The Baroness Benjamin interview: "When you smile, you are a winner"
Arriving in Britain as a young girl from Trinidad, much-loved children’s TV presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin never expected to have any kind of relationship with the King, let alone play a key role in his coronation ceremony. She tells Tali Fraser about their connection to the Commonwealth, being let down on Windrush and why it pays to keep smiling. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Baroness Floella Benjamin, 73, has found a white feather during our photoshoot. It is a good sign, she tells me, as it means her late mother is watching over: “After Marmie died, I started noticing white feathers and I realised they were in places that were so unexpected to find them! I feel like she is spiritually with me and like an angel is looking down on me and blessing me everywhere I go.”
She found one when she first entered the House of Lords; sat down for lunch with the Queen; became a Dame; the list goes on – and it is set to grow as Baroness Benjamin has been asked to take part in the King’s coronation. “It has been very hard to keep such a wonderful secret,” she admits.
“The little girl who arrived in Britain from Trinidad couldn’t have even imagined that over 60 years later I would be part of the King’s coronation, it is fantastic! It shows it doesn’t matter where you start; it is where you finish that counts.”
She will be one of just 13 people to be in the King’s procession into Westminster Abbey on the day of his coronation. Baroness Benjamin will be carrying the magnificent Sovereign’s Sceptre with Dove: a gold rod featuring an enamelled dove, its wings outspread, sitting on top of a cross.
It is presented to the King during his investiture, before being crowned sovereign, to represent his spiritual role, with the dove symbolising the Holy Ghost. Traditionally, it has been known as “the Rod of Equity and Mercy”.
Baroness Benjamin is overjoyed: “Spirituality, equity and mercy. It is very symbolic to me. It represents everything I stand for and it puts out a clear message that diversity and inclusion are being embraced.”
She will be wearing her House of Lords robes in the procession, she says, along with some comfy shoes: “It is a long walk down and you have got to go up a ramp as well, all while carrying a heavy sceptre. It’s alright for the men but for the ladies, don’t wear high heeled shoes!”
It is the latest instalment of Baroness Benjamin’s long relationship with the monarchy and its royal members. For our shoot we meet in the Cholmondeley Room in the House of Lords, where a portrait of Baroness Benjamin has just been put up, sitting alongside a young Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. Painted over six sittings at the home she shares with her husband (and now manager) of 52 years, Keith, the pair still can’t quite believe they are seeing it on display in Parliament.
“There aren’t many portraits of people of colour in the House,” she says – and it is true. The piece by June Mendoza has a life of its own: “June first used the canvas in her portrait sitting of Princess Diana but didn’t like the result at the time, so when she decided to paint me she got this old canvas out, turned it upside down and painted me over Princess Diana! In years to come, if anybody x–rays the painting, they could see Princess Diana and get two for the price of one! Isn’t that wonderful?”
In Baroness Benjamin’s eyes most things are wonderful, as the former children’s television presenter, well known for her beloved time presenting the BBC’s Play School and Play Away, is almost relentlessly positive. At one point she says: “I feel at the moment like I’m standing on the pinnacle of life’s mountain, looking back at the valley of experiences.” Even her emails are always signed: “Keep smiling, Floella”.
But she did not always see the world in this positive light. Baroness Benjamin, one of six siblings, came to Britain from Trinidad aged 10. Her parents made the journey first, with her two youngest siblings, while the others were sent to live with their “Aunties”. She and her sister Sandra went to one home, their brothers to another, but their experiences were horrible and they were effectively treated as servants. “There are a lot of people my age who were left behind as children but not many people talk about that because of the traumas that you go through. It can really affect you if you don’t feel loved,” she says.
“As a black child, the society around you is always putting up barriers or telling you you’re not worthy”, the Liberal Democrat peer adds. She would often get into fights with her school bullies and tormentors but after a particularly intense altercation, in which she shoved a lolly down a boy’s throat to the point he turned blue, she came to a realisation. Aged 14, she says, “I realised you have to smile” and ever since it has served as “my armour, my protection”.
