Coming to England  

Floella Benjamin is an actor, singer, writer and member of The House of Lords with a major commitment to children’s welfare. Susan Elkin spoke to her about her work, life and forthcoming family stage show Coming to England

Like many people of my generation, I have fond, warm happy memories of Floella Benjamin entertaining my children on programmes such as Play School – with that winning smile, blue beaded plaits and talent for singing, dancing and communicating. Today, aged 72, although she still looks unchangingly young and radiant, she is Dame Floella Benjamin of Beckenham with decades of charity work behind her and a busy life as a working Lib Dem peer.

Because that’s how she’s introduced to me I greet her, by saying “Hello Dame Floella – or may I call you Floella?” She chuckles and replies: “Yes you may – now that you’ve actually said the word ‘Dame’”. I remind her of the day she was presented with the JM Barrie Award by Action for Children’s Arts in 2012 because I was there and admired the way she bonded informally with everyone present – even some teenage girls in the queue for the ladies. “Yes” she says simply, “I have an affinity with children. Confidence is the key to life and I do everything I can to foster it.”

“This Windrush generation story… needed telling from a child’s perspective”

Floella was born on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad in 1949, one of six children. When she was 10, her parents decided that they could create a better life for the family in Britain and went ahead with the youngest children leaving Floella and two siblings with relatives. A year later, in 1960, the three remaining children travelled by themselves across the ocean to the UK. From then on, the family was together again although circumstances were straitened, the skies were grey and the food was bland. There was undreamed of racism to deal with too.

“This Windrush generation story had been told from the point of view of adults many times, but it needed telling from a child’s perspective”, says Floella, explaining why she wrote her 1995 book Coming to England. The book was later revised and reissued and there was an award-winning BBC TV film based on it in 2003.

Now there is a stage show. It’s about to open at Birmingham Rep and, Covid permitting, will tour later. “I’ve always wanted this” says Floella who has co-produced it herself with Keith Thomas her husband and business partner. “And I knew that if it were done as a musical, it would lend itself to the eye of a child. It would be a way of bringing alive the joy and vibrance and the contrasting greyness and rejection.”

Having had a pretty upbeat show business career of her own, Floella is also keen to show young people that there are plenty of jobs and work opportunities in theatre. You don’t have to be an actor. “I want them to see the creative possibilities and to feel empowered” she says, adding that she hopes this is what Coming to England might help to do in its new theatrical form.

Veteran children’s playwright, adaptor and song writer, David Wood (The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Goodnight Mister Tom etc) is an old friend of Floella’s from when they worked together on Play Away. She asked him to write a stage version of Coming to England. “He was very reluctant, insisting that this story was my experience not his, but in the end I persuaded him to have a go” recalls Floella. “When David rather diffidently sent us his draft, Keith read it first. ‘It’s up to you to decide’ he told me. So I sat at the kitchen table and read it. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe how David had brought it off the page – beautifully crafted.”

The initial run is at Birmingham Rep for a number of reasons. “It suits the city’s interwoven diversity and it’s a place I’ve always been drawn to. And the artistic director at Birmingham Rep, Sean Foley, was keen to have it when I met him” explains Floella, telling me that she hopes there will be an exhibition about her life at the theatre during the run including where she is now. “The show makes people, especially children, realise that it is where you finish that matters, not where you start.”

Floella seems to have got at least part of her performing talent from her jazz musician father, with whom she sang when she was a teenager. “When I sing, I am in my element, transported to another planet”, she says. Her diligence and determination come from her mother. “She told us everyday that education was our passport to life and encouraged us to learn everything that the teachers told us at school” Floella says affectionately.

Although she would like to have been a teacher, Floella’s parents couldn’t afford to keep her at school to do A-levels so she went to work in a bank and did her A-levels at night school, thinking that she might become Britain’s first woman bank manager.

When she recognised the impossibility of that dream, she auditioned for a national tour of a hit musical and got the job, worrying that she wouldn’t be able to sustain this career change because she hadn’t been to drama school. “So I got the bank to keep my job for me just in case. But I never went back!” she laughs. Roles in Jesus Christ Superstar, Black Mikado and other shows followed before a TV break via Within These Walls with Googie Withers and then, eventually, the twelve years on Play School for which she is best known. She married Keith in 1980 and the couple have two grown up children. She did her first pantomime, Puss in Boots, in Camberley in 1984 with her son Anton in the cast as Little Puss.

Floella has been working for charities all her adult life, with a bias towards children. She began by organising talks, seaside visits, dances and fund raisers. Today she works with several big charities and is vice president of Barnardo’s with whom she launched an oral history project in 2020. She then tells me about two smaller charities with which she is associated and of whose work she is very proud.

“Transplant Links helps to get parent-donor kidney and other transplants done for children in parts of the world where the facilities and staff are just not available” says Floella. “We fly out NHS doctors who give their time and expertise. The only thing we have to pay for is the flights and that’s what the fundraising is for.”

Or take the World Heart Beat Music Academy in Wandsworth and soon also Vauxhall, which identifies young people at risk and gives them musical opportunities such as instrumental lessons. “It makes a huge difference to their lives” says Floella, telling me about one 14-year-old who told her that he used to be in a gang, but now he has a saxophone instead of a knife.

And as for her work as a politician, she is a dynamic person who makes things happen. She is currently particularly pleased that after nine years of trying to move successive governments, at last age verification on porn sites looks set to become law.

Floella may talk about using her own life to illustrate just how far you can travel to reach your finishing line, but I have the feeling this friendly, high achieving, talented woman is nowhere near finishing yet.

Coming to England, Birmingham Rep 31 March – 16 April