Backpacking, royal weddings and drum’n’bass
The inspiring and frequently surprising career of Anita Rani, Scout Ambassador: in conversation with Sonali Shah at the Royal Geographical Society.
‘[I’m] Bradford made,’ declares Anita with pride, on a balmy Monday evening in South Kensington. She’s a long way from Yorkshire here in the Royal Geographical Society, where the names of famous past explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley are embossed on the wooden panels. As an explorer and adventurer of the modern age, Anita has successfully redefined what it is to be in these roles. But how did the Countryfile presenter first get her taste for the natural world?
‘Growing up I was lucky to be surrounded by idyllic countryside,’ she explains. ‘I had a dad who was really adventurous. At the weekends we ran around Ilkley Moor. He used to bundle us into a car and take us out into the countryside, with a picnic of delicious samosas.’
These positive early experiences, along with determination and a love of education, opened up new horizons and possibilities for Anita. Soon she was developing other interests too: ‘I was a member of the Bradford Playhouse, and visited the Alhambra and the National Photography Museum.’
She started working the day after her last sixth form exam. Fortunate enough to get an early break working on a music magazine show in Ibiza, she describes this as partly due to her love of music.
‘I’m a big muso,’ she confesses, ‘I’m especially into hip hop and drum’n’bass. I used to read the inlay of every record. I mix!’
Seizing this early opportunity, her career quickly began to pick up momentum. ‘I did Watchdog, which was a really big break for a young up-and-coming presenter. They asked me what I wanted to do and of course, the news came up. But really I just wanted to tell stories and make documentaries.’
Her interest in travel has often influenced her career, and was always a major part of her life. ‘The travel bug has been in me from day one,’ she admits. ‘I went on my first flight to India when I was two. I travelled round India with my dad on a motorbike, me balanced on the petrol tank, using the mile stones for direction. I’ve got insatiable wanderlust.’ She was never afraid to go off the beaten track, exploring less obvious destinations: ‘I went backpacking on my own for three months. I went to Kerala, and even up towards Tibet, but not Goa.’
Anita is frank when discussing the subject of diversity. ‘I’m not diverse,’ she says. ‘I’m normal. Sometimes when I’m on a set, I say, ”I’m the only northerner here!” When I started my career, I thought, “I’m not here as a role model, I’m just doing my thing.” But now young Asian girls see me on TV and think, “I can do that.”’
When Anita took part in the BBC’s family history programme, Who Do You Think Are?, she became engrossed in the story of her grandfather, Sant Singh, and his first family during the Partition of India in 1947. It reveals the horror of the partition – his first wife, Pritam Kaur, and children died in the violence along with over one million others – and highlights how women were brutalised, often simply disappearing. This led Anita to her extraordinary documentary: My family, Partition and Me: India 1947. It was the story she was born to tell, and is powerful and sometimes uncomfortable viewing. When the programme won Best TV Programme at Asian Media Awards 2018, it was evidence of Anita’s talent.
Today, Anita continues to front the ever-popular show Countryfile and is an in-demand presenter for the biggest TV gigs, including the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
She is also a firm believer in the transformative power of getting kids into the outdoors. ‘There are still children who live in cities,’ she says, ‘who live amongst concrete and never get to experience the countryside. I worked with Michael Morpurgo on the Farms for City Children project, getting kids to come out and see where their food comes from. We had kids milking goats!’
All of this makes Anita the obvious choice for Scout Ambassador, a role she is passionate about: ‘I feel honoured to be part of an amazing team including Tim Peake and Dwayne Fields. Dwayne is an extraordinary guy who came from being a victim of gang violence in Hackney to walk to the North Pole. Scouting is so valuable. When you sleep under the stars and climb mountains, you learn teamwork and really appreciate nature. Those experiences never leave you. If you want to get into adventure and learn skills, Scouts is where you start.’
The interview is drawing to a close. A moth has somehow become trapped in the lecture theatre and its shadow crosses the large screen above Anita – a neat metaphor, perhaps, for the unpredictable journey that has taken the curious and gifted girl from Bradford to the top of her profession.
‘What I lack in talent,’ she says, ‘I make up for in enthusiasm. You need that when you’re presenting from a Tamworth pig farm.’
Find out about our other Scout Ambassadors here.