The jumpsuits! The chopper! The tear-jerking stories! Hit 90s series Challenge Anneka made a pin-up of Anneka Rice, but – even though she was asked to be a Bond Girl – she insists…I’m not a very SEXY person
- Anneka Rice, 64, opens up about her legacy ahead of her return to TV screens
- READ MORE: Anneka Rice is ‘horrified’ when looking at photos of herself
She’s back! Anneka Rice is putting on a jumpsuit, getting in a helicopter and flying all over the country to help people in need again, more than 30 years after the launch of Challenge Anneka.
‘There has been an outpouring of sweetness,’ says this vivacious force of nature, who will face four uphill tasks in the new Channel 5 series, just as she did in the 90s when it had a huge primetime audience.
‘Nothing’s changed, people are still keen to come forward, except that they now spend a lot of time stroking my arm and going, “You were my childhood!”‘
Anneka doesn’t mind in the slightest, if it helps her get the free materials and willing hands she needs to build a centre for abandoned dogs in Kent, put up a river pontoon for land-locked sea cadets in Luton, open a new food hub in Stockton or create a memory village for people with dementia on The Wirral. And each miraculous build has to be done in just a few days, while the clock is ticking.
If the format sounds familiar, it’s because Challenge Anneka – which she devised herself – was the show that came first, preparing the way for the likes of DIY SOS and Garden Rescue.
Anneka Rice is putting on a jumpsuit, getting in a helicopter and flying all over the country to help people in need again, more than 30 years after the launch of Challenge Anneka
‘I suppose it’s the right time to come back,’ Anneka says, ‘because all the mums in their 30s and people who are in a position to volunteer now were our peak audience back in the day, when they used to see us at teatime on Saturday before Noel’s House Party.’
Challenge Anneka ran for seven series between 1989 and 1995 and made Anneka a household name.
Lots of people admired her ability to get things done, some just fancied her in a jumpsuit, but everyone watched. Now the show is being revived, with modern versions of the trademark truck, beach buggy and helicopter.
Anneka also looks much the same at the age of 64, and was often recognised.
‘We had to edit out all the times people said, “Are you doing that again? I used to love watching you at my nan’s house.” I understand, because I felt like that about Bruce Forsyth, having grown up watching The Generation Game. I blushed when I first met him. It’s the same excitement, isn’t it?’
There’s a generation of women called Anneka because of her. ‘They were named in the haze of Lycra excitement and now they’re part of my team,’ she says with pride.
Then there are those whose lives were transformed the first time and are coming back to help, like the architect of the Stockton food hub who was inspired after seeing Challenge Anneka come to town as a boy.
‘He was a 12-year-old when we rolled into a deprived area in Northern Ireland. He watched the community build a playground and thought, “That’s what I want to do, see something rise from the earth like that.” And now he’s a grown man, helping that happen. Oh God, I will literally start crying.’
Challenge Anneka ran for seven series between 1989 and 1995 and made the presenter a household name
Anneka flicks away tears in the bar near her home in Barnes, southwest London, where we meet. She apologises for being tired after spending the morning doing volunteer work, all off camera, but actually appears bright and engaged in a flying jacket covered in patches.
‘I’ve had this since the 80s,’ she says. ‘I don’t know who made it but I love it. Look how it’s all collapsed inside. It’s lovely.’
She laughs when reminded of a scene in the first episode of the new series when a young woman on the end of the line at a supply company has no idea who she is. Anneka asks sheepishly if anyone older can come to the phone.
‘There was a lot of that. We own it. We’ve got to, because anyone under 30 is not going to have a clue, are they?’
Yet back in the 80s, Anneka Rice was as famous as any of today’s social media stars, due to a show called Treasure Hunt, which had her chasing all over the world while contestants in the studio looked up reference books and tried to solve clues, in the days before the internet.
‘The producers put me in control, calling the shots, which just had not been seen,’ she says. ‘Women were either newsreaders or being chased around by Benny Hill. Or in a frothy red bikini draped over a car as a prize on The Golden Shot.’
Anneka was so famous that her waxwork was suspended in the entrance hall of Madame Tussauds, hanging from a rope ladder as if descending from the chopper. ‘My life exploded. That was when the Bond thing happened,’ she says.
Yes, as in 007.
‘I got a call from [Bond producer] Cubby Broccoli, asking would I be interested to talk to him about James Bond? They put me in a studio in Soho and asked me to do a few moves, like this [she does a karate chop]. At the end we were chatting and Cubby said the words “Bond girl”. I hadn’t realised he wanted me as a Bond girl, which to my mind was not on, being very feminist. I didn’t want to be Ursula Andress coming out of the sea and sleeping with James Bond. I wanted to be James Bond!
‘I said, “Sorry, that’s not for me. I really don’t want to be a Bond girl. I don’t want to be waiting for him in bed in a negligee.” Then I just wandered off into Soho.’
Does she regret it?
‘That would have been an amazing thing to do. There was too much crowding into my life and I probably missed a few things. I have very strong ideas about how women are perceived and being a Bond girl didn’t fit into my thinking.’
