Esther Rantzen: My TV career and memories of Berkhamsted
PUBLISHED: 16:45 02 March 2011 | UPDATED: 11:59 28 February 2013
Esther Rantzen talks to Pat Parker about her career in television, her marriage to Desmond Wilcox, and her early memories of living in Berkhamsted as a war baby
ESTHER Rantzen, CBE, former Thats Life! presenter and founder of the charity Childline, welcomes me into the kitchen of her Hampstead home.
She is 70 now, but looks years younger. Stylish and slim, she exudes energy and intelligence. You cant help but think that had she won the Luton South seat she contested at the general election, she would have made a rather effective politician.
Esthers house is a handsome Georgian home overlooking Hampstead Heath elegant, but warm, with quirky touches and family photos. On the kitchen wall is the marriage certificate, in Hebrew and English, commemorating the second wedding ceremony between herself and her late husband, Desmond Wilcox in 1999 (Desmond converted to Judaism before he died in 2000 and became more devout than Esther, who remains agnostic, yet proud of her Jewish heritage).
It is a constant reminder of the husband whose death, you feel, created a gap in her life that nothing will completely fill.
I need to be needed. Its what makes you get up in the morning, and makes you feel when you go to bed that the days been well spent
Although Esther has spent most of her life in north London, she was in fact born in Berkhamsted. It was 1940, and her family had rented a rambling Edwardian house, Whitelea, to escape the bombing raids on the capital.
Nevertheless, the war cast its shadow. Esthers earliest memory is standing in her cot, aged around 18 months, hearing the wail of the air-raid sirens. She can remember the blacked-out windows, practising hiding under the dining table to shelter from possible bombs, and the gas mask she had to try on as a toddler. That was quite scary, as they really were grotesque. I can still remember the smell of the rubber.
Her father, who as a broadcasting engineer with the BBC was in a reserved occupation, had to live and work in London during the week. He was in Broadcasting House when a bomb fell on it, but survived unscathed.
Despite the war, though, Esthers recollections of Berkhamsted are overwhelmingly happy. The rented house had a rose-arched driveway, and backed on to flower-filled meadows. We had a beautiful golden retriever called Polly, chickens in the garden and a paddock with a pony in it, which pulled my grandmothers trap. My mother used to cycle to Tring every week, with me in a basket on the back. On one famous occasion, I fell out. Fortunately, I was a plump toddler, and bounced!
Esther was a rather cute child. I had blonde, curly hair, and a certain charm, she smiles. I think I was rather sweet. I was very jolly, because I used to wink at people from my pram!
She can remember the day war ended her grandmother walking around the garden with the wireless as the announcement was broadcast. I felt it was the most wonderful news we could ever have.
Esther had just started primary school when the family moved back to Hampstead. Leaving Berkhamsted was a wrench. I hated the grey streets of London. I think that early discovery of the countryside stuck with me and my younger sister, who moved out to the country as soon as she could.
Esther too sought to regain that country idyll. Her house offers views of the Heath that are about as rural as you can get in London, and, when her children were small, she and Desmond bought a cottage in the New Forest with roses and meadows which reminded her of her Hertfordshire childhood.
Several times over the years, Esther and Desmond drove around Berkhamsted, vainly searching for Whitelea. Then, five years ago, the house was put on the market and publicised as Esthers former home. A national newspaper took her back to the house and she was photographed in the exact spot on the lawn where her father had taken her photo many years before. It was an emotional moment. The memories came flooding back.
Back in London, after enduring a miserable private school run by a sadistic headmistress, Esther went on to the North London Collegiate School in Edgware, where she thrived. She studied English at Oxford and landed a job as a studio manager at the BBC.
She spent years behind the scenes, working on everything from sound effects to filing photographs, before finally becoming a researcher for the satirist Ned Sherrin. Later, she joined Man Alive and, in 1968, finally appeared onscreen as a researcher/presenter on the consumer/entertainment show Bradens Week.
Canadian Bernard Braden had pioneered TV consumer journalism. But he fell out of favour with the BBC after making a Stork margarine commercial, and moved back to Canada. A similar show was launched, again mixing light-hearted features with consumer journalism, but this time with Esther as both presenter and producer. Thats Life! was born.
The show ran from 1973 to 1994, and quickly became the most popular show on television with ratings of up to 22 million. Its eclectic mix of vox-pops, talented pets, naughty vegetables, Jobsworth awards for mindless officialdom, combined with serious consumer issues and pioneering campaigns made it essential viewing for millions. The heartbreaking case of toddler Ben Hardwick, dying of liver disease, highlighted the need for organ donation, and Thats Life! succeeded in changing the law in many areas, from rear seat belts for children and safer playground surfaces to more humane veal transportation.
