Lady Floella Benjamin said she was warned “shut up or you’ll never work again” when she first called for greater diversity in TV.
The beloved Play School presenter, 71, said early on in her career she had the role of a 16-year-old shoplifter in Within These Walls alongside Googie Withers.
Benjamin, who was born in Trinidad before emigrating to the UK as a 10-year-old, said she asked the producer on the 1970s drama why black people always had to play “thieves and prostitutes and bus drivers”.
Speaking on Desert Island Discs, she added: “Can’t we play other parts? Professional doctors and lawyers? And he said to me, ‘that’s not realistic’.
“I thought to myself, well it is realistic because that’s what my family are – my family are all professional people. And that’s when I started fighting for diversity on our screens, way back in 1973-74.”
Asked by host Lauren Laverne if it was possible to force change from within, Benjamin replied: “It was very tough, I was told ‘shut up or you’ll never work again’.
“You get knocked down, yes, but you have to have that self-belief that you’re going to rise. And a lot of the things I said way back, 40 odd years ago, are happening now.
“But now things are changing, and it’s wonderful. We’ve all got to take personal responsibility to make change.”
Benjamin, who was made a dame earlier this year, moved to Beckenham, London, with her parents and encountered racism almost immediately.
On the day the family went to view the house, a neighbour called the police, suspecting they were attempting to steal the fixtures and fittings.
Benjamin said she encountered racial abuse on a daily basis as a 10-year-old.
“It’s tough being black,” she said. “It’s tough having to face that, especially as a child. But it makes you resilient.
“You have this sixth sense about who was going to actually harm you, who was going to be horrible to you. We’d go to a shop and no one would serve you and you’d have to stand there waiting to be served, and you knew you couldn’t leave because my mum would say, ‘go back to the shop until they serve you.’”
Benjamin’s parents are both buried in Beckenham cemetery. After her peerage was announced in 2010, she visited their graves.
She said: “I went to the cemetery when I became a baroness and said ‘mummy, daddy, I’m going to claim Beckenham for you. I’m going to call myself Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. There, it’s yours’.
“Because they had worked so hard to get me where I am and it’s a shame they didn’t get to see it.”
Benjamin’s children’s book, Coming to England, which tells the story of how she came to London as part of the Windrush generation, recently featured as a CBeebies bedtime story read by David Olusoga to mark Black History Month.