Floella Benjamin

Receiving the BAFTA Fellowship Award last month put one of the nation’s favourite entertainers front and centre once again.

To millions, Floella Benjamin is a kindly aunt who kept a generation of children entertained in the 1970s and 80s. To others, she is a leading campaigner for the Windrush generation; a campaign that should never have needed to happen, and a champion for the empowerment of women.

To business people of today, she is a motivational speaker, talking from the head and heart about courage and love. To others still, she is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords.

Dynamic tells the story of a national treasure…


Floella Karen Yunies Benjamin, better known today as Baroness Benjamin, OM, DBE, DL was born on September 23rd 1949, in Pointe-à-Pierre, Trinidad and Tobago, one of six siblings, with one older sister, three younger brothers and a younger sister.

Her father, “a policeman and a talented jazz musician,” decided to emigrate to Britain, with her mother later joining him along with Benjamin’s younger sister and youngest brother. This led to a brief family separation, with the four older children – including Floella – left in the care of family friends. The ‘family friends’ looking after Floella and her sister were secretly abusive. She and her sister tried writing to their parents to tell them about the abuse, but the letters were always intercepted before they were sent.

In 1960, the rest of the children went to join their father in Beckenham, in those days in the county of Kent. Floella has talked of the racist experiences she had when arriving in Britain as an immigrant, such as with neighbours and at school.

After leaving school, she went to work in a bank. While working there, she studied for A-Levels at night school. She had a spell as a stage actress in West End musicals, including appearing in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Black Mikado and The Husband-In-Law, as well as several pantomimes.

On screen, she appeared in the 1975 horror film I Don’t Want to Be Born and starred in the 1977 film Black Joy. In 1976, she began the role for which millions of then children, now 40 and 50-something parents and grandparents will always remember and cherish – presenting children’s television programmes, most notably Play School for the BBC.

According to TV fan site, TVCream, “Floella vaulted over childhood ambition to become a pioneer of cultural diversity in mainstream entertainment, breaking down cultural walls by sheer weight of hyperactive force and singing calypso-lite, reggae-inflected songs about global themes to audiences who were too young to know any different. She also later waved aside further pointless taboos by continuing to present the show whilst extremely heavily pregnant.”

Floella fought for representation in the stories she read out in every programme, persuading producers to let her read tales featuring children from every race, so the audience at home could see people who looked like them and no-one was left out.

Children are not born racist, it’s a cultural phenomenon they pick up, in varying degrees, depending on their life influences as they grow older. Floella was there to deflect as much toxicity coming children’s way as she could, all the while offering fun, love and inclusion.

TVCream also pointed out that Floella Benjamin, “added an enthusiastic touch of awareness of other cultures, delivered with frighteningly limitless reserves of energy, matched only by the number of beads in her hair.”

She lasted on Play School for 12 years, finally calling it a day in 1988. In those intervening years, her television credits reads like a who’s who of programmes of the period, including Angels, Crown Court, The Gentle Touch and Dixon of Dock Green. She appeared in the first episode of Bergerac.

Post-Play School, she continued to appear in television programmes, including Dr Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Mysteries, as well as narrating a variety of television, audio stories and educational programmes.



As someone who came to Britain in 1960 as part of the ‘Windrush generation’ (albeit not on the Windrush itself), Floella was subject to racist abuse both in school and out of school.

In 2019, she wrote on the Black History Month website of her first experiences in England. “I remember at least a dozen police officers stood poised by the ‘For Sale’ sign at the gate of the house my mother, accompanied by her six children, were viewing.

“The neighbours had rung 999 saying black people were stealing the fixtures and fittings from the empty house in white middle-class Beckenham. Thankfully, the first policeman on the scene was sympathetic, he was married to a black woman and explained this kind of thing happened all the time. He waved his eager colleagues away, saying it was a false alarm.

“My wonderful, determined and charismatic mother defiantly folded her arms across her ample bosom, stared at the group of neighbours who stood watching and said loudly, ‘We are going to buy this house’. She and my dad lived there for 40 years until she died of bowel cancer, which is why I am patron of Bowel Cancer UK.”