“When you smile, you are a winner and I feel I’m going to be a winner in life no matter what adversity I have to face. I’m not going to let people know that they’ve got to me so I smile.”
She seems adept at turning any situation around – and with her love for uplifting sayings, there is one which is especially fitting: “Everything happens for a reason and every disappointment is an appointment with something better.”
There is no clearer example than when her family went to look at a house in Beckenham, Kent, and the neighbours called the police to arrest them, as they said that Black people did not live in the area. Instead of being put off, Baroness Benjamin’s parents put their foot down, bought the house and lived there happily for 40 years.
Everything happens for a reason and every disappointment is an appointment with something better
This story became part of her title: “My parents died before I became a Baroness so I went to Beckenham cemetery and I said: ‘Marmie, Dardie, I’m gonna claim Beckenham for you. I’m gonna call myself Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham!’ It meant everything. It was another appointment with something better.”
When the late Queen visited her for a memorable lunch at the University of Exeter in 2012, where Baroness Benjamin was chancellor, she took the opportunity to tell her about her childhood story: “I said: ‘You know, Ma’am, when I was a little girl in Trinidad, I used to stand in the playground and sing ‘God Save the Queen’ and learn all about British history. I was told I was part of the motherland but when I came to Britain in 1960 it was not like that. I faced so much adversity and had to break down so many barriers.’
“But I told her: ‘You know, I don’t hate anybody for what they did to me because I’m not a victim. If I keep hatred in my heart, I remain a victim. So I’ve forgiven them all. No resentment.’ And I remember, she sat back and looked at me and her eyes twinkled because she too felt the same way, she too believed in forgiveness.”
In the late Queen’s final honours list – released after her death – Baroness Benjamin was appointed to the Order of the Merit: the first woman from the Caribbean to do so. The Queen’s private secretary even told her that two days before she died, the Queen had her autobiography sitting on her desk.
Everything happens for a reason and every disappointment is an appointment with something better
It was King Charles, whose coronation she is now a part of, that presented Baroness Benjamin with her award – having also presented her damehood – and the pair got to share a lunch together following the ceremony: “I reminded him that I sent him a letter back in 1984 about the work that he’d done in speaking up about diversity and the Prince’s Trust because at that time not many people in his position were talking about the importance of making people feel included in life.”
Even when receiving her damehood in 2020, Baroness Benjamin adds: “He really wanted to talk about the Caribbean of all things and about Mia Mottley (prime minister of Barbados) and what my views were.”
Not long after, Barbados became a republic and parted ways with the monarchy, although still remaining in the Commonwealth. At a Buckingham Palace reception hosted by the King to celebrate Commonwealth Day earlier this year, Baroness Benjamin proudly declared that the Commonwealth “will never die”. What makes her believe that?
“I feel Commonwealth countries and the value of maintaining all of them being together as one is enormous!” she declares. “I truly believe that it presents the perfect opportunity to work together on the most pressing and urgent issue humanity faces today: climate change… without global action the future to me looks very bleak for our children.”
Baroness Benjamin adds: “Hope is something that I feel has been eroded over the last decade or so. The capital H for Hope is now shrinking and shrinking. We need to inflate the word and we can do that through the Commonwealth.”
She is cheered by the King’s “understanding of the importance of climate change” and it gives her faith that Charles will be “a very wise King indeed”. Another reason she believes this is because of his support for the Windrush generation, with the King having asked Baroness Benjamin to create a Windrush portrait committee ahead of this year’s Windrush Day (22 June).
Ten portraits of Windrush elders, aged 90 and over, have been commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of HMT Empire Windrush’s arrival. They will become part of the Royal Collection, with the process being filmed by the BBC for a special programme: “I feel so proud to be involved in this project. We’ve been working on it for nearly a year now. He is opening up Buckingham Palace to the Windrush pioneers, for their families, the communities who have made contributions.
“In 100 years’ time you’re still going to see these people’s portraits hanging in the Royal Collection, and they’ll be beautiful portraits, and really, really, I can’t tell you how proud I am of being part of that.”
