Baroness Floella Benjamin has said she is “happy and thrilled, honoured and privileged” to be made a Dame in the New Year Honours List.
The beloved children’s TV presenter, known to millions of Britons as the host of Play School and Play Away, also said she will likely go and celebrate by having “lunch and a dance at The Ritz”.
The 70-year-old TV pioneer is being honoured for her services to charity, having dedicated much of her career to campaigning for young people or and her various charitable interests.
She told the PA News Agency: “I am buzzing with excitement like a little girl. I just feel so happy and thrilled, and honoured and privileged to be able to accept this honour.
“For the last 40 years, I believed that you have to give back and you have to try and think about other people as much as you can because when I came to Britain, aged 10, I had a pretty tough time, people told me to go back, they didn’t want me here.
“And I realised that I was worthy because my parents kept telling me that. And when I started doing Play School, I realised that children needed a voice, so there are many sign posts in my life, spiritual moments if you want to call them that directed me to a place where I should be – that was to give back and to give unconditional love and that’s what I’ve done.
“So getting this award is a bit of me getting something back of unconditional love people have shown to me, and I’m really, really thrilled and happy about it.
Baroness Benjamin was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad before moving to the UK.
In a piece written earlier this year titled A Windrush Story, published online by Black History Month, she recalled how her family encountered racism almost immediately, and neighbours in the London suburb of Beckenham called the police to stop them moving in.
The family ended up living in the home for 40 years.
After she left school, she started work at a bank with the dream of becoming Britain’s first black woman bank manager.
However, writing on her official website, Baroness Benjamin said she “soon realised it was an impossible dream in those days”.
Instead of a career in finance, she turned her focus to showbusiness and appeared in several stage musicals including Jesus Christ Superstar and Black Mikado.
Next came her role on Play School, the BBC’s children’s TV show. Aimed at pre-school children, it featured songs, stories and activities with the different presenters.
Her 12-year spell on the show, and her time on its sister programme Play Away, made her one of the most recognisable children’s TV presenters in the country.
She said: “I see myself as a role model, I always have, especially when I was on Play School.
“Because I realised the responsibility that when you say something when you act in a certain way, people are looking at you, because childhood lasts a lifetime and children are born with blank canvases and you can make an impression on their lives. So you have to do things with dignity, with style, with flair but most of all with confidence”.
Baroness Benjamin later set up a TV production company and wrote a memoir in 1995 titled Coming To England. It was adapted into an award-winning TV movie.
She has also campaigned for greater diversity in children’s books, questioning why for many years white faces were often the only ones included.
She has supported charities including Barnardo’s, Sickle Cell Society and Beating Bowel Cancer.
“I think everybody should think about what their legacy is going to be when it comes to making their new year’s resolution, my legacy is to make a difference to change the world wherever I can, however I can,” she told PA.
“Everything I do I try and get people to see that you have to be inclusive. When I was on Play School, I tried to get them to have picture books that reflected the diversity of the nation so that children of all colours, of all religions, all cultures, could see themselves on television.
“I’ve always fought on television, in the media, and to get diversity at the forefront of people’s mind – to be in their DNA.
“I’ve always put other people first because I know people hadn’t put me first and how bad I felt, so my job is make other people feel worthy”.
During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012, she met the Queen in her role as the chancellor of Exeter University.
In 2010, she was introduced to the House Of Lords as a life peer nominated by the Lib Dems. Her full title is Baroness Benjamin, of Beckenham in the County of Kent.
Baroness Benjamin has been married to stage manager Keith Taylor since 1980, and the couple has two children.
She was awarded an OBE nearly two decades ago, and said: “I was thrilled to receive my OBE, but to get my Damehood for charity means even more to me because I have truly dedicated my life to giving to charity, charitable causes, and charitable experiences.”