Anita Rani:
the land and the sea

For her latest challenge the Countryfile presenter and Yorkshirewoman is heading off the land and out into the sea

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Anita Rani never set out to become a role model. Growing up in Bradford, she dreamt of pursuing a career on the screen, but as the child of an ethnic minority family in 1980s Britain she was also acutely aware of the fact that there were not many women “who looked like her” working in mainstream media.

Rani carried on regardless, going against her Indian parents’ wishes for her to study law, instead choosing a broadcasting course at Leeds University. Her first TV presenting role came in 2002, when she appeared on The Edit, a live news and entertainment programme on Channel 5.

Fast-forward less than two decades and Rani is now one of the most regular faces on the BBC and a household name, with credits including Countryfile, Who Do You Think You Are?, Watchdog, The One Show and a respectable stint on Strictly Come Dancing.

A career in the BBC limelight comes with a number of expected consequences – fame and responsibility among them – but to be considered a role model for future generations? Rani says she never gave it much thought.

“I am British – this is the face of modern Britain – but my story is complicated, like all our stories.”

“I was too busy working hard trying to get somewhere, but now that I find myself where I am I absolutely own it and absolutely I want to empower the next generation of young women,” she says. “It’s really tough being a young girl. It’s tough when you come from a family that might be different to others and you just want to fit in, and I think it’s really important that we live in a country where we see reflections of ourselves in popular media.

“I am British – this is the face of modern Britain – but my story is complicated, like all our stories. I never had anybody who looked like me on the cover of magazines growing up, and when you don’t see yourself you don’t believe that you can do it, so it is really important that young women believe they can achieve.”

Rani’s personal story – and her impetus to empower young women – was given a deeper meaning in 2015 when she appeared on BBC ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are?

Rani’s family tree took her to Punjab, where her maternal grandfather was born. Rani knew her grandfather had been married before he met her grandmother, but she had no idea of the tragedy that met his young family during the 1947 Partition of India. The cameras followed Rani as she travelled to a village in Pakistan where she learned thousands of women and girls jumped into the village well with their daughters to avoid being raped, murdered or abducted. Her grandfather’s first wife could have been among them.

It is a harrowing watch for anyone, so it is no surprise Rani says the discoveries she made in the show changed her life. Last year she produced a follow-up show, My Family, Partition And Me: India 1947 to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the event, and says the lessons she took home spread wider than her own family’s story.

“I am a big believer in equality and I am a feminist,” she says. “When you learn that you are from a long line of women who never had any choice about their life, I realise that I am probably the first woman in my family to have chosen a career for myself and left home and made a life for myself – to choose my own husband, for goodness sake. These are things I don’t take for granted, and it has empowered me in ways I never thought possible. I think there’s a lot to be said for understanding your roots.

“It’s a really proud moment for me to be able to tell that story of Partition because it is about so many people and it is British history, it is global history. It’s really important that we understand and acknowledge the legacy of Empire. As a country we need to know. Why don’t we want to know the light and the dark? It’s not about making anyone feel ashamed, it’s not about pointing the finger or blaming – it’s just about acknowledging what happened.

“And it’s also for people in Britain to understand why there are so many people here from the Commonwealth. We’ve got second and third generation people from all over the world living in this brilliant country. We have taken refuge here and we have come here as migrants and we have worked hard to build this nation as my grandparents did, so it’s important to understand the history of that and why people are here – to fully understand this nation.”

In the current political climate, where some voters and politicians obsess over invisible lines in the ground, Rani says understanding history could help heal divisions. “I’m a storyteller. I make programmes and travel the world to tell people stories and to remind people that we are all connected – that humanity is before anything. Essentially we are all the same, and history connects us. Our stories are interwoven. This idea that we live in these little segregated pods doesn’t make any sense. We are all part of each other’s stories and it’s really important for people to be aware of that. The more we see that the less hatred and division there will be in society.”