She says the King will also be holding a service for children and young people in Windsor at St George’s Chapel to teach that Windrush is “very much part of British history”.
“The scandal is what changed everything,” Baroness Benjamin says. It is only then that she got the call from No.10 with then-prime minister Theresa May asking her to chair the Windrush commemoration committee, which brought about the National Windrush Monument.
“It took four hard, tough years,” she says, “but this magnificent monument now sits just a few feet from where I arrived in Britain on platform 19 at Waterloo station and now millions of people see it every day”.
But ministers were less of a help than a hindrance as she says she had to “battle through” them. This is something that doesn’t seem to have changed in the years since, especially when it comes to Windrush scandal compensation.
I don’t hate anybody for what they did to me because I’m not a victim. If I keep hatred in my heart, I remain a victim
Home Secretary Suella Braverman earlier this year axed three pledges the government made, following the recommendations of the Windrush inquiry. These commitments would have established a migrants’ commissioner, increased the powers of the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, and brought about reconciliation events.
This is the closest to furious Baroness Benjamin gets. “I spoke up in the House and I said this has been done in a callous and disrespectful way. It shows that you have no respect for the Caribbean people. The minister didn’t come to the House and make an announcement, they just put a statement out.”
She also wrote to the Prime Minister about the change to the recommendations in February, but has not received a response. “I asked him to get the minister to go to the House and say something at the despatch box and I said he needs to hold a reception for the Windrush generation to celebrate the Windrush 75th anniversary… I know he’s got lots on his plate but it’s important that for the Windrush generation and the people who are still suffering don’t feel as if they’ve been let down by the Prime Minister,” she adds.
“Many people want those three recommendations to be put back in place so there’s a great feeling of unhappiness, uncertainty, trauma that’s happening with the people who are victims, people like myself, I think, you know, it could easily have been me.”
Baroness Benjamin is not exaggerating. When she came to Britain, it was not on the correct passport: “Luckily, I did get a passport at a very young age but when I first came to Britain I didn’t come on my own passport and now people are being asked to show records that are almost impossible to find.” She would also like to see the process for compensation simplified: “The forms that people need to fill out, I mean, it’s like an encyclopaedia. It’s so difficult and so daunting.”
I can’t do everything but what I can do is try and inspire others – and isn’t that wonderful!
One of Baroness Benjamin’s favourite phrases is that “childhood lasts a lifetime” and it is clear that hers has too, especially in the way she looks back on her move to Britain. “The Windrush generation came here gladly to help rebuild,” she says, “we came here with joy in our hearts because we were told back in school that Britain was the motherland, but it wasn’t like that and instead you had to go through so much trauma”.
Baroness Benjamin adds: “Until you have leadership that says everybody in the country matters, and it’s not like that, then I don’t want a next generation of children having to face exactly what I had to face when I came to Britain, the racist names that I was called, spat at, be told go back to where you’ve come from.”
She doesn’t agree with actors David Harewood and Lenny Henry that the Home Secretary’s heritage is “convenient” or that she is “being used”. Instead, the peer tries to make people “see things differently and have compassion”, not “go accusing anybody of anything”.
Baroness Benjamin recognises, however, that something needs to change with the way politicians treat people affected by their policies. “There might be good reasons why you withdraw the recommendations but it needs to be displayed so that people don’t feel as if they’ve just been thrown on the dustbin heap somewhere,” she adds, for her, quite pointedly.
Despite the near constant beaming smile, Baroness Floella Benjamin is not a woman to be underestimated – and, if needs must, she knows she can make the most of the emotional connection with her “Play School babies”, some of whom sit in the Cabinet today (Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove, to name two), to help lobby for change.
Her first words to Gove were apparently: “I’m so pleased to know that you’re one of my Play School babies! Now, this is what I want you to do.”
Although she doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon, in a moment of reflection, but to her usually positive beat, the peer says: “I want to die knowing I’ve done my bit. I can’t do everything but what I can do is try and inspire others – and isn’t that wonderful!”
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