‘Childhood Lasts a Lifetime.’ Baroness Floella Benjamin on Ethical Media
Question: What do you get when you cross showbiz with British politics?
Answer: Baroness Floella Benjamin.
With one foot in each of these disparate worlds, Floella is a bridge. Though at first one might wonder whether a link between these two is necessary, her story speaks for itself.
Here’s how it started:
Floella was born in Trinidad, one of six, and moved to the UK as a child. ‘I wanted to be the first black woman bank manager,’ she says, ‘this was back in 1966. But I realised it was mission impossible. At the time black people weren’t allowed to meet customers or touch money. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I auditioned for a show. I had no experience in theatre, but low and behold, they chose me! I promptly told them I wanted £30 a week and I wasn’t going to take my clothes off!’ Floella bursts into peals of laughter. ‘I think of it now, this 19-year-old girl telling them what to do!’
Her early career is punctuated by moments like this. When she was trying to transition to TV everyone asked her where she’d trained. Her answer was, ‘I’ve got no training, I’m a natural!’ When this didn’t cut ice, a colleague suggested she make it up. At her next audition, Floella invented a colourful CV and the director said, ‘That’s funny, I worked on that production and I don’t remember you.’ Floella owned up. ‘Well, you’re convincing,’ replied the director, and hired her.
Almost every year since that audition in 1973, Floella has been part of some show somewhere in the world. Though arguably it is her time as a presenter on BBC children’s programmes Playschool and Playaway that made her a household name.
Playschool is nothing like the bubblegum-pink world of Peppa Pig or the fearsome CoComelon (recently bought by Netflix for 3 billion and which experts have spoken out against, claiming the show provides dangerously drug-like dopamine hits to toddlers). Playschool belongs to a gentler era of kids TV.
Since then, Floella’s graced the silver screen in a film critically acclaimed at Cannes. She’s been on the radio, in adverts, written dozens of children’s books and countless articles. She was the Chair of BAFTA Television and created the BAFTA Children’s Awards in 1995. In 2001 she was awarded an OBE ‘For Services to Broadcasting’. She’s played a vastly important role on numerous committees, including serving on OFCOM’s Content Board and on the BBFC Children’s Advisory Panel.
She campaigned for diversity decades before it became au courant (‘people tried to make my life a misery. I was told to shut up, that I would never work again’). She spent twenty years urging the Government to create the position of Minister for Children. And she was elevated to the peerage in 2010, where she has been influential in introducing legislation concerning children’s productions.
‘I started Playschool forty-seven years ago’, Floella tells me, ‘Sometimes I look at my past speeches when preparing for a The House of Lords debate and I’m still saying virtually the same thing: childhood lasts a lifetime’
Her own upbringing was crucial to her success, ‘my parents put so much love and confidence into me’ she notes, though she acknowledges others don’t always have the same luck. But if family can occasionally get it wrong, Floella believes children’s TV can go some way to making things right.
‘When you work for children, you are a guardian angel. The content you put in children’s minds is going to stay with them forever and influence their behaviour.’ Floella pauses, then forges on, ‘From the writers to the producers to the cameramen, everybody who’s creating the show needs to understand. Each child is born with 84 billion brain cells. But they’re not connected. We, the adults, are the ones who makes those connections in the world we give to them. It’s been scientifically proven that early years matters more than anything else.’
On Playschool, Floella speaks to the camera, giving the tots of the 1970s the feeling she was addressing them directly. She is friendly, encouraging, as warm and soothing as hot buttered toast. I am not surprised to hear that grown-up viewers frequently accost her to tell her how much she enriched their childhoods. For kids in difficult environments TV is a vital part of their existence. ‘My show was about making children feel somebody somewhere loves them.’
Listening to Floella, it strikes me like lightning what a powerful social tool this is. One which can be used for good. ‘Back in 1976, I asked the producers of Playschool if we could have some Black and Asian illustrations. I pointed out we only had white faces,’ she tells me. ‘They replied something very interesting. They said they hadn’t noticed.’ From that moment Floella has been resolutely pushing for representation, with great success, across the entire industry. ‘I never condemn. I just show people what’s possible. My job is to open minds.’
But this medium, so capable of influencing us, can also be detrimental. ‘When it’s too hyped up, you can’t absorb it,’ Floella says. ‘When you go into a class most kids can’t sit still. Now if you look at someone like David Attenborough, he can make people sit still, even kids. He engages. He explains. We can follow him on his journey.’ The benefits of a slower approach have filtered out to the public, shown in the rise of #SticktoSesameStreet hashtag on social media, which warns against inappropriate children’s shows.
‘Anybody who works in the media has to understand the job comes with responsibility,’ Floella continues. ‘Broadcasters need to ask, is this going to affect society in a negative way? And if it is, you don’t do it. The damage that can be done is too great.’
‘Broadcasters need to ask, is this going to affect society in a negative way? And if it is, you don’t do it.’
All Floella is advocating for is a mindful approach to media. Yet for an obvious concept, it feels worryingly foreign. This is why we need a dialogue between the makers of entertainment and the makers of policies. And this is why we need personalities like Floella, who cross over. She is the glamorous screen star who worked every single day of her life since she left school at sixteen. She is the astute politician, with the charisma of TV talent. She is the trailblazing campaigner, with a penchant for twinkly tiaras. And she is a friend to children everywhere. This is what real role models look like.
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