From presenting Countryfile from her back garden to making food parcels during lockdown, Anita Rani is a doer. But no amount of distraction could ease the pain of her devastating miscarriage.
‘My career is via stealth,’ Anita Rani tells me from the ‘studio’ she has created in her East London home in order to deliver her regular Countryfile segments during lockdown. ‘I feel like I’m in a really great place now. I get to pick and choose projects, and that’s really nice, but there ain’t no overnight success here.’
She’s got a point. Her status as one of the UK’s busiest presenters has been a long time coming. Anita moved to London in 2001, fresh out of Leeds University, where she’d studied broadcasting. The dream was to work in TV in some way, which, even that recently, wasn’t something she’d seen a huge number of British Asian women doing. But Anita, now 42, did it. She worked as a researcher for the BBC, then presented an entertainment programme for Channel 5. She presented Cricket AM on Sky, won BBC’s The Great Sport Relief Bake Off and joined The One Show, with a seemingly endless list of other programmes in between. Then, in 2015, both Countryfile and Strictly Come Dancing came calling, and it was then that her 14 years of hard graft started to really pay off.
‘When I first moved to London, I had this blind drive,’ she says. ‘I thought, “I’m going to work really hard to make this happen.” I had no agenda, but there was a big part of me that wanted to smash stereotypes. I wanted to make space for a woman who is Asian in places that brown faces wouldn’t necessarily be seen; not just for me, but so that society can see it, so that the younger generation feel that there is a space for them, too. Being on Strictly, especially, was a real moment for me, but also a moment for the Asian community. [That show] is not necessarily a space that we are in, and I also loved that it showed – yes! – brown girls can dance!’
Countryfile, of which she has been a key part of the presenting team for five years, was another huge moment, although not one Anita realised would be so pivotal at the time. She’d been presenting on The One Show since 2008, so she thought she knew what it meant to be part of the beating heart of British TV. But Countryfile, and its regular audience of up to nine million countryside obsessives, isn’t any old TV programme. ‘When my first show went out, my Twitter feed started going mad,’ Anita says. ‘I realised it’s a completely different beast. The British public love it, so it was a daunting task, but it’s been a real privilege to be taken into the heart of the programme, and I love it. The New York Times called us rural porn. I love that sentence and I love that they know who we are over there!’
Although Anita herself lives in a bustling city with her husband Bhupi Rehal – and a concrete back garden where she recently filmed ‘quite possibly the roughest and readiest Countryfile submission they’ve ever had, from the crappest location’ as part of their lockdown content – the countryside feels like home for her, too. She grew up in the suburbs of Bradford not far from the Yorkshire moors, with her parents, who ran a successful clothes manufacturing company, and her younger brother Kuldeep. ‘The two of us would go off on our bikes and you’d be in the countryside before you know it,’ she recalls. ‘Brontë country, Ilkley Moor, Baildon Moor… it just felt like an extension of my life. That feeling I get when I am in an open expanse brings back so many memories of being a child. I camped and went hiking and did the three peaks with school – those are the things that never leave you as a kid.’
She’s thrilled that Countryfile has continued filming through lockdown, brilliantly being deemed as ‘essential television’. ‘It is a hug for a nation on a Sunday night, and Lord knows we need a hug at the moment,’ she says. ‘Countryfile has always provided people with that connection to something that is innate in all of us – nature – but now more than ever it is giving us a sense of security. None of us can travel anywhere, so each presenter is doing a week where we film pretty much in our own backyards, which is great if you are any of the other presenters who live in stunning countryside, but I live in Hackney. I got on my bike and cycled to a few of the locations, but I felt empowered and excited that I was actually doing something worthwhile. It was a good day’s work.’
In spite of what still sounds like a full-on schedule – filming for Countryfile, the cookery and home beauty tutorials she’s been putting up on her Instagram page, plus volunteering at a local school packing food parcels for the charity Chefs in Schools – the recent period of staying at home has given Anita a chance to slow down, an unusual occurrence for her. She’s a doer, you see, always on the move, always working on something.
As we speak, she was supposed to be filming a four-part series on a boat in the ganges. ‘I’m so used to being hectic,’ she says. ‘But I’m trying to be philosophical. I said to my husband, we don’t know what’s going to happen on the other side of this, but I’ve hopefully got projects that will be up and running again, so I just want to sink into it and appreciate being in one place. I’ve had a couple of sleepless nights but bizarrely not about work, more about the state of the world. I’m trying to really enjoy spending time at home with my husband. He’s downstairs, I’ve got an office upstairs and we meet for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’
Anita had already completed her next TV project Britain’s Best Parent? prior to the pandemic, and it is due to be on our screens later this year. If, like me, the title fills you with absolute fear that seeing examples of perfect parenting will put your own efforts to shame, panic not. Rather than a judgment, she says, the show is instead a study of society, the choices we make and why. ‘Who’s not fascinated by parenting?’ she asks. ‘Even if you’re not a parent, you’ve been parented. It’s something that everybody has an opinion on, which is so annoying for all parents. I’m just a godmother and auntie, I have no comment on how people bring up their children, but the premise of the programme is looking at parents with a specific style. It’s about the reasons behind the choices some people have made.
