Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Anneka Rice, television presenter

'I started to write to the BBC at 14'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 21 February 2008 01:00
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Anneka Rice, 49, began presenting "Challenge Anneka" in 1989. Today she launches the "Working Life Begins at Fifty" campaign (0800 100 900 or www.learndirect-advice.co.uk/guidance)

I have a very strong memory of my childhood because I wrote a diary from the age of eight. My parents bought me a diary with a lock, which seemed very glamorous. I kept it going till I was about 14. I can look up the entry for 2 January 1969 and see what I had for lunch.

I just loved Dunrobin, in Limpsfield, Surrey, a most phenomenal private school with a sense of eccentricity, which I think is very important. Miss Pace, the really inspiring headmistress, used to invite us into her study and play us Joyce Grenfell monologues: "Oh George, don't put that into your mouth..."

There was a piano in every room and singing every day. Mrs Swaddling, with her big bosom, would play songs from The King and I and Salad Days and, when it came out, Mary Poppins, which we thought was very racy. All this put me on to the artistic road, with a love of performance and music.

At 11, most of us moved on to St Michael's, a small private girls school, again, very eccentric. It had started out as a missionary school, and chapel was part of the fabric of the day. I remember playing the organ; I wasn't very good at it but I could crash out, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind". My real passion was sport: tennis and netball, and I played county lacrosse. We did O-levels at a very young age – I did nine at 15.

There was a crisis in my schooling. Some of the girls were mucking around with a lighter and set fire to the curtains in the common room. It was arson and the police were called in because of the potential danger: the whole school could have gone up. The girls who had been in the common room were expelled; I had been at a music lesson and so wasn't. There were only four of us left in the A-level class, which was a bit limiting, especially for sport.

The decision to move to Croydon High School was the wrong decision. I hated it. In my year alone there were over 100 girls, and I never felt I belonged there; I was academic but I found the rarefied atmosphere very off-putting. There were some nice people but it's telling that I can barely remember four or five of them.

I did English, history and French A-levels, and got two Bs and a C – and in those days that was really good. Everyone else was doing Oxbridge, but I had started writing to the BBC at 14, and at 17 I got a traineeship. I loved it.

At 35, I did my sixth year of Challenge Anneka: 60 projects, some quite dangerous. We'd worked under UN protection in Croatia, because of the danger from snipers. I suddenly thought, "Time to call it a day. Quit while you're ahead".

When I was in my twenties, my husband had bought me Step by Step Art School, a smock and an easel, and I'd be painting when I should have been filming, for example, at Ayers Rock. So I went to Chelsea College of Art with my portfolio and did a three-year, part-time diploma course in fine art, painting and drawing.

Since then, I still dip in and out of courses all over the place. One involved architectural drawing in different places in London, such as the pagoda in Battersea. There's a monk who lives in a retreat; he invited us in and gave us tea, and we said prayers with him. People commission me – "I want a nude life drawing to put over the mantelpiece" – and I get a fat cheque, which is nice.

Being in a learning environment when you're older is very exciting. I'm fronting the "Working Life Begins at Fifty" campaign – but I'm not quite 50!

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