Bradford-born Anita Rani is now one of the nation’s most-successful radio and television broadcasters – presenting national institutions Countryfile and Women’s Hour among many other shows. But her new memoir, The Right Sort of Girl, which is published today, reveals the many challenges she has faced along the way. In this exclusive extract, she discusses the response she faced when she first joined Countryfile:
“My job now sees me striding around the British countryside filming, milking goats and being chased by hungry cows. Going to places no Asian woman has gone before, on national telly. I’m on the constant hunt for stylish waterproof trousers.
I can report they don’t exist.
All those romantic notions of the countryside are out. It can be tough out there. I deploy thermals from September through to April. It’s the only way to survive the great British outdoors.
The biggest trial was one of my early filming trips, right to the heart of rural Britain in Harewood House, just outside Leeds.
I was pretty much in the deep crevice of the countryside at the GLA Game Fair. I’ve never seen so many guns, tweed and red corduroy trousers and there were flat caps a-plenty. I was terrified.
This was the hardcore Countryfile audience, the ones who probably felt the programme had gone a little soft with it now being a popular factual show rather than solely a rural affairs programme. What the hell did this lot make of me on their favourite TV show?
Once again, I was the only brown face there. Luckily, my childhood conditioning meant I didn’t feel self-conscious, I was hardened to being ‘the only brown in the village’.
The show entered me into a clay pigeon shooting competition as a total novice. Turns out I have a natural aptitude and I won!
As I was walking up the main drag of the fair, a rather rotund, red-faced man, probably in his sixties, wearing bright yellow trousers and a tweed waistcoat walked past me and looked directly at me. Oh God, here we go. Straight-talking Yorkshire folk are not afraid to say what they really think. He looked as though he was prepared to tell me off. I stopped breathing for a second, preparing myself for the humiliation.
“You’re doing alreet lass, you’re doing alreet.”
Then he turned around and carried on.
This was the moment I knew I had been officially accepted on Countryfile.
It didn’t really matter about anyone else’s opinion now. No matter what nonsense I received on Twitter or what people might be saying behind my back, rural Yorkshire had my back! Or at least he did.
What was the reaction to me joining the Countryfile team from others?
“So what is your countryside experience?”
“Did you know much about the British countryside before the show?”
“You’ll never be Ellie Harrison.” Naturally, two women are pitted against each other.
“So what is your field of expertise?” Erm, presenting.
“Have you always lived in this country?” I grew up in Bradford.
These are just a few of the things said to my face. I can’t even begin to get into some of the nonsense I’ve received via Twitter. I try not to get sucked into it, most of the time. But sometimes a racist tweet will trigger me and I have to remind myself not to get into any argy-bargy with a numbskull.
If I do respond to an insulting tweet, I’m usually backed up by an army of good folk. This gives me hope. But to preserve the smidge of sanity I have left, I generally stay away from Twitter rucks as a rule. Ignore the idiots. Presenting Countryfile is a gift. I got a call from the boss of BBC One and she asked if I fancied doing a piece on it, just one item. It was never part of my plan but I take the opportunities as they come. I was sent to Cornwall to blow up ten tonnes of dynamite in a china clay quarry, just in case people didn’t notice me, and six years later I’m still on the show.
It is a warm Sunday night hug of a show, the most popular factual show in national TV, no less. It’s a national institution and I find myself at the heart of it. I was once asked by a journalist how important it was for Asian Britain that I was on a show like Countryfile and I replied that the Asian community are proud of me wherever I go. I feel held by them and humbled by their support.
I understand what I must represent to them, the importance of young girls watching a brown face like theirs seemingly at the heart of the establishment. It shows that it is possible to achieve your dreams.
However, surely it is more important for the rest of Britain to see a brown woman striding around the British countryside and not self-destructing as soon as the air hits her? A brown and British woman, a Yorkshire lass taking ownership of the land. Having representation on screen isn’t just for the benefit of people who look like me. It’s for the enhancement of all society.
When Noma Dumezweni, a black woman, was cast as Hermione Granger in the award-winning stage production of Harry Potter, people were outraged.
The character couldn’t possibly be black. They were prepared to believe in wizards and an invisibility cloak but Hermione Granger, black? No way. Even little black and brown kids put white children at the hearts of the stories they write, because they can’t imagine people who look like them being their heroes.
We need more colour blind casting and we definitely need more authentically diverse stories and characters out there to be played. It’s imperative we start reflecting the society we are and who we want to be and to not be afraid of upsetting a few narrow-minded unimaginative trouble-making racists.
For a long time, I have had the thickest skin. Dinosaur thickness. I have also happily lived in a bubble of positivity. I’ve skipped around with my fingers in my ears, focusing on my own game, with my mum’s mantra ringing in my ears: ‘Be positive, be positive, be positive’.
It does mean I have kept a lot of stuff bottled up. So, when anyone says something derogatory or prejudice is staring me in the face, I choose to focus on something good and always see the positive.
I believed, because it was instilled in me by my parents, that if I strove for excellence I could achieve anything.
But it’s not quite so simple in the real world. My advice to anyone wanting a career in the creative industries, particularly Asian kids, was always: you only need that one break. It’s a numbers game.
Nothing will come to you, nothing will land in your lap no matter how talented you are.
You have to get out there and dazzle them with your skills, your mad crazy brilliant skills.
Don’t worry about the negative, stay focused on your game.”
The Right Sort of Girl by Anita Rani is published today by Bonnier Books and is out now.
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