Floella has written over 30 books and, in 2016, the 20th anniversary edition of her memoir ‘Coming to England’ was chosen as a ‘Guardian Children’s Book of the Year’. For over two decades, it has been used in schools and universities  as a tool to explore the Windrush journey, and to teach children about British post-war social, political and racial history. It was made into a television film by CBBC in 2005.

Today, she is Chair of the Windrush Commemoration Committee – a role she took up in 2018 – to create a lasting memorial to celebrate the contribution to Britain made by the Windrush Generation.

She featured in the 2023-24 New Year’s Eve fireworks display in London, reciting the poem “In This World” by the late Benjamin Zephaniah as part of the segment celebrating the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush.


Educational and charitable interests

Floella is vice-president of NCH Action for Children and Barnardo’s, and was in the NSPCC’s Hall of Fame. She runs the London Marathon to raise funds for Barnardo’s and the Sickle Cell Society.

Floella is a patron of the charity Beating Bowel Cancer, having lost her mother to the disease in 2009. She was a cultural ambassador for the 2012 Summer Olympics.



Floella has rightly been awarded many honours and accolades, including for her television work, her work with children, women’s rights, the Windrush generation and tackling racism.

She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2001 New Year Honours for services to broadcasting. At that time, she was chairperson of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). She has also won a Special Lifetime Achievement award from BAFTA.

She was chairperson of the Women of the Year Lunch for five years and a Millennium Commissioner. She is president of the Elizabeth R Commonwealth Broadcasting Fund and a governor of the National Film and Television School. She was a governor of Dulwich College, where her mother once worked, and her son had attended.

The University of Exeter awarded her an honorary degree in D.Litt. (Exon) for ‘contributions to the life of the United Kingdom’. She succeeded Lord Alexander of Weedon as Chancellor of the University of Exeter. She famously hugged graduates instead of traditionally shaking their hands during the graduation ceremonies. She remained in post until 2016.

There is a statue of Floella outside the University of Exeter’s student guild. This was the first public statue of a named living black woman in the UK.

In the 2010 Dissolution Honours List, she was appointed a Liberal Democrat life peer, being created Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham, in the County of Kent.

In her maiden speech in the Lords, she spoke of choosing Beckenham to reflect the legacy of her mother and father, and the importance of childhood. She also spoke of the NSPCC, Childline, and Barnados, and their work to protect and support the health and wellbeing of vulnerable children.

In 2020, Floella Benjamin was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to charity. In 2023, her stature as a much loved national figure was underlined when she received what was almost certainly the biggest television audience of her career – carrying the sovereign’s sceptre with dove as part of the procession at King Charles III’s coronation.

She says the reaction from the public afterwards was overwhelming. “They said when they saw me, on the screen, entering Westminster Abbey, they remembered their childhood. They remembered Play School. And they went ‘yes’, and they felt part of the coronation, too.

In May 2024, Benjamin was presented, to two standing ovations, with the BAFTA Fellowship award at the 70th British Academy Television Awards. Of the honour, BAFTA stated, “Floella is an unstoppable force for good with a determination to create opportunities and positive role models for future generations that has seen her effect a tremendous amount of positive change over 50 years and counting.

“She is deservedly a national treasure and we can’t wait to celebrate the impact of her work to date at the BAFTA Television Awards.”

For her part, Dame Floella Benjamin responded. “I feel blessed as I stand on the summit of the lion’s mountain, looking back at my adventurous journey sparkled with affection, but also with challenges and adversities. I’ve been told ‘shut up, or you’ll never work again,’ when I spoke out. But my mission over the last 50 years has been to get broadcasters and organisations to have diversity and inclusion in their DNA.

“I am so proud of my work for children, making them feel loved, confident, hopeful, worthy, as I took them through the windows of
imagination inspiring them to grow up and make a difference for others. Childhood lasts a lifetime.

“How I wish my beloved mum and dad were alive to celebrate this part of my family’s Windrush journey.

“Thank you for blessing me with this incredible accolade, recognising someone from the children’s television world. And remember, wherever you go, and whatever happens to you, there will always be somebody who loves you.

“And that’s me, Floella.”

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