Had it not been for her primary school teacher Miss Beer, we might well have seen Anneka Rice gracing the Strictly dancefloor long before now.
She’s been asked to take part a few times, but only this year has she finally taken the plunge.
‘I didn’t stop for even two seconds to discuss it,’ she says. ‘It was always an immediate no. That’s because when I was seven, Miss Beer took me out of the Sugar Plum Fairy line-up in ballet and sent me home.
‘I was ungainly and plump. In fact, my nickname was Pudding because of my surname. No more ballet for me. I’d been sacked!
Anneka Rice has revealed that she refused to sign up to Strictly for years because her primary school teacher cut her out of the school ballet performance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. (Pictured: Anneka rice with Kevin Clifton)
‘It was a bit of a blow. I dealt with it by turning into a tomboy.
‘I never wore pink or dresses again. I didn’t even see my wedding dress until the day before I got married. I just wasn’t interested.
‘I knew Liz and David Emanuel so I asked them to make me a dress, but I didn’t really care what it looked like and I was five months’ pregnant at the time anyway.
‘I just don’t have that gene where I look at a handbag or a shoe and think, “Ooh…” I’ve spent my working life jumping out of helicopters and driving around in trucks.
‘My daily “uniform” is baggy top, jeans and trainers. Anything else feels like fancy dress.’
Aged seven, Anneka says she was ‘ungainly and plump’, and her nickname was pudding because of her last name (Picture, a young Anneka Rice playing cricket)
Unsurprisingly, she also turned her back on dancing.
‘When my friends were out clubbing in my late teens, I was on a two-year training course at the BBC and then working in a newsroom in Hong Kong.
‘I never went to clubs. I missed the 80s because I had my nose to the grindstone.’
And yet here’s Anneka, one of the biggest TV stars of the 80s and 90s thanks to her shows Treasure Hunt on Channel 4 and Challenge Anneka on BBC1, firmly ensconced as this year’s oldest Strictly contestant.
She’s 60 – but she doesn’t look it. What made her change her mind?
‘I woke up this year feeling reckless. I’ve started doing stand-up comedy, and Strictly is part of this madness. I was invited in to meet the producers and they seemed really good fun. Somehow I didn’t say no.’
Anneka Rice (pictured) initially tried out for Strictly at London’s Pineapple studios with pro dancer Aljaz Skorjanec
Fast forward a few weeks and Strictly got in touch again with the offer of a try-out at London’s Pineapple Studios with pro dancer Aljaz Skorjanec.
‘We did a quick ten-minute something-or-other together and he seemed encouraging.
‘No toes were injured and no one looked too embarrassed, so I found myself saying yes. But I still hadn’t told a soul – not my family, not my best friends – what was going on.
‘I walked out of that place in a daze. When I was in my 20s I used to do exercise classes at Pineapple and I would press my nose to the windows of the dance lessons taking place in the studio next door, absolutely entranced.
‘I’ve also been a Strictly fan since it started, so to be dropped into that scenario felt like someone had spiked my drink.’
Then came the phone call in June confirming that she was officially being invited to participate.
Anneka on Treasure Hunt with her cameraman in the early 1980s. In June this year she got a phone call saying she had officially been invited to participate in the show
Her sons Thomas, 30, Josh, 29, and Sam, 21, only discovered this unexpected turn in their mother’s life when it was splashed all over the papers.
‘I couldn’t think how to tell them as it had always been such a family joke that I can’t dance. They were whooping with delight. They were thrilled.’
Anneka is nothing if not a mass of contradictions.
She confesses that she likes little better than watching dance videos on YouTube, and that she goes to the Central School of Ballet to paint the dancers in rehearsal (she spent five years studying painting at the Chelsea College of Arts).
‘I took Thomas and Josh to see Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake five times when they were small children. I must have seen Cats from the wings about 50 times.
