Campaigner, broadcaster, writer and reality TV star – Esther Rantzen has never shied away from reinventing herself and, at the age of 71, has new challenges in her sights
There are far worse places to be on a sunny afternoon than on Esther Rantzen’s two-tiered roof terrace, gazing out at the panoramic view over north London as she tells me her latest plans. Now a chic 71-year old in sleeveless shift dress and heels, this lifelong campaigner wastes no time in adding the annihilation of an Argentinian flying ant (“absolute bastards”) to her to-do list.
With her populist instincts, quick wit and ability to surf the zeitgeist, she was always a natural fit for broadcasting; and she was lucky enough to get into television at the onset of its golden age in the mid-1960s. As she puts it: “There were far cleverer people than me at university [Somerville College, Oxford], but I’ve always thought a bit outside the box.”
After making her name with a heady blend of entertainment and hard-core campaigning on such influential human interest shows as BBC1’s That’s Life! From 1973 to 1994 and successors such as Hearts Of Gold and That’s Esther, she could be fairly described as the godmother of reality television.
“I always felt viewers preferred danger to sanitised television, and that’s why reality shows work so well,” she says. Always up for a challenge, she even tested her theory by hanging up her presenter’s hat and becoming a contestant on the elimination shows Strictly Come Dancing and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.
She’s equally well known for her charity work, most notably as the founder of ChildLine, the world’s first national helpline for children which began in 1986. To mark the 25th anniversary, she has written Running Out Of Tears, bringing together stories of some of the abused children that the charity has helped.
It wasn’t until 2001 when she published her autobiography that Rantzen wrote about her own experience of abuse, recalling how she was groped at 15 by a “disgusting” male relative. Explaining the long delay in going public about it, she says: “The man was still alive; and I suppose I had buried the memory deep. I don’t know how far it influenced my setting up ChildLine, because the experiences of children who phoned the hotline were on a totally different scale to what happened to me. However, I probably had been sensitised by my own experience to the huge difficulty a child faces when the abuser is part of the family circle.”
More recently she has become a champion of better care for the elderly and terminally ill. “I enjoy being useful,” explains Rantzen, who was brought up to be public spirited; her younger sister Priscilla is a retired social worker and their mother Katherine was governor of a day nursery in London’s East End.
But after receiving an OBE (for services to broadcasting), a CBE (for services to children) and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women In Film And Television, is there anything left for her to achieve? You bet. Having written a book on growing old disgracefully – If Not Now, When? – She’s not about to ignore her own advice.
This is a good time in human history to be the age I am: there are so many opportunities open to us that weren’t available to our parents”
“If I felt confident that ChildLine would be fine if I fell under a bus, it would be very interesting to take on another challenge. And there are also bits of the world I’ve never seen. My husband [TV producer Desmond Wilcox] died at 69, so you don’t want to hang about and put things off too long,” she says.
“And this is a good time in human history to be the age I am – there are so many opportunities open to us that weren’t available to our parents’ generation. Mental and physical health and an inquiring mind are the crucial things. And we also have the time to do things. When I was doing That’s Life! or my Esther talk show, the job really devoured my life.
“But sexist ageism is definitely still a problem in television – it’s a very unflattering medium for older women,” she says, admitting that these days her TV career is an “ad hoc” one and describing the habitual on-screen pairing of an older man with a younger woman as “the Brucie syndrome”. Having had age-defying Botox in the past, she won’t rule it out again – and not just for her, either. “Someone should tell Ed Miliband he needs it, because he does frown a lot…”
She’s set to make a return to consumer broadcasting as co-presenter – with her daughter Rebecca Wilcox – of the new BBC1 show The Food Factory, in which two eccentric inventors make rival versions of well-known foods to be judged by teams of consumers.
Sexist ageism is definitely still a problem in television – it’s a very unflattering medium for older women”
“Do I over-commit work-wise? I’m told so by my children. The difficult thing for me has been the domestic,” she says wryly, having just downsized from a five-storey family house in Hampstead to a two-bedroom flat nearby.
“It was a real waste, all that space. I don’t think the older generation necessarily has a right to hang on to a bigger house than they can actually use. It was agonising to whittle possessions down, but to cheer up anyone going through the same process, I found I didn’t miss the stuff I threw away. I originally had 250 vases, and why don’t I mind that I’ve only got 30 left?”
Far too busy with the here and now to think about such things as making a living will for the future, she says she doesn’t have an average day. “My diary is always a bit of a nightmare because I tear round the country for ChildLine and the NSPCC, of which I’m a trustee.”
But she will always find time to socialise with her children, whom she describes as her “best friends”; her daughter Em even lives in the same apartment block. And although Rantzen is not yet a grandmother, she’s relaxed about it. “It’s not my business – it’s for my children to decide.”
Having loved doing her vox pops on That’s Life!, her one regret is that she didn’t get to work with the public again by becoming an MP when she stood as an independent in Luton South last year at the General Election. She lost her deposit, coming fourth, but is still glad to have made the effort “even though all the experts told me that no one votes for an independent, and my family thought I was crazy”.
She remains single but has good friends of both sexes among a dining club of Hampsteadians who dub themselves the Hamsters. “There’s no-one in my life romantically. Whether it’s because Desmond was irreplaceable, I don’t know. It would be lovely sitting on this terrace with a glass of Pimms and someone you are mad about.” Nevertheless she seems sanguine about her lot. “One of my children said to me, ‘You have the happy gene’ – and I think that’s a huge stroke of luck in life.”
Running Out Of Tears is published by Biteback.