At Leeds Mencap, the positive legacy of Challenge Anneka still reverberates powerfully. Back in 1993 the TV programme helped turn a dilapidated, burnt-out school into a nursery run by the charity for children with learning difficulties.
That episode set the charity on course for growth that has continued to the present day. It now runs play schemes and other services for more than 2,000 children and carers. “Anneka was the catalyst,” said Cath Lee, Leeds Mencap’s chief executive.
Challenge Anneka completed more than 60 projects during its six-year run on BBC One between 1989 and 1995, ranging from building a jetty in the Isles of Scilly to putting up a suspension bridge in Cornwall – nicknamed Anneka Bridge – and renovating an orphanage in Romania.
The drama of the programme rested on whether it would complete its task within the few days allocated to it. Clad in her trademark brightly coloured jumpsuit, the presenter Anneka Rice’s job was to energetically persuade volunteers and businesses to help her deliver a much-needed charity or community project.
Some, like the Romania challenge, are seared into the memory of an entire Saturday night TV-watching generation. Rice’s team built a new home for 700 disabled children trapped in extraordinary squalor and facing abuse and neglect.
Other projects proved to be less successful: Rice’s enthusiasm could not ultimately rescue a crumbling theatre in Gloucester, and the renovation of a horse carved into a hill in Dorset later failed when replacement stone chippings used by the TV team fell away, much to the ire of local historians.
At its peak, up to 12 million people watched episodes of Challenge Anneka. “It understood the magic of community projects,” said Lee. “How pulling together communities to share their skills, energy and resources can achieve amazing things.”
Rice has called Challenge Anneka her “life’s work” and often stayed in touch with its projects. Lee recalls how when Leeds Mencap moved on from the old school premises to a larger building nearby in 2016, Rice returned to help publicise it. “She knew who we were and was really happy to help. She was really genuine.”
Rice was on the radio on Monday morning to publicise the reboot of Challenge Anneka by Channel 5 later this year. After a pandemic and 10 years of austerity, it is unlikely she will want for programme ideas, Lee said. She added, tongue in cheek: “Could she fix the economy?”