Floella Benjamin: From Big Ted to the Big Society
Samira Ahmed meets the Baroness of Beckenham. Since 'Play School' she has become a champion of children's rights, and has just told the story of her own traumatic youth
Sunday 24 October 2010
There is something strange about meeting the Lib Dem Peer who probably raised a significant number of the New Generation of MPs running Britain's major political parties as toddlers; making a journey, you could say from from Big Ted to the Big Society.
As I wait in the vaulted Victorian splendour of the National Liberal Club I find myself imagining pre-school Master Nick, Master David and young Master Ed in front of the glowing TV screen in the early 70s being read to or watching Humpty and Little Ted have a tea party with Jemima the ragdoll on Play School.
Floella Benjamin looks much younger than her 61 years. Or is that the spell of meeting the lady who spoke to me through the TV all those years ago...
Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham rolls delightfully in the air when you say it; as if it had been chosen for the alliterative possibilities of reading it out loud to children.
The reality is rather darker. She chose to take her title from the South-east London suburb, in tribute to her Trinidadian parents, whose decision to move their six children to a neighbourhood with good schools and a better class of jumble sales to clothe them, saw them endure years of racist abuse from neighbours who pushed dog excrement through their letterbox. The day Mrs Benjamin arrived with the children to view the house they'd just bought, neighbours called police to report a criminal gang were breaking in.
Floella Benjamin's new autobiography about her teenage years, The Arms of Britannia, while written very much for school children, is a thoughtprovoking counterbalance to the Swinging Sixties memoirs of celebrity Londoners. While David Bowie was down the road in Bromley commuting into Carnaby Street as a longhaired pop dandy, and Peter Cook was opening up The Establishment Club for the political classes to come and watch themselves being mocked, Floella Benjamin says she spent every single day like a soldier on patrol or guard duty, ready for passers by in to hurl racist obscenities at her.
"For the first four years of being in England," she says, sitting on a leather sofa in the genteel surroundings of the club's library, "I fought almost every day. You never know who would spit at you, or try to pee on you, or lift your skirt and say 'Where's your tail, monkey?'". She was beaten up badly at 19 in a bowling alley, while the club bouncers just looked on.
The turning point in her life she, says, came in 1964 at 14, when she nearly killed a boy who was shouting racist names at her, as she walked to the shops in Penge High Street. She grabbed his lollipop and jamming it down his throat, watching him turn blue. Benjamin calls it her "spiritual moment"; the moment when she says she realised that violence was not the answer. She pulled out the lollipop and walked off proud.
And the Benjamin family – high achievers all – made the classic immigrant journey so often held up by politicians of all persuasions. Working hard at school, gaining qualifiications and entering the professions. Floella's mother used to clean office buildings. At 16, Floella crossed the threshold of Barclays head office as a clerk, with the ambition of becoming Britain's first female bank manager. She claims she pioneered women wearing trouser suits in the City. In the light of the credit crunch, one likes to imagine what she night have achieved if she'd pursued it.
But Benjamin changed career. Used to singing on stage with her part time jazz musician father's band, she responded to an advert in a newspaper in 1973 seeking non-professionals for a new musical tour. The show was Hair, famously controversial for its hippie onstage nudity. Going in her lunchbreak from the bank, you know all you need to know about Benjamin's steely determination from the fact that she not only got cast, but also rather presumptuously announced at the audition that she wouldn't be taking her clothes off.
"Is that really true?" I ask cynically.
"Yes. Myself, and Paul Nicholas," she returns without even a blink.
In 1976, after a few TV and film parts, Benjamin got the role that put her at the heart of British culture, on the BBC's much loved Play School programme for preschoolers. And fought fiercely and publically against its closure in 1984. She remains a vocal campaigner for British made quality children's drama and entertainment, and a passionate defender of the BBC's record in children's programming.
In 1977, at the height of her Play School fame, long before kids' TV presenters stripping off for ladsmags became a well trodden career path, Playboy offered her a huge sum to pose nude. She smiles, knowingly. "You can just imagine how they'd have loved it, if I'd laid there with my blue beads on." While 1970s theatrical London was still swinging, Benjamin had no truck with what she rather quaintly in her book, terms "hanky-panky". Forty years on, she's still married to Keith Taylor, the stage manager she met on Hair, with whom she has two children. Perhaps, most significantly, Benjamin says she told Playboy: "I'll make the same money, but over the long term."
