Floella Benjamin on Bafta Fellowship, her Play School babies and 'being me'

The Bafta Fellowship is far from the first honour Baroness Benjamin has received.

But the presenter, producer, and campaigner says she's still thrilled to receive this recognition from the British Academy.

"I cried," she says. "Looking back at all my work in television over 50 years.

"Remembering the joyful moments. Working with some incredible people. But also remembering the challenges."

Those challenges have been there throughout her TV career.

In 1974 prison drama Within These Walls, she was cast as a troubled teenager, but disliked the unrealistic dialogue she was given.

"I said, 'You know, for a black 16-year-old shoplifter, these lines need to change,'" she remembers.

"Fortunately, they allowed me to do that. And it was one of the best things I could ever have done.

"Just because I was being authentic. I was being real. People could identify with what I'm saying. And everything I've done in television has been just that. To be me."

Dame Floella Benjamin with fellow Play School presenters Brian Cant and Christopher Beeny
Benjamin presented Play School alongside presenters including Brian Cant and Christopher Beeny [BBC]

That authenticity was apparent to younger viewers when Benjamin joined the presenting line-up of BBC children's show Play School in 1976.

She instantly became an aspirational figure for the millions of children watching.

And as someone who grew up during her time on the show, I can personally testify to how instrumental she was in helping children from ethnic minorities realise that impossible dreams like working in television could be a reality.

"When I did Play School," she says, "the number of people who said 'You just being there opened doors for me, made me know, as I was growing up, four or five years old watching you, that anything is possible.'"

All white faces

It was on Play School that she began campaigning for stronger representation.

"All the illustrations when I told the stories were of white children," she recalls.

"I said to the producer, 'Why can't we have some black and Asian and Chinese faces in the illustrations rather than all white faces?'"

Using her TV experience to try to improve the lives of individuals, particularly children, has been a huge part of Lady Benjamin's life since those early Play School days.

Her media profile and her passion for focussing on young lives has been a huge help in her work.

She's been a prolific campaigner, and ferocious advocate for young people. Few can have had the impact that she has had.

The broadcast star has been patron of various children's charities, vice-president of Barnardo's and held the same position at NCH Action for Children's.

Lady Benjamin has also been a member of the British Board of Film Classification's (BBFC) advisory panel on children's viewing.

Floella Benjamin receiving her Damehood at Buckingham Palace
She was made a dame in the 2020 New Year Honours for her charity work [Getty Images]

She was made a dame in the 2020 New Year Honours list, and has also been elevated to the House of Lords as Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham.

"I get so much done because in Parliament many of the ministers are my Play School babies," she says with a smile. "So when I want legislation done in Parliament the ministers know how passionate and committed I've been."

She's proud to have made so many positive contributions to improve what audiences experience from the TV industry.

"I got a tax credit for children's programmes done. I got ITV, Channel Four and Channel 5 to actually start making children's programmes. Because up until a few years ago, only 1% of children's programmes were made in this country.

The Benjamin amendment

"And the ministers who changed the law for me said, '"We're doing it for you Floella'. In fact that legislation was called the Benjamin amendment."

Of course, since the days when Benjamin started in children's television, the media landscape has changed immeasurably. But she says the same principles apply.

"Children are now migrating to online platforms," she says. "They're leaving public service broadcasting in their droves. So the challenge is to get public service broadcasting and online content to be worthy for children.

"We've got to ensure that we give high quality content for children wherever it's coming from. They are going to be watching on YouTube, TikTok, online platforms, wherever. Whoever is serving them has got to realise the responsibility."

Dame Floella Benjamin in the procession for the King's coronation
Lady Benjamin took part in the King's Coronation [Getty Images]

Lady Benjamin's stature as a much loved national figure was underlined last year 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's coronation.

She says the reaction from the public afterwards was overwhelming.

"They said when they saw me come on in Westminster Abbey on the screen, they remembered their childhood. They remembered Play School. And they went 'yes', and they felt part of the Coronation, too.

"Because childhood lasts a lifetime. And all those memories I gave to the children have stayed with them. And they know how much I love them."

Play School babies

For many, her campaigning work and her position as a role model means she has long been regarded as a national treasure.

"You know what it means to me," she laughs. "It's my Play School babies telling me almost every single day of my life that they loved me and thanked me for showing them that unconditional love.

"Some say that they lived in a children's home. Some say that they lived in a dark place, horrors that were part of their lives. Having me as part of their life made them feel that there was hope."

Her official title may be the Baroness Benjamin OM, DBE, DL. But she's one of that select group of well-known figures who, like Kylie and Madonna, is known to millions simply by one name - Floella.

"I mean it's the loveliest feeling," she reflects. "I always take it with a sense of gratitude that I have been blessed to be in that kind of position, and to make people feel anything is achievable."

Benjamin will receive the Bafta Fellowship at the Bafta TV awards ceremony on Sunday 12 May.