Floella Benjamin said she was warned to shut up or she would never work again when she first called for greater diversity in television.
The beloved Play School presenter, 71, said earlier on in her career she had the part of a 16-year-old shoplifter in Within These Walls alongside Googie Withers.
Lady Benjamin, who was born in Trinidad before emigrating to the United Kingdom as a 10-year-old, said she asked the producer on the 1970s drama why black people always had to play thieves, prostitutes and bus drivers.
Speaking on Desert Island Discs, she added, can’t we play other parts? Such as professional doctors and lawyers and she was told that it wasn’t realistic. But she thought to herself at the time that it was realistic because that was what her family were, all her family were professional people, and that’s when she began fighting for diversity on screen way back in 1993-74.
Lady Benjamin said it was extremely tough and she was told to shut up or she would never work again and she said that you would get knocked down, but that you had to have that self-belief that you were going to rise and that a lot of the things that she said way back, forty-odd years ago, were happening now.
She said that things are now changing and that’s great, but that we’ve all got to take personal responsibility to make that transition.
Floella Benjamin, who was made a dame earlier this year, moved to Beckenham, London with her parents and experienced discrimination almost immediately, and she said that on the day her family went to view a house, a neighbour called the police, suspecting they were trying to steal the fixtures and fittings.
Dame Floella Benjamin said she experienced racial abuse daily as a 10-year-old.
She said it’s tough being black and it was difficult having to face that, especially as a child, but it made her resilient and that you had a sixth sense about who was going to hurt you and who was going to be horrible to you.
She said that they would go to a shop and no one would serve them and that they’d have to stand there waiting to be served, and you couldn’t leave because her mum would say, go back to the shop until they serve you.
Dame Floella Benjamin’s parents are both buried in Beckenham cemetery, and after her peerage was announced in 2010, she visited their graves.
She said that she went to the cemetery when she became a baroness and said mummy, daddy, I’m going to claim Beckenham for you. I’m going to call myself Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. There, it’s yours.
Floella Benjamin is a remarkable woman and we were fortunate to have someone so charismatic and motivating on our screens and seeing her wonderful face just took me right back to my childhood and for numerous people my age, she was probably the first non-white face I saw regularly – she was entertaining, friendly and charismatic and still comes across as such now.
She was amazing on Playschool and a role model and excellent fun and she’s still amazing and deserves all her high achieving career, success and more.
Many people were avid fans of Floella Benjamin on Play School – racism is taught, it’s not innate, and she’s a fine, talented, intelligent black woman who’s had to endure racism.