Anneka Rice, pictured here on Telethon in 1988, says she likes nothing better than watching dance videos on YouTube
‘It helped that my ex-husband Nick Allott works for the theatre impresario Cameron Mackintosh. It’s never bothered me that I can’t dance, but I’m obsessed with watching it.
‘But then you might enjoy Wimbledon without being able to play tennis.
‘I’ve longed to learn to dance but I just presumed it wasn’t for me. Even when I was in panto, always as the principal boy, the choreographer would quickly realise I couldn’t learn any dance routines and just place me centre stage, being butch and slapping my thigh, surrounded by little babes doing intricate dance moves.
‘It was smoke and mirrors, they hid my utter hopelessness. I can barely clap in time.’
So, how’s it all going?
We have met at Anneka’s riverside house in Barnes, southwest London, where she’s fresh from the first few days of rehearsal with pro partner Kevin Clifton, and she’s clearly on a high.
‘It’s been possibly the best time of my life,’ she says.
Anneka has three sons – Thomas, 30, Josh, 29, and Sam, 21. (Pictured: Anneka getting in some practice ahead of her performance on Strictly)
‘I’m pretty hopeless, but we’ve got through the routine somehow. Kevin is such a great teacher that it’s filling me with utter joy.’
Ironically, it almost didn’t happen. Staying on the Isle of Wight at the beginning of July, Anneka slipped on a grassy slope and went crashing down on her right shoulder.
‘I was convinced I’d broken my arm. Luckily, the X-rays showed I was just badly bruised, but I couldn’t train because I couldn’t raise or use my right arm.’
She’s almost fully fit again now thanks to cortisone injections.
‘That’s why I wasn’t in the group dance on the Strictly launch show at the beginning of this month, because my arm was still swollen. But I’m fine now,’ she says, flapping her arm up and down with abandon.
She’s thrilled to be partnered with Kevin.
‘He’s the sweetest man. And most importantly for me a brilliant teacher and choreographer.
Anneka almost wasn’t able to enter Strictly after she fell down a slope in the Isle of Wight in July and slammed into her shoulder (Pictured, Anneka on Strictly in September)
‘Our first routine is so fantastically camp and mad that we’ve laughed our way through the first weeks. And I’ve met his girlfriend Stacey Dooley.
‘She’s absolutely as nice as I’d hoped she’d be. She’s completely open, really enthusiastic.’
Anneka has even told Kevin that if they win Strictly she’s going to take him, Stacey, his parents and her own family to Cuba.
‘He’s a Latin American champion and he’s never been there. But I think I’m fairly safe with this wild offer,’ she laughs.
Who’s she got her money on, then? ‘I’ve fallen completely in love with Anton and Emma Barton. I’m delighted they gave him someone as good as her.’
Strictly apart, Anneka has also recently tried her hand at stand-up comedy at the Backyard Comedy Club in east London, playing her fictional agent Clemmie Hart.
In the early 2000s, Anneka spent her whole time turning down work as she had young children, and her agent was getting furious.
The final straw was when Anneka declined an offer to appear on a cookery show alongside former Blue Peter presenter Mark Curry, to be called Curry And Rice. ‘I mean! Why not Rice And Curry?’ she says.
‘I was convinced I’d broken my arm. Luckily, the X-rays showed I was just badly bruised, but I couldn’t train because I couldn’t raise or use my right arm,’ says Anneka. Pictured, on stage at the Strictly Come Dancing launch show
As a consequence she was fired by her agent, so she decided to invent virtual agent Clemmie Hart to deal with any work offers in an increasingly outlandish way.
‘Clemmie was my alter ego and she became really popular with people in the industry. She was even asked to join the BBC netball team.
‘I invented a complicated backstory for her to get her out of evening drinks parties.
‘I dreamed up a puppy for her called Kenneth Kendall [named after the former newsreader who was also Anneka’s co-presenter on Treasure Hunt] who needed constant attention.
‘Clemmie worked tirelessly for charity and was training to do the marathon for one of Anneka’s projects,’ Anneka laughs.