‘The studio audience listens to each parent explaining why, for example, they choose to cook three different meals instead of the one, or home school, or believe in gender fluidity or think that smacking is all right. However, the truth is that there is no such thing as the correct way of doing things, and the kids in it are testament to that. They’re all well-formed children who are going to make great citizens.’
It was at the very end of 2018 that Anita’s own experience of potential parenthood was dealt a devastating blow, and she suffered a miscarriage. It’s not something, she thinks, that she processed at the time, instead ploughing on with work, not giving herself time to think about her grief. ‘Last year was really tough for me,’ she says. ‘Miscarriage is this taboo that exists in society and somehow, as women, we just have to get on with it. When you go through it, it’s such a shock to you – you don’t know what’s happening. Your body’s going through something, your psychology is going through something, you’re grieving, it’s a sense of loss, it’s trauma. It’s so much to deal with. I did this thing where I just thought, “I’ve got this; I can carry on”, but it catches up with you.’
She chose to write a piece about her miscarriage for Red magazine. ‘That was very cathartic,’ she says, ‘and it was an interesting experience in being vulnerable in such a public space. Even though Strictly is very exposing, and Who Do You Think You Are?, too, this was so personal and from the heart. People respond to truth, though, and I felt very held by everybody who read the article. I’ve had some amazing messages from women, and men, who have said thank you for writing about this, because there is no space where it can be talked about. It affects so many people. And a lot of Asian women have been in touch, too, because there is so much that is held within the community and nobody talks about anything.’
Anita met her husband Bhupi, a tech exec (‘I don’t really understand what he does, but he’s very clever and he runs his own company,’ she laughs), in 2008 at a warehouse party. She wasn’t going to go, but a mate of hers convinced her to get dressed and come out to meet some of his pals. ‘My friend network at the time was very mixed but predominantly white,’ she says. ‘I’m a bit of a bore, I’m very happy to spend Friday night in on my own, but I went, and the room was filled with every Asian misfit from around the country. It was brilliant, I felt like I’d found my people. I met my husband at that party, and I also met some of the best friends I’ve ever made in my life.’
As much as she loves London and the life she and Bhupi have built there, her teenage years in Bradford were an excellent adventure in self-discovery, too. ‘I bloody loved 90s Bradford,’ she laughs. ‘I had the best time of my life. I was quite a busy teenager. I would work at this local radio station in the holidays and at weekends, and I loved music, sitting in my room listening to The Smiths. Thank God we didn’t have social media when we were growing up. I didn’t have to deal with Instagram anxiety, or living up to anyone’s expectations. Our only concern on a Friday night was how do we get into this club without queueing.’
Her close relationship with her parents (she recently moved them down to London to be near to her and her brother) was integral in shaping her during those formative years. Her mum, though mortified when Anita turned up to an Indian wedding with Adidas trainers underneath her traditional dress, didn’t ever stop her exploring all sides of her identity, while it was her dad who took her to the pub for the first time in her teens, teaching her how to play pool. ‘My dad brought me up in a way that was very different to the relationships a lot of my Asian female friends had with their fathers,’ she says. ‘He’s cool, very Northern. I remember him saying, “Well, if you’re going to be going to the pub anyway, I’d better teach you how to play pool properly, so you don’t embarrass me.” It’s not your usual Asian dad thing!’
It was because of her parents, and some family history that she discovered as a guest on Who Do You Think You Are?, that Anita made My Family, Partition and Me for BBC One in 2017, which she both presented and co-produced. ‘I hadn’t been someone who thought, “Oh, I really need to understand this about my history,”’ she says. ‘But being in India and talking to people about their experience made me realise that this isn’t just my story, this is the story of millions. I still have people coming up to me and saying that they’re talking to their grandparents about their history for the first time, and also a lot of British white people hugging me with tears in their eyes saying how did we not know about this? It fundamentally changed something about who I am and I’ll probably be processing it for years.’
From Partition, to cricket, to Countryfile via Rogue Restaurants, Watchdog and presenting the BBC’s coverage of Harry and Meghan’s wedding, Anita’s career is fascinating in its variety, which, she says, has been mostly by design, but partly ‘to pay the bills’. I wonder what the big one would be for her – what ambitions she has still to achieve. ‘I’d love to do a quiz show,’ she grins. ‘I’m obsessed – my perfect hangover TV is back-to-back quizzes. I love Monday nights on BBC2 when Only Connect, Mastermind or University Challenge are on – they are luxury for me. My husband leaves the room and it’s just me, shouting at the telly. Even though I’ve made lots of TV shows, and I’m now an established part of this brilliant industry that I love, I feel there’s so much more for me to do and say. I’m still very focused.
‘There are so many great female presenters – Emma Willis, Claudia Winkleman, Tess Daly, Davina McCall, Alex Jones – all smashing it right now in a way that is authentic to us. We’re not filling a male space, we’re just being badass women. There’s never been a better time to be in your 40s and 50s; we’re riding the wave of amazing women and the sisterhood is strong. I love what I do and I feel so lucky.’
She may refer to it as luck, as a career via stealth, but it’s very clear that she has worked incredibly hard to get where she is. Quiz show? If that’s what Anita Rani wants next, you can bet it won’t be too long before she gets it.
Britain’s Best Parent? will be on Channel 4 from Thursday 28 May at 8pm
Interview by Francesca Babb