While she's continued to make children's programmes and act, after Play School she quietly but determinedly began building influence in public life; much of it voluntary – on charities such as the NSPCC, and Barnardos, but also quangos and advisoryboards; everything from the Millenium Commission that helped decide what to put in the illfated Dome, to children's book prize panels and the Royal Mail's stamp advisory committee where she pointed out that many children's books and prospective designs for Christmas stamps had no black children at all.
And Floella Benjamin, OBE, has no truck with those who decline Honours, when I cite the argument made by people like the poet, Benjamin Zephaniah about their oppressive assocation with Empire.
"The honour is to recognise the contribution you have made to this society that you are a part of," she says firmly and seriously. "That's what people like myself are fighting for... When you get an honour, your peers write about you and why you deserve it. I'm often nominating people through the system. It gives you" (she holds her head up and articulates the word knowingly) "bottom,". It's what her headmistress used to say. "It's important to have bottom. Then people listen to you."
So is the Coalition listening? Asked repeatedly to run as an MP over the years, Benjamin says she found a natural home for her child-centred interests with the Liberal Democrats; going down a storm at party conferences. What does she make of the Deputy Prime Minister?
"What you see is what you get with Nick," she asserts. "When we met he asked me 'If you were in government, what would you want?' I said to promote children. He shook my hand said that he agreed. He said if you get it right with the children at the beginning you have sorted it out for life."
A few days after we speak, Clegg announces £7bn in "extra" money to help children from the most deprived backgrounds.
Now for the second time, the party's asked her to consider standing for London Mayor. The woman who tells me she once gave the notoriously difficult Kenneth Williams a telling off for rudeness and got him to apologise( "He was never rude again!") knows better than to get in between the egos of Ken Livingstone and Tory incumbent Boris Johnson.
"I can see the headlines," she says, matter of factly. "'Which window has she come through today?' What's the point? My ideas on important issues – on families, on tackling gangs and knife crime would have been overlooked. I'd be between two battling peacocks." But she won't rule it out once she's more experienced.
"I want to be judged on my actions in a political place. It's important that my maiden speech was reported on Today In Parliament on Radio 4 with that audience. People don't yet know or understand me. They think I'm just ambitious, or a silly children's presenter. So I have to prove myself."
Proving herself as a politician will be challenging, as the Coalition announces deeply controversial spending cuts. Benjamin admits she's been bruised by the grillings she's got in early interviews since her peerage, about the LibDems signing up to the Coalition. And she keeps her counsel for now, on the very issues where you might expect a strong opinion. What does the champion of children's rights and fairnesss make of the planned slashing of Child Benefit to single earner families on £44,000?
I can see Benjamin closing up tight. "We haven't discussed it yet. I don't know enough about what's really going to happen," she insists. "We want fairness, even though it might be difficult. We need a moral conscience. We are in it together, But we will have to re think some things. Like the free bus pass."
And unlike a lot of politicians, Benjamin does seem to bring out the moral conscience in people. Strangers apologise to her for being racist in the past. But more surprisingly "Winos do it," Benjamin confides. "They see me walking past and they say 'I'm so sorry Floella. I've let you down.'"
"Because when they were children I told them everything was possible. Society let them down." It's quite an effect to have on grown men.
Her formative experiences are so profoundly different to those of the Eton and Westminster school educated Prime Minister and Deputy PM. David Cameron once even felt the need in the pre-election leaders' debates to specifiy that he had spoken to a black man, about immigration. But with the first PMQs of the new session having more than ever before, the air of a school debating society, I can't resist suggesting naughtily: "Have you ever thought about looking the Prime Minister in the eye and talking to him in that Play School voice? Now David, I am very disappointed in you and what you're thinking about doing to Child Benefit."
Baroness Benjamin smiles cautiously back at me; amused, but giving no enouragement. "I have to not be judgemental. I won't believe what I see on screen. I'll wait to meet him."
It is time to go home. Past the cut glass accented white men in blazers in the clubrooms, down the big round stair case; out the big arched doorway.
At the front entrance a thirtysomething man in a suit is also leaving and I can see it happening; I can see the child in his eyes. He hovers, fidgeting a bit while Floella says goodbye to me and then apologises to her profusely, for stopping her, embarrassed and excited and grinning with delight. Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham smiles that beautiful smile and heads off.
As she might have said, to us all, in the middle of reading out a story, "I wonder what she'll do next?"
The Arms of Britannia: The teenage years of Floella Benjamin is published on 4 November by Walker books
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