Questions & Answers

Floella Benjamin

Floella Benjamin has had an acting career in theatre, TV and film but it was as a children’s TV presenter that she became a household name. Today, she is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, a Deputy Lieutenant of London and, since 2010, a member of the House of Lords. She talks to Global about the need to speak out on issues that affect children, her passion for education, her love of family and the excitement of marathon running.

Global: You were born in Trinidad and first arrived in the UK as a young girl in 1960. Looking back, how do you feel Britain has changed?

Floella Benjamin: It has become a lot more culturally diverse and tolerant com­pared with when I arrived. There is still racism but it is more fragmented. Colour continues to stand in the way and I believe it will take another two generations before the colour of your skin doesn’t matter.

You are now a very well-known and respected UK figure, and a baroness to boot. How would you describe yourself, in terms of nationality and identity?

I’ve always felt British because children in Trinidad were brought up to think of themselves as British. At school we sang the national anthem every day, learnt about British history, so when I came here, I felt I was coming to the Motherland. It didn’t quite turn out that way as I was rejected and made to feel unworthy in a hostile environ­ment. That’s why I am pleased to have been born in Trinidad because I began life identi­fied not by my colour but as a person.

How have your experiences shaped your view of the Commonwealth?

I’ve always been a strong believer in the Commonwealth and feel it’s not appreci­ated enough in Britain. It represents the idea of family – nations connected by a common bond, despite different cultures. The Queen, of course, has done so much in drawing us together. It should be celebrated and treasured.

You seem, above all, to be a communicator – as an actor, broadcaster, author, campaigner, singer and now legislator. Have you always had something you needed to express, a story to tell, a message to convey?

I have always been passionate about my beliefs – morality, integrity, trust – and the need to express what I feel, especially on issues of children’s equality and diversity. I campaigned for a Minister for Children for 20 years and fought for diversity in children’s picture books. I have never been frightened to speak out.

You are a marathon runner: how did you get into that? And how important is it to keep body, mind and soul in harmony?

I gave a pledge to Barnardo’s that I would run ten consecutive London marathons and I have completed that task. It was all about mind over matter, and proves any­thing is possible. It was very empowering. I run on a regular basis but also walk a lot. A good low-carb diet and exercise are also important.

You were on LOCOG’s Diversity and Inclusion Board for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games – were the games just a wonderful moment or do you see lasting benefits?

I loved Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony and the achievements of athletes like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis. That great feeling of inclusion was what I had worked for. It showed Britain has changed for the better. We now need to sustain that sense of pride and ambition.

You are probably best known for your work with young children but you are also involved in tertiary education, as Chancellor of Exeter University. Is the well-being and development of children and young people a passion?

Yes, because childhood lasts a lifetime. It is so important to have the right foundation from birth. In those early years when brain cells are connecting, attachments and love are essential. As it has now been scientifi­cally proven, so much is shaped by the age of seven. So we need the best early educa­tion, particularly for the disadvantaged to take them through to university. It’s how we use the gift of education to contribute to the world and make it a better place.

Your mother died a few years ago. How important is family to you?

I still miss her terribly. She was my eve­rything – a real earth mother who inspired and always had a solution to any problem. She gave people a sense of worth and con­fidence and never took “no” for an answer. Her love was poured into me every day. I try and pass on her legacy to my children and everyone I meet.

If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?

Getting everyone to put children’s well-be­ing first, because everything we do affects children. I have campaigned tirelessly on their behalf. My latest issue in the House of Lords is women in prison with babies and have had a promise from the government that they will review current practice. Eve­rybody deserves a happy and stable child­hood in order to develop into decent mem­bers of society. It’s our duty to provide this.


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