Dame Floella Benjamin's youth to become 'uplifting' stage musical

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment & arts reporter

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Floella Benjamin was made a dame last year

Children's TV legend Dame Floella Benjamin has said she's "thrilled" that a new stage musical is to tell the story of her arrival in 1960s Britain.

Coming To England is based on her 1997 book about her journey from Trinidad and how she overcame the racism she encountered when she arrived.

It is being adapted by David Wood, one of her former co-presenters on classic children's TV show Play Away.

"It's about overcoming adversity, this story, and it's uplifting," she said.

Dame Floella moved to England with her family in 1960 at the age of 10, but was met by hostility and prejudice from classmates and neighbours.

The story is about "determination, never giving up, standing up to bullies, and standing up for what you believe in", she explained after the musical was announced.

Image caption,
Floella Benjamin on Play Away in 1983

Coming To England has already been turned into a BBC children's TV drama and used as a CBeebies Bedtime Story.

The theatre version will receive its premiere at the Birmingham Rep next February as part of the venue's 50th anniversary season, and will be aimed at family audiences.

"What I want them to get from it is understanding differences and what it's like to be different," Dame Floella, 71, told BBC News. "For various reasons, we might be different, whether it's our religion, the colour of our skin, the colour hair we've got, our size, whatever it is.

"I want them, when they come to see the show, to leave the theatre singing and dancing, and knowing that they too could change the world, and to feel inspired."

Dame Floella started her career on the stage before becoming a household name in the 1980s as the host of TV shows like Play School and Play Away. She was made a dame last year for her services to charity.

Media caption,
"I fought every day": Floella Benjamin remembers her childhood after she moved to the UK

She will now help choose the actress who will play her younger self on stage. "I'm excited to find that Floella, and try to find my brothers and sisters," she said.

"I started off in showbusiness 50 years ago in the theatre, and so I know that feeling of auditioning and trying to persuade people that the part's for you.

"I'll be the producer now in the audience, watching people come on and telling me that they want the part. I think we've come full circle. Isn't that wonderful?"

Coming To England will run from 19 February to 6 March 2022, and Dame Floella has also been appointed the Birmingham Rep's patron of youth and education.

Other shows in the theatre's anniversary season will include What's New Pussycat?, a musical setting Henry Fielding's 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones to the hits of Sir Tom Jones; a 25th anniversary production of East Is East; and a revival of The Play What I Wrote.