Rani’s next gig is a different form of storytelling. Next year she will host Blue Planet II – Live In Concert as it tours across the country. The show consists of an 80-piece orchestra with music composed by Hanz Zimmer, and the best scenes from the BBC’s BAFTA-winning series.

Disturbing scenes of wildlife struggling with the consequences of plastic use are arguably some of Blue Planet II’s most memorable and effective moments, and they have had a lasting impact on those who saw them.

“Programmes like Blue Planet II really do a big job in opening our eyes to the responsibility we have.”

The outrage is working. In the past two weeks the European Parliament approved a ban on single-use plastic while Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Nestlé are among 250 major brands pledging to cut all plastic waste from their operations – a move described by the UN as the most ambitious effort yet to fight plastic pollution. As a Countryfile presenter Rani is passionate about nature and the responsibility we have towards it, but says the primary objective of next year’s Blue Planet II concert tour is to entertain.

“The programme did a huge amount in opening up the nation’s eyes and changing our attitudes towards the plastic that we consume and what we should be doing moving forwards, but this is very separate,” she says. “This is about giving people a big sensory experience and seeing the best of Blue Planet II on a big screen in an arena with an 80-piece orchestra.

“It is a family entertainment show. We want people from across generations to come and just breathe it in, if you like. It is more a celebration of some of that incredible footage that was shot over four years. It was four years of hard work and it’s just a chance for people to relive the highlights.

“Programmes like Blue Planet II really do a big job in opening our eyes to the responsibility we have, and also to put us in place a little bit as well. I think we are quite big for our boots sometimes and then you watch something like Blue Planet II and you’re like: ‘OK, actually I’m pretty insignificant compared to some of the other stuff that’s happening on the planet.’”

Now based in London and with a busy work schedule, Rani says she doesn’t get much chance to visit her native Yorkshire these days, but she credits the county and her parents with instilling in her an early interest in the great outdoors.

“Because I live in London and I grew up in Bradford and I work on Countryfile, people always what to know what my experience of the countryside was, thinking I’ve never set foot in the countryside before, but I have to explain to people who have never been to Yorkshire that it is a beautiful county, and you only have to drive 15 minutes in any direction and you are in stunning countryside

“As a family we would spend weekends on the moors, up in Ilkley or on the North Yorkshire Moors going out towards Whitby, or heading over towards the Lakes and we would go to Malham. That’s how I spent my weekends growing up, often the only Asian family in the countryside. Things are changing now.

“I love it, and it’s not just Yorkshire. The whole of our tiny little island is like that. We are surrounded by gorgeous countryside and it doesn’t take much to just head out and go for a little walk. I love nothing more than going for a nice walk with a pint and a Sunday roast at the end of it.”

The Blue Planet effect

A year has passed since the first episode of Blue Planet II aired on the BBC and its impact spread across the globe. The first episode was the most watched programme in the UK in the whole of 2017. In China, the internet struggled to hold up as millions streamed the show online.

Alongside impressive footage of fish snatching birds from the ocean surface and orca whales smacking their tails in an effort to stun unsuspecting prey, the show shocked the world by exposing the destruction plastic pollution is wreaking on the planet’s oceans.

Environment secretary Michael Gove said he was “haunted” by the series, while his counterpart in Scotland, Roseanna Cunningham, used her speech in Holyrood to pledge change.

Internationally the series “helped spur a wave of action”, says Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

The Queen has backed proposals to cut plastic use on royal estates, while the BBC announced plans to ban all single use plastics by 2020.

Some pubs across the country have stopped providing plastic straws, opting for paper alternatives, while fast food giants McDonalds and Starbucks have announced their intention to ban plastic straws from their outlets.

Gove has vowed to “turn the tide on plastic pollution” by stamping out the use of 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds in England each year, many of which end up in rivers and seas. Gove’s efforts to burnish his party’s green credentials could lead to plastic straws and cotton buds being banned by the end of next year.

The Blue Planet tour includes Leeds First Direct Arena, 19 March 2019, Liverpool Echo Arena, Manchester Arena, 27 March, and Sheffield FlyDSA Arena, 28 March

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