Challenge Anneka was sold to countries around the world and now the show is back on screens later this month
Good for her, I say, sticking to her principles. ‘Not good for me, stupid me! My life would have taken a different turn. I’d probably be a multimillionaire in LA, instead of on a building site up to my thighs in mud, trying to persuade builders to stay just an hour more.’
We talk of Jane Seymour, a friend of hers due to a mutual passion for painting, who was Solitaire in Live And Let Die and who lives in a beachfront mansion in Malibu. ‘That would have been me!’
She’s laughing, though, because she didn’t do badly. Challenge Anneka made big money when it was sold to countries around the world and helped her buy a Grade II-listed Georgian house on the river at Barnes, which was put on the market last year for £4.9 million.
Anneka married theatre producer Nick Allott in 1988 and they have two sons, Thomas and Joshua.
The boys were very young when she did the challenge that has had the deepest impact on her, renovating a Romanian orphanage in 1990.
‘Romania has never left me,’ she says. ‘We were so distressed during the challenge and after. Grown men were weeping. There was sewage running down the corridors. Children tethered two or three to a cot in a dark basement. It was beyond anything I’d ever seen. I had a very newborn baby myself and a one-year-old and I didn’t know what to do. I just sobbed all the way home.’
Anneka felt guilty leaving the orphans behind. ‘I had to get back for my children and to do the next challenge, but Monica McDaid, the teacher from Solihull who had set us the challenge, never left. Some of the people from our challenge are still going back to do repairs on the halfway houses the charity has built for the orphans to use as adults.’
They are on the border with Ukraine and when the war broke out the orphans, who are now in their 30s, gave up their beds to refugees. ‘I was very moved by that,’ Anneka says. ‘I rang Dave The Soundman and we were crying on the phone.’
Anneka and Dave ‘The Soundman’ Chapman have worked together for decades and he was around when her boys came to filming after she split from their father. ‘I took them everywhere. There was a playroom in the truck. They thought Dave The Soundman was possibly their uncle. It was a lifesaver for me.’
Anneka and Nick split up in 1992 but remained friends. She had a third son, Sam, with TV producer Tom Gutteridge in 1997, but they parted ways soon after. By then she had taken the dramatic decision to drop out of high-profile television work.
Lots of people admired her ability to get things done, some just fancied her in a jumpsuit, but everyone watched the show
‘I quit while I was ahead. Every man I’ve met has said, “How could you give up that amazing career?” I didn’t see it like that. I was carrying on with all the projects, just not on screen.’
She has kept in touch with most of the people and projects on Challenge Anneka, as well as continuing to work with the charities. ‘It was never a make-over show. Never, “Let’s put a few walls up and a new sofa and move on.” So it wasn’t as if I sat at home and opened a bottle of Champagne. I went to Chelsea College of Art for two years and hopefully was a lovely mum to my kids.’
Her return to television included doing Strictly Come Dancing in 2019. Anneka was voted off after just two weeks, despite arriving on a rope ladder to perform the Charleston in yet another jumpsuit. ‘The image of me that people remember from 30 years ago is never going to change, so I might as well embrace it,’ she says.
Generations of men and women have found her very attractive, but Anneka insists she’s oblivious. ‘I’m not a very sexy person. So I don’t get that attention ever.’ Really? ‘Well, I’m not aware of that.’
She looks amazing in our photos, but says her sons laughed when they saw them.
‘They don’t see me that way. It’s like a cartoon character, isn’t it, when you’re put in those clothes? Even on Challenge Anneka, it’s a jumpsuit but I’m in so many layers of thermals. There’s no hair and make-up.’
Does she feel any pressure to look a certain way now she’s back?
‘Oh, no. I don’t give a s**t. I feel the same, so it doesn’t bother me what I look like. If people are disappointed by the intervening years, go back to your phone.’
On the other hand, there was no way a 64-year-old woman would have been allowed to front a show like this when her career began. ‘No, I’m thrilled by that. Television has changed so much.’
Both her parents were affected by Alzheimer’s at the end of their lives and she found it heartbreaking, so there was one challenge in the new series that really moved her. ‘We did this project in The Wirral, where we built a dementia village with a pub, café and a cinema. So someone might wander into a record shop, and their carer will be there.’
She knows from experience how music can reach even those deprived of the power of speech. ‘I burst into a rendition of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, because it’s what I used to sing with my parents. This guy John started singing it word perfect.’
Her voice cracks as she remembers. ‘It was heartwarming. One little thing can open someone out.’
When I ask why people volunteer to help with the challenges she talks about a man called Danny the Digger, who turned up for the first show but then brought his equipment to the other projects too.
‘He said, “It’s better than therapy. I feel I’ve just made connections.” Volunteering makes you look outwards and be part of something bigger than yourself,’ says Anneka, who has done as much as anyone to bring communities together and is coming back at a time when we really need that. ‘I think deep down we’re all hard-wired to help others, aren’t we?’
Challenge Anneka will air later this month on Channel 5.
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