‘Even this caused problems. “You’re an inspiration,” people said. “Can we sponsor you?” In the end, I “gave” her a baby and she retired from the business.’
The stand-up comedy evening went so well ‘they had to put out more seats,’ says Anneka, and it was aired as a one-off show on Radio 4 in June.
She continues to work with Radio 2, where she took over from Zoe Ball on the early morning weekend breakfast show in 2012 and presented it until 2017.
Following her injury, Anneka’s arm is now fighting fit again and she’s ready for Strictly. She also reveals she’s recently tried her hand at stand-up comedy
‘I really miss it. I loved getting up in the dark and feeling that connection with nurses, HGV drivers, busy parents and everybody else working.’
Now she’s to be found late on a Friday night hosting The Happening, in which she cherry-picks items from the station’s output during the preceding week.
‘It’s a smorgasbord of folk, blues, chat, a bit of Graham Norton, a dash of Claudia Winkleman, you name it. It’s so nice to be back at the BBC.
‘As a 12-year-old, all I wanted was to be Sue Lawley.’
It was Treasure Hunt, in which a jumpsuited Anneka raced around the country in a helicopter trying to locate a cash prize for two studio-based contestants, that launched her.
She quit after six years, in 1988, to have Thomas, then returned on BBC1 a year later with Challenge Anneka, in which she was given just a few days to complete some mammoth project for charity from scratch.
She’s still very much invested in many Challenge projects.
‘This month is the 30th anniversary of Challenge Anneka first airing on BBC1 [on 8 September 1989].
It really is my life’s work and I’m still involved with hundreds of people and projects. Not only are there all our home-grown projects, but the format has also been developed round the world.’
One of the most memorable episodes saw her tasked with renovating an orphanage in Siret, Romania in just 11 days.
Late on a Friday night, Anneka (pictured) can be found hosting The Happening – which sees her cherry-picks items from the station’s output during the preceding week
‘When I returned there a few years ago, it was touching to see the now-adult young people who’d benefited from the ongoing work,’ she says.
‘Monica McDaid, the schoolteacher who set us the original Challenge, never went back to her teaching job in Solihull.
‘Over the years, and with the help of hundreds of volunteers and huge donations, she has changed the lives of these children.
‘When I took up the Challenge I left my own children – Thomas was 18 months, Josh six months – at home in warm cots in a loving environment.
‘But what I quickly realised was that these weren’t orphans.
‘That was a rather romantic description.
‘Ceausescu’s regime had resulted in hundreds of children being abandoned and subsequently being kept in massive institutions, like battery hens.
‘But thanks to Monica, many of the children are now living healthy lives. Some have now got married, which has given me huge pleasure.’
When she first pitched Challenge Anneka to the BBC, she came up with a line about harnessing the power of television to do something worthwhile and leave a legacy.
‘I’ve always been proud of the programme, and it’s fascinating to look at the arc of 30 years and see how our attitudes have changed to disability, homelessness and other issues.
‘One of our first Challenges was to make a commercial for the Paralympian Association to be shown in cinemas, before disabled athletes had opportunities or a voice.
‘I remember our astonishment when we filmed disabled athletes swimming.
‘A blind man throwing a javelin! Three decades on this is now part of our landscape and these athletes are our heroes.’
Anneka’s enthusiasm is infectious. She seems to have arrived at a very happy place. ‘I can’t lie. Life has sometimes been turbulent.
But I have such a love for my family and such fun with my work.
I’ve always been a grafter. I can’t imagine waking up in the morning and not having somewhere to go and something to do.
I love painting and writing. It’s pure escapism. I can lose days on end in the studio without a thought of checking my phone, something no one under 40 will understand!’
So even if she is the first celebrity to be evicted in tomorrow’s results show – and let’s certainly hope not – Anneka will still be happily dancing to her own tune on Monday.
Strictly Come Dancing, tonight, 6.40pm, and tomorrow, 7.15pm, BBC1.