Thursday, 19 June 2008

Floella Benjamin

Did you know Floella was the first to appear fully pregnant on British TV (in Play School)?

For a woman whose ambition was to be Britain's first black bank manager, her life took a totally different course. There just weren't black bank managers back then, but ethnic minorities were accepted into the theatre, and so that's the way she went.

There weren't many black people on TV during the 70s and 80s. The TV channels were becoming more senstive to the fact - especially in representing children - firstly in the 60s and later on with Derek Griffiths, but in the main, they were vastly outnumbered. Notwithstanding, she thrived on television. The main allure of her was that she genuinely loved being around children. She wasn't merely adorning the shop floor for the career bump-up.

Sourcing pics for this post, there were hundreds of her, and not one without her beaming.

Floella starred in two of the upper echelons of Play for Todays, from one of its golden eras (the late 70s). In 1979, she starred in A Hole in Babylon, about a seige in an Italian restaurant that goes wrong. Waterloo Sunset, (also 1979, the year that brought us the dazzling
performance of Jonathan Pryce in Trevor Griffith's 'The Comedians') is a play about racial disharmony in a poky London flat. A young man and his elderly relative live on a mostly West Indian London housing estate and the pivotal scene involves the naive old woman dusting her face with cocoa in order to fit in, but they take it the wrong way.

A few years prior, in 1975, she starred in another Play for Today, The Floater - where she was lucky enough to appear alongside Richard Beckinsale (who played a solicitor's clerk acting for his sick wife).

She also appeared in many films (mainly playing a nurse) but 'Black Joy' is a film of note about a naive African immigrant arriving in Brixton - with Norman Beaton as the wise-arse, no-good rude boy she falls in with. Floella plays Beaton's non shit-taking wife. Vivian Stanshall's in it
too, as a pervy vicar.

In more recent years, she was cast in Doctor Who and there's the Floella Benjamin Award at Exeter University (which also gave her an honoury doctorate), where up to £1,000 is given to promising students to help improve their future job prospects.

Predictably, but admirably, she runs a lot for charity these days.

Floella Benjamin OBE (born in Trinidad, 1949)