But behind the scenes, all was not rosy. In 1968, Esther had fallen in love with her head of department, Desmond Wilcox, and the two embarked on an affair. His wife Patsy never forgave her, only agreeing to a divorce after Esther became pregnant.
When they told the BBC about their affair, Thats Life! was moved away from Desmonds department, but was later returned after the couple married in 1977. The move sparked trouble. Colleagues accused Desmond of devoting too much attention to her show at the expense of their projects. They complained, hoping to oust Esther. Instead, Desmond resigned.
It was a painful episode, which still fills her with anger. It was an awful time for Desmond, and he regretted the fact that people who owed him so much and who he was so fond of, betrayed him. She vehemently denies unfairly influencing her husband. Jealousy is a very powerful human emotion. The hardest thing is to say, Look at that success, it must be down to talent. Its much easier to say someones bribing or blackmailing someone.
Desmond went on to make independent, award-winning documentaries, such as The Visit, and Esther believes he ultimately found this more fulfilling than climbing the BBCs executive ladder.
I feel the luckiest person to have been able to work for Childline for 25 years
Thats Life! continued to attract huge ratings, and to spawn spin-off shows such as Drugwatch. In 1986, Esther invited Thats Life! audiences to write in with their experiences of childhood cruelty for a subsequent programme, Childwatch. Around 3,000 responded, often revealing experience of sexual abuse.
Phone lines were set up for 48 hours after the programme ended, and 50,000 children attempted to call. When I heard this, I realised this was more important than anything Id ever done. I recognised there was a huge amount of suffering among children who couldnt ask for help.
Esther set about creating Childline, a confidential, 24/7 helpline offering advice and support to children. Now part of the NSPCC, of which Esther is a trustee, it received a million calls last year, and has helped countless children over the years. Esther herself, who is Childlines president, often mans the phones. I feel the luckiest person to have been able to work for Childline for 25 years. Ive met young adults who tell me that without it, they wouldnt be here today.
She also works for other charities, including Red Balloon, which provides residential care for children traumatised by persistent bullying.
Desmond and Esther went on to have a blissfully happy marriage, and had three children Emily, Rebecca now a reporter on Watchdog and Joshua, a medical student. But they also endured sadness. When Emily was 14, she contracted glandular fever, which developed into chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME. At times confining her to a wheelchair, the condition lasted 14 years. She has now recovered, and is studying psychology at university. But the effect on her family was traumatic. You can never be happier than your least happy child, observes Esther. It was terrible. I dont know how we survived it.
Its not the tough times that are difficult. Its the lovely times that are hard because you cant share them with him
For 15 years Desmond himself born in Welwyn Garden City battled against heart disease. He finally died of a heart attack ten years ago, aged 69. Esther had lost her soul-mate and was inconsolable.
Worked helped sustain her. Although Thats Life! was axed in 1994, she still had her talk show, Esther. Shes tried her hand at many TV projects since, from Im A Celebrity to Strictly Come Dancing.
Shes an unabashed fan of reality TV, of which she says Thats Life! was the forerunner. Im the godmother of reality TV, and I do not apologise. It brings ordinary people on to the screen, and it makes you care about them when they face adversity and injustice.
In last years general election, outraged by the MPs expenses scandal, Esther decided to stand as an independent candidate in Luton South, the constituency of Margaret Moran, who had claimed over 20,000 for dry rot repairs to her second home in Southampton. Things did not go according to plan. Moran was replaced by a squeaky-clean Labour candidate, who won the seat. Despite acquitting herself well on TV and in the constituency, Esther lost her deposit by 400 votes.
It was an impulsive decision to stand, which was not very sensible, she admits now. It was my 70th birthday present to myself. I loved everything about it except the actual campaigning. I loved meeting people and visiting communities. I just found it hard to ask people to vote for me, which was a bit
of a drawback!
She still feels Desmonds loss deeply. Its not the tough times that are difficult. You just put your head down and keep going. Its the lovely times that are hard, because you cant share them with him. Anniversaries are difficult, so is Christmas. We do different things from what we did when he was alive, because otherwise his loss is just as painful as ever.
She is determined to keep busy, putting her empathy and intelligence to good use. I work for Childline every day. Its still my passion. I need to be needed. Its what makes you get up in the morning, and makes you feel when you go to bed that the days been well spent. Theres a real pleasure in feeling somebody needs your help, and that you actually have made a difference.
You can ring Childline any time free of charge on 0800 1111, or visit its website: www.childline.org.uk