Wednesday, October 21, 2020
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Dame Flo paints it black

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SPARE a thought for poor old Floella Benjamin. Or rather Dame Floella. Having arrived in the UK as a child from her native Trinidad, she grew up in leafy Beckenham, Kent, and worked for Barclays with ambitions to become Britain’s first female bank manager before embarking on a stage career. She appeared in countless TV and film roles but is probably best known for her stint as a presenter on the BBC children’s programme Play School.

She was appointed an OBE in 2001 for services to broadcasting, chaired the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, was a Millennium Commissioner and a governor of the National Film and Television School. She was awarded an honorary degree by Exeter University for ‘contributions to the life of the United Kingdom’, was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London in 2008 and in 2010 was created a Liberal Democrat life peer, becoming Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. In the 2020 New Year Honours she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Phew! Quite a CV. Yet is she satisfied? It would appear not.

Interviewed for the feature My Cultural Fix in yesterday’s ever-more-woke Times, 71-year-old Dame Flo comes across as a woman obsessed. The bulk of the entries is about racism and being black in a white man’s world. For example:

If I could own one painting it would be . . .
Portrait of a Black Gardener by Harold Gilman. When I first saw it hanging in the library of the Royal Horticultural Society, of which I am now proudly a vice-president, it intrigued me. It was so rare to see a black person in a period painting who is not dressed up to look like an exotic aristocratic trophy.

My favourite author or book
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. When I am talking to young people, especially those who are suffering from despair, I always use Barack Obama and this book as the perfect example of ‘never give up’, because you don’t know where life will take you.

The book I’m reading
Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri. In 1977 I was at the Cannes Film Festival to promote Black Joy, which I starred in and I was continually having people pulling my plaits, trying to grab a piece of me as a souvenir. Even my son had similar experiences.

My favourite film
West Side Story
. It was way ahead of its time on how it dealt with racism, gangs, gender and sexuality.

The book I’m ashamed I haven’t read
Another Country
 by James Baldwin. Baldwin was writing about the importance of Black Lives Matter more than 60 years ago and is one of the century’s greatest writers. I love this quote of his, which is so relevant today: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

My favourite TV series

Line of Duty. I adore the series because they dare to do the unexpected. But I was so upset when they killed off the [black] Lennie James character in the first series – he was brilliant. Bring him back from the dead. 

The music that cheers me up

Steel pan music reminds me of my Caribbean roots and my happy childhood in Trinidad, where I was a person, not a colour. 

The last TV programme that made me cry
David Olusoga’s Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. It not only laid bare the tortuous life of my ancestors and the way they were treated, but the shocking way that, after the abolition of slavery, it was the slave owners who were compensated with vast sums of money, rather than the freed enslaved people. I consoled myself by thinking: ‘I’m now in the House of Lords, where for centuries those who decided the fate of my ancestors once stood.’

I’m having a fantasy dinner party and I’ll put on this music
Bob Marley’s album Legend. Each guest would be able to identify with at least one of the tracks on this album.

The film I walked out on
Dunkirk
. In this 2017 war film there was, disgracefully, no representation of Caribbean, African and Asian servicemen and women. Yet in reality there were thousands of them in the British army, navy and air force. My uncle was one of them – he died in that war. 

In previous interviews, Dame Floella has told how she and her family suffered terrible racist abuse when they arrived in this country. However, I think it’s fair to say that the British Establishment has since bent over backwards to be nice to her.

Just imagine the howls of outrage if, for example, a white male such as Nigel Farage was interviewed for this feature (not that the Times ever would) and used every cultural reference to highlight the plight of the white man in British society. He would be condemned as a racist monster.

Incredibly, you need only turn the page to find another successful black Briton bleating about those pesky white people. Lenny Henry argues that other races are severely under-represented in the world of classical music, which he suggests is a hotbed of discrimination.

Has the number of brilliant Chinese and Japanese musicians escaped him? 

Has he forgotten that success in classical music is about excellence and aptitude and, more than anything, dedicated parenting?

Is he proposing a musical apartheid? 

Oh, and what does he want to do about the over-representation of black people in blues and jazz?

Why are these successful role models such as Benjamin and Henry determined to cast themselves as victims and the ‘defeated’ oppressed of a war?

And why does the once impartial Times lap it all up?

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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