of the island. Her company also produced two more cookery series – ‘Great British Picnics’ and ‘Africa on a Plate’ which she also presented, as well as the eight part series ‘A Taste of Cuba’ about the people, history, architecture, culture and food of Cuba.
She produced a four part series for Carlton entitled ‘Statues & Monuments’ presented by Ray Gosling. In 2002 the BBC commissioned her production company to adapt her book, ‘Coming to England’ into a television drama. It won a Royal Television Society (RTS) Award.
She was the Chair of BAFTA – Television and created the successful BAFTA Children’s Awards in 1995, to recognise practitioners in the world of children’s film and television.
In 2004 she was awarded the BAFTA Special Lifetime Award for her services to children’s television and in 2001 she was awarded the OBE, ‘For Services to Broadcasting’.
She has received several cultural, community and business awards. And in 2012 she received the prestigious ‘J.M. Barrie Lifetime Achievement Award’ for her lasting legacy to children. In 2018 she was made a ‘Freeman of the City of London’.
As a successful businesswoman she diversified her talents and founded a ready meal business – ‘Floella Benjamin’s Caribbean Kitchen’ – producing Caribbean meals for the major supermarkets.
She also played a leading role as a regulator and board member of various organisations, including, OFCOM on the Content Board, National Film & Television School for 16 years and BBFC Children’s Advisory Panel. She sat on the board of Dulwich College for ten years, responsible for child protection, as well as being the Chair of Governors of the Isle of Sheppey Academy where she had to oversee a £54 million build budget. She was also a member of the supermarket ‘Waitrose’ Diversity Board.
Floella is particularly concerned with the plight of children, their human rights, education and welfare throughout the world. She created her role model initiative ‘Touching Success’ to motivate, raise aspirations and encourage social mobility amongst disadvantaged children.
For 20 years she campaigned tirelessly for a Minister for Children to oversee joined up Government policy a position which was successfully put in place in 2003. She also campaigned vigorously for diversity in children’s books and in the media for several years.
She was elevated to the peerage in 2010 and speaks on issues concerning children, women, diversity, media and the arts. In the Lords she has been influential in introducing legislation for child performance regulation, animation and live action children’s production tax break and provision for UK made children’s productions.
She is a Vice President of Barnardos, Patron of ‘Beating Bowel Cancer, ‘Sickle Cell Society’ and ‘Transplant Links’ a kidney transplant charity. She is also President of SWWJ (Society of Women Writers & Journalists, an RHS Ambassador and in 2019 was made a Vice-President of the Royal Horticultural Society’ and a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London.
In the past she has also been an advisor and supporter of many other charitable organisations including: The Book Trust, Pre-schools Playgroups Association, Oxfam, Save the Children, Friends of the Young Deaf, Cancer Relief Macmillan Fund, Parent Network, WATCH ( What About the Children), Turning Point and Brixton Prison Education Department.
Floella ran with the Olympic Flame in 2004, on its journey to Athens, carrying it through Peckham on its way through the streets of London. There she witnessed hundreds of children celebrating the event and this motivated her to campaign for the 2012 Olympics to be held in London.
She has completed ten consecutive London Marathon, raising money for Barnardos and Sickle Cell Society.
Until 2016 she was Chancellor of the University of Exeter for 10 years, (the first black woman University Chancellor in the UK). As a tribute to her tenure a statue was commissioned by the university to celebrate her legacy, and she is believed to be the only living black woman to be commemorated in such a way.
Her production company is developing a situation comedy set in the Caribbean, an animated feature film and other film and drama projects.
After 46 years in show-business she still regularly appears on Children’s television, especially BBC’s Bedtime Stories. She makes numerous public appearances making inspirational speeches to conferences, colleges, schools, prisons, organisations and award ceremonies.
She has been:
- Chairman Women of the Year Lunch and Assembly 1995 – 2000
- Chairman of BAFTA – Television – 1997 – 2000
- Member of the Millennium Commission -1999 – 2002
- British Board of Film Classification, Advisory Council- 1994 – 1998
- Honorary Associate, National Council of Women of GB 1989 – 2000
- Member of Royal Mail Stamp Advisory Committee – 1994 – 2001
- Member of the FCO Commonwealth Advisory Group -1997 – 2001
- Taskforce Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain – 1998 -1999
- Governor of the Commonwealth Institute. – 1998 – 2000
- Advisory Board Royal Commonwealth Society 1998 – 2003
- British Board of Film Classification’s Advisory Panel on Children’s Viewing – 1999 – 2004
- Governor of The National Film & Television School – 1996 – 2014
- Governor of Dulwich College – 2001 – 2011
- Member of the LAMDA Development Committee – 1999 – 2001
- Member of OFCOM Content Board – 2003 – 2006
- Member of Waitrose CSR Advisory Board – 2012 – 2016