The Kindness Of Strangers

C4’s Hunted is my favourite television programme. Fugitives have to remain hidden from a team of crack surveillance operatives for a month, there’s £100,000 at stake. So when the Celebrity Hunted call came through, I packed my jumpsuit, stuck straw in my hair, and smeared my face with green paint (oh actually that was already there) before I even went to meet the producers. This was to be in aid of Stand Up to Cancer with four teams, in pairs. Should I take one of my family? Bank Manager? Lady in the fish shop? No, C4 wanted me to be on my own. The lone wolf. Since I’ve built a career on being out in the middle of nowhere on my own, begging strangers for help, this was fine. It would be fun to get back on TV doing what I do, after a gap of 25 years.

Hunky actor Vincent Leigh was my getaway driver. I also had Nick and Nettie Mason, both pilots, standing by with their helicopter to take me wherever I wanted. Their helicopter is painted with clouds for goodness sake. We thought we might pop into Glastonbury, followed by a trip to Cornwall. I was hysterical with excitement. I was suddenly 25 again, ready for the adventure of a lifetime.

Literally 10 minutes before the off and as my phone was being confiscated, I saw one last Whatsapp message from Nettie. The helicopter had broken. It was completely out of action. My entire plan had just collapsed. I tried to make a run for it. Then I remembered that was what I was meant to be doing anyway.

Vince was waiting for me by Waterloo Bridge and we set off. At least this part of the plan was working. Except… we sat and sat in gridlocked traffic for two hours. I started looking anxiously at the myriad of London CCTV cameras bearing down on us, even though this is just TV and the hunters don’t have access to anything like this. However I also knew that the hunters are fed information to make the narrative work, so I didn’t want to hang around. I told Vince that I was going to have to cancel our hot date. I fled into the unknown.

I ran into Richmond Park and approached two women loading their dogs into the back of their car. I ran up and asked them if they were up for an adventure and would like to drive me to Lymington. Emma simply said, “I’ll do it”. From that second on, I knew this was all going to work. This spontaneous act of kindness from a stranger had instantly become my mission statement. All those years of asking people to help me with Challenge projects had paid off. There was an instant short cut. Emma barely asked why I needed help.

Lymington was a five hour round trip for Emma. We had the music blaring, we covered the entire Mamma Mia songbook, turns out she’s a successful backing singer. She fielded calls to her daughter’s school en route, arranging pick ups, cancelling the PTA meeting. Being a singer she was quite chuffed when she dropped me off at John Illsley’s (Dire Straits) house. John and I paint together in Maggi Hambling’s Master Class and he has a very fast boat. He whisked me over to the Isle of Wight at high speed, where I holed down for the night with the lovely Alexi. We made a quick trip to Carisbrook Castle to take photos of me looking suspicious. (Alexi then tweeted these as a decoy for the hunters, once I’d left the island). The following morning I turned up at Osborne House at the crack of dawn. I left a signed photo of myself with a big kiss for the hunters, on a statue – site of a Treasure Hunt clue 1985 – and then got whisked away by boat from Queen Victoria’s private beach. Handsome Nick came to pick me up in his Stealth speed boat. Once we’d crossed the Solent I accosted a man called Gerald who gave me a life to his house where I rang a friend, Jon Turner, for a lift. It was still only day two. This was going to be exhausting.

My cameraman was worried there was no jeopardy, it was all going too smoothly, so we made some calls on a burner phone to Nettie Mason to see how her helicopter was, (obviously broken) and then I hid under some tarpaulin for a couple of hours, with two tins of gin and tonic. This inevitably was the bit that made it into the show.

Jon then drove me for miles into rural Somerset and dropped me in a field. Thank you to the ladies at the Sutton Montis tennis club, having thought it would be my undoing. I was fast finding that being recognizable was useful. I never had to explain anything. People just presumed I was on a mission. Mary thought her husband might know someone with a helicopter, and Jackie offered to drive me on to the next county.

Next stop was a shepherd’s hut in Devon. It belonged to a friend of a friend and she had said I could use it if I became stuck. It was locked and the place was deserted so I walked a mile down the lane to the nearest farm. Farmer Giles – really! -took me on his tractor to another farmer Phil who had the keys. I hope you’re keeping up. He and his wife Mary then hid me. They tucked me up in the hut and gave me keys to the main house so I could scavenge for food. There were builders in the house so I hid in the larder which was useful as I was starving by this stage. I ate my way through the dry goods. A real highlight was Farmer Phil and Mary taking me to look their prize herd of cows. I painted cows all day. I felt incredibly moved by the utter kindness and goodness of these people.

