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Baroness Floella Benjamin on being Black on TV, Play School and giving hope to children in poverty

As Play School legend Floella Benjamin is awarded the Bafta Fellowship for her outstanding contribution to broadcasting, she talks about half a century of creating positive change in the culture industry and ending child poverty

Baroness Floella Benjamin

Baroness Floella Benjamin. Image: Bafta / Rachell Smith

At this year’s BAFTA Television Awards, Baroness Floella Benjamin was awarded a BAFTA Fellowship – the highest honour in television – for her pioneering role in creating a more diverse broadcasting industry and outstanding contribution to children’s television. Before receiving the award, she spoke to the Big Issue about her incredible career – from classic kids’ TV show Play School to the House of Lords – and lifelong mission to create positive change.

“My only motive is to make the world a better place for our children,” said Benjamin. “My catchphrase for the last 50 odd years has been: ‘Childhood last a lifetime – so let’s get this right.’

“I’m so grateful to BAFTA for blessing me with this accolade, and recognising someone from the children’s world.”

Even as a young performer in the 1970s, Floella Benjamin was confronting bigwigs and producers to push for a more inclusive, representative industry.

“In 1974, I was doing a show called Within These Walls,” she recalled. “I said to the producers: ‘Why do Black and Asian actors always play thieves and criminals? Why can’t we play professional roles, accountants, lawyers and doctors?’ They said to me, ‘Oh, Floella that’s not realistic, is it?’

“That’s when I started banging on doors and joining committees. Because you have to be around the table where the decisions are made. If you’re not around the table, you can’t change the world. I’ve persuaded so many broadcasters to get diversity on their agenda. I want diversity and inclusion to be in all the broadcasters’ DNA.

“I’ve done lots of other things in my career. I started off in dramas long before I did Play School. I’ve worked with all the top directors and done some great things. But my work with children, to me, is so important because it’s effecting the future. Because whatever children see stays with them – it effects their thinking and their behaviour.

“So we’ve got to have that same responsibility throughout our industry, to be to be truthful, to act with morality and integrity. I’m also getting children to see themselves which is a huge responsibility.”

Benjamin knows she is a pioneer. She refers to the millions of people who grew up watching her on Play School from 1976 to 1990 as her Play School Children. For millions, she was one of the only people of colour they saw on television on a regular basis. She can, she says, see her descendants all over the media.

After landing her dream gig on Play School, the show that would cement her position in the hearts of millions, Benjamin continued to push for positive action – despite everyone around her advising her not to speak out.

“I was always paving the way,” she said. “I was told I shouldn’t be speaking out. But I said, ‘No, I’m going to make a difference.’

“On Play School, back in 1976, all the illustrations were of white children. Now I was a young actress, I’d got a brilliant job, I was paid well. But I was confident in what I believed in, so I said to the producer: why can’t we have Black and Asian faces in the illustrations? Because if you don’t see yourself, you don’t know you belong.

“She said something very interesting: ‘Oh. We hadn’t noticed.’ I realised I had to get people to notice what was missing. And that would be my mission.”

Baroness Floella Benjamin receiving her Bafta Fellowship Award at the 2024 TV Baftas
Floella Benjamin receiving her Bafta Fellowship Award at the 2024 TV Baftas. Image: Stuart Wilson / BAFTA / Getty Images

For Floella Benjamin, this has involved persuasion and education.

“I’ve done it by example,” she continued. “By never accusing anybody of anything, but just saying, I’m here to open your eyes.

“People say, children don’t see colour. And I say, yes, they do. They see colour, but they embrace diversity naturally. I want us to grow up embracing it and valuing people for what they do in the world, what they’ve got in their hearts, not the colour of their skin or religion. Children do that automatically. I want us to see the world through the eyes of the child.”

In 2010, Benjamin broke further new ground, becoming the first Trinidadian woman to take a seat in the House of Lords – becoming Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. She has used her position to focus on children’s rights and better diversity, equity and inclusion in the media and beyond.

More children are growing up in poverty than at any time in the last 30 years. There has been an increase of 700,000 children living in poverty since the Conservative Party came to power in 2010 – meaning one in three children are now growing up in poverty.

So Benjamin’s recognition by BAFTA could not be more timely. If childhood lasts a lifetime, so can the impact and repercussions of childhood poverty. It is why the Big Issue has launched our latest campaign, in the hope that political leaders sign up to our demand to end poverty this election.

Big Issue is demanding an end to poverty this general election. Will you sign our open letter to party leaders?

“When I came to Britain, I lived eight people in one room. My mum used to say to us, ‘This room is full of love – whatever you do in life, remember you are loved.’ Now my message to you and your campaign is that we need society to give people hope,” said Benjamin.

“We need to show people there is a way out and make an environment where you can find a way out of poverty. And we’ve got to give children who live in poverty hope.”

Benjamin continues to campaign for a full cabinet post for a Minister for Children as another route to eradicate childhood poverty.

“Hopefully our voices will be heard,” she said. “Then all government departments would have to have joined up policies because they know it’s affecting children. And then we wouldn’t have poverty – because we would be thinking about how decisions and policies impact children.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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