A little bit of a different vibe to today’s A-Z blog challenge post, whereby I’m looking back at stand-out TV programmes from my childhood. Not a children’s programme, this one, more of a family entertainment show which ran when I was in my mid to late teen years.
Today C is for…
Challenge Anneka was a show on the BBC in which the ever smiley and ever unflappable Anneka Rice (above) would race around the country in her huge blue ‘challenge’ truck (and also a little jeep type buggy) to complete tasks set in a certain amount of time. Usually over a few days as it was often big community based renovation projects which were given to her. She would have no idea (apparently) of what the challenge was to be, but would have to go around and persuade contractors and the public to help her complete the challenges, all against the clock. Exciting stuff. It was kind of like a mix of DIY SOS or that Channel 5 programme Cowboy Builders with Melinda Messenger and Dominic Littlewood, but better because the challenges were unknown and it came complete with a cool huge blue truck and a jumpsuit clad Anneka Rice bounding about manically with her sound man Dave Chapman. You could always see his boom in shot as he chased around after her!
Challenge Anneka came after Channel 4’s Treasure Hunt which I also used to love as she raced around the country on behalf of some contestants in the studio having to work out riddles and clues to find ‘treasure’. In Treasure Hunt they deployed the use of a helicopter to get from one place to another as the clues were always at distant locations from each other and there was only a short amount of time to get there. But whereas Treasure Hunt was ultimately just a bit of fun, (sort of like The Crystal Maze or Fort Boyard), with only personal gain as a prize, Challenge Anneka had a more serious, community aid, altruistic side to it. There was, in short, more of a purpose to it. Being the BBC they probably had to justify the licence fee more than Channel 4 did to advertisers!
The great thing about the show was it was very real. Anneka didn’t always complete the challenges. Things went wrong quite often, and it was the ‘will she or won’t she?’ which kept us watching. Sometimes the volunteers she had found would work after the allowed time schedule to complete the challenges, showing how important the projects were and how unrealistic the time frames often were. A real challenge!
The biggest project Challenge Anneka took on was in the early days during series 2 in 1990, when she travelled to Siret in Romania to renovate one of the orphanages there. I was 15 years old at the time, and that episode, though only seen once, will always stay with me, as I’m sure it will with anyone who saw it, as it highlighted a really awful problem to the public consciousness which had hitherto remained largely hidden.
The TV programme became involved in the project after an Irish teacher from my home town, Birmingham, had visited Siret in Romania earlier in 1990 and seen the appalling conditions children were living in as a consequence of the communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. Although dead by this time, Ceausescu’s brutal legacy lived on through the poor social conditions and even more horrendous ‘living’ conditions for abandoned children in such orphanages as the one in Siret. Disturbed and moved to action, but with no money to do much, the teacher contacted Challenge Anneka and the programme took up the challenge.
The pictures aired in that episode shook everyone I think. I certainly remember crying when I watched it. I do also remember my school becoming heavily involved in aid work for years after the programme had aired. The charity, which consequently was set up by the teacher who had first witnessed the horrors in Siret, has worked tirelessly over the past twenty six years to improve the lives of the children who she found in those orphanages, long after the programme makers and Anneka Rice left. This was not a three day project. It has been a life time project for the teacher who gave up her life in Birmingham to live and work in Siret to help the orphans. The power of the programme of course, and this is what television can be so great at, was to bring the issue and the charity work to the fore and gather the necessary momentum to do something big, long lasting and far reaching.
This teacher also runs The Romanian Orphanage Appeal from right here in Solihull where I grew up as a teen and still live. She is from a Roman Catholic Irish background and it is this which would possibly explain why our school did become so involved in the project (though I didn’t know that at the time). She probably personally knew some of the teachers. My school was a Roman Catholic school in the archdioceses of Birmingham with most pupils and teachers being Irish or of Irish descent as she was herself and so it would make sense we became involved.
I recall my PE teacher especially being very pro-active in organising aid and fundraising with the school. Sadly, one of our metalwork teachers, who had volunteered to take aid out to Romania, was killed in the truck he was driving out there in a tragic road accident in the mountains in 1992, showing that the work and the project was still going on a few years after the show. I think this is why this programme will always stay with me too. Not just that it highlighted the plight of the Romanian children, but that someone who had taught me gave his life essentially to help out. The Romanian appeal became very personal to our school community in that sense.
The programme itself stopped airing in 1995 after completing six series worth of community based building and renovation projects, not just in the UK, but in Malawi, Croatia and of course, Romania. A great legacy for a TV show, and one which I think helped me in my formative years to be a more helpful member of society wherever possible, because you just never know when you are going to be asked for help.