It was time to change county again and I headed to Cornwall. I had no plan beyond the address of someone called Sammy who lived near the Tamor Bridge. In the kitchen I found her mother, the wondrous Sarah, who after a small shriek rallied round in an impressive 30 seconds. Our immediate concern was the builder who had just gone off for the afternoon but had already asked Sarah why Anneka Rice was in her kitchen. Sarah drove me down several rough tracks, across fields to a hut by the river to show me where I could hide. It was remote, that’s for sure. I clocked 25 spiders and a net of cobwebs, later that night, after a lovely supper in their kitchen, I set off back to the hut in the pitch black, in their land rover. I was nervous. I am terrified of spiders. The night was black, all I could hear was the rustle of trees. I pushed open the hut door with my hand across my face waiting for the brush of cobwebs, torch beam lighting up the interior. Sarah and her husband Ted had snuck back without telling me, cleared every spider and cobweb out, made a makeshift bed heaped high with blankets and hot water bottles, left me flowers, books, whisky, coffee. I nearly wept at this kindness. Darren my cameraman pitched his tent on the grass outside. It’s one of the rules that Darren had to sleep near me to monitor everything I did, to report back to Hunter HQ if I made secret phone-calls or plans. That’s what he said anyway. Hmmm. It was all quite bonding and I still miss him.

And there was amazing Georgina back in London. I needed somewhere to hide and approached a woman out jogging on her own. She immediately said “You can sleep in my bed”. She made me supper and slept in her son’s room. In the morning I made porridge. I am now officially Goldilocks.

Sadly, I then had to head into central London for my Set Piece, the Hunted equivalent of the Great British Bake-Off Showstopper. The producers wanted jeopardy and were keen for me to record my Radio 2 show. This had to be set up weeks before as we needed all sorts of filming permits for the BBC. Everyone knew about the plan so I presumed I had a ring-fenced 24 hours in London to do my ‘set piece’. Prue Leith would have given me top marks if I’d pulled it off. I was going to go into the BBC dressed as an elderly woman wearing a fat suit, on the arm of a priest, escaping on the back of a motorbike to Biggin Hill where my Treasure Hunt helicopter would be waiting to swoop me off! But I got this very wrong. The hunters were waiting as soon as I got to London.

I loved my time on the run. My only sadness is that more or less everything you’ve just read didn’t make it onto the show. Everyone was just too good at hiding me. So I just want to say a huge thank you to all the people who helped. It was particularly wonderful at a time when we are inclined to be negative, fearful and self protective, to be reminded of the sheer goodness of people. My experience was positive and fearless and people were open and generous.

And thank you to Channel 4 for booking me to do what I love to do. Lets face it a couple of decades have gone by but the point is I can still run and talk without tripping or dribbling. I realize it wouldn’t be everyone’s choice to go on the run and sleep rough. But for me it was an utter delight to slip back into action girl role and not have my wings clipped just because of my age. When we see David Attenborough on TV he’s still on the Great Barrier Reef talking about the environment. David Dimbleby is still asking questions. Crucially they’re just doing what they’ve always done. Externally they might look different, but underneath they’re the same person they’ve always been. There don’t seem to be quite enough 90-year-old women broadcasters still in the game, but it is a game we all want to play. So ask us. We’ve done Happy Families and might fancy a bit of Russian Roulette now.

I don’t want to stop talking about the elderly people I befriend and I certainly don’t want to stop doing films like the one I did the other week for ITV which showed how a nursery school had integrated with a care home, hugely enriching the lives of the young and the elderly. And which made me dance home with joy. I’ve booked in already. It’s just I’ve remembered I enjoy doing the other bit too if I get the chance. I am currently visiting some of the 60 or so Challenge Anneka projects that are now celebrating their 25th anniversaries, still going strong, still operating because of the amazing teams of volunteers all these years on. I’ve dug out the lycra and Dave the soundman and the years have slipped away. People haven’t changed. It’s reminded me what I love about the British people; their inclination to be good and kind and decent, to help, to join in, to be part of something bigger.

So the reason for doing Hunted, after years of keeping a low profile, was because C4 had invited me to be myself, to do what I’ve always loved to do, which is being out in the great outdoors, reaching out to strangers, preferably with a bit of jeopardy thrown in. And helping to raise vast sums for Stand Up To Cancer. I loved every minute of it. Thank you, it was a blast.