The former Play School presenter, actress and peer at 72.
An interview by Danny Scott for The Times of London.
Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham in Kent was born in Trinidad, then moved with her family to England at the age of ten. After appearing in several hit West End shows she became a household name as a children’s TV presenter, most notably on Play School from 1976 to 1988. She has starred in shows including The Sarah Jane Adventures and The Line of Beauty, and has published more than 25 books. In 2010 Benjamin was made a Liberal Democrat life peer. She lives in southeast London with her husband, Keith. The couple have two grown-up children.
My husband always wakes up before me and the first thing he says is, “Floella, I love you.” Around seven he goes downstairs to make me a cup of tea and porridge. We always joke about being on holiday. He’ll look out of our south London window and say, “The beach isn’t too crowded. I’ll get the deckchairs.” He makes me smile in the morning, which means I’ll be smiling for the rest of the day.
I do a lot of stretching and core muscle exercises — very important as you get older. If any woman asks me how I look so good at 72, I tell them it’s all about the pelvic floor. It gives you inner strength. Even a bit of hoovering will get the heart rate up. I do not have a cleaner. I can do my own housework, thank you.
It doesn’t matter if I go to the shops in my old jacket, a hat, no make-up and a Covid mask, people still shout, “Floella! How are you?” Keith says it’s my eyes. I’m sure some of it has to do with me being on Play School. People saw me on TV at a particular time in their lives and I made them feel comforted.
Children are like porcelain. If you break them, they are broken for ever, but if you can make them feel loved, they will float along on the river of life and love will keep them buoyant. I know that’s true because of all the letters and tweets I get. A lady stopped me the other day and said, “Seeing you smiling on TV changed my life.”
It was very different when I arrived from Trinidad in 1960. We lived in Beckenham and racism was an everyday occurrence. Grown-ups spat at me in the street. One woman lifted my skirt up and asked, “Where’s your monkey’s tail?”
The only time anyone has said anything about the colour of my skin recently was after Brexit. They made a mistake, trying to attack me. I just laughed. I’m not going to waste any of my energy defending myself. Let me make this very clear: I am not a victim!
Keith and I have been together for more than 50 years and I call him the wind beneath my wings. We spend 24 hours of every day together. He’s not the kind of man who sits there asking what’s for lunch. If he’s in the kitchen, he’ll do the cooking. Lots of salad and vegetables. I’ve never been on a diet, but I am careful about what I eat. Yes, it’s OK to have a few chips, but remember that your body is a temple.
I try to get to the House of Lords at least three days a week. Keith says it’s my spiritual home because I’m always trying to change the world. My proudest moment was when I got the law changed in 2017 so that public service broadcasters had to make children’s programmes. Up until then only 1 per cent of children’s TV was original shows produced in the UK.
If there’s a late session at the Lords Keith and I will eat there, but it’s nice to have dinner at home. The other day Keith wondered how many times we’d sat down together at that table. Thousands! And we always enjoy it, laughing our heads off.
I used to be a news junkie, but I find it too hard to watch these days. It’s so graphic: Ukraine, Yemen and Syria. I sometimes wish I was Wonder Woman so I could fly out there and say, “All right, let’s all sit down together. This is what we’re going to do.” Keith and I are in bed by 11, but those news stories can keep me awake till the early hours. We need a new messiah. It may be a politician. Someone who can bring together the best minds and show us that the world cannot continue like this.
What Are You Doing Here? My Autobiography by Baroness Floella Benjamin is out now, published by Pan Macmillan at £20
Words of wisdom
Best advice I was given
Everything happens for a purpose
Advice I’d give
Be confident in who you are
What I wish I’d known
How much my mum’s love meant to me