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SheCAN Champion: Floella Benjamin

SheCAN Champion: Floella Benjamin

Floella Benjamin was born in Trinidad and raised in England. After leaving school at sixteen she spent three years in banking and accountancy, but that career path 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.

(Image: ‘Giving back the love’ – Benjamin on TV in 1983. Photograph: Barry Boxall/BBC)

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 dramas, 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.’

(Image: YouTube video ‘Play School with Floella Benjamin’ aired on BBC in 1984 )

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.

(Image: ‘Black Joy’ Floella Benjamin & Norman Beaton in 1977 – Credits to Alamy)

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.

She has also written and appeared in numerous educational, and entertainment videos and continues to narrate many commercial audio books and story tapes.

She has appeared in several pantomimes and Christmas shows including,‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’.

Benjamin 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’.

In 2016 she narrated the world premiere 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.

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.

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Benjamin 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’.

(Image: Floella Benjaminpresented with a BAFTA Special Award in 2004)

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.

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.

(Image: Floella Benjamin in March 2020 received Damehood Medal at Buckingham Palace for over 40 years of charitable work)

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.

(Image: Floella Benjamin with her statue at Exeter University)

Read more on Floella Benjamin’s career and life achievements here