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21st of November 2018

Entertainment



Esther Rantzen: 'It used to be much harder for women and I was the ugly one'

FIFTY years ago today, a young TV researcher called Esther Rantzen made her debut in front of the camera. It was the start of a stellar broadcasting career that would see Esther help 4.5 million children at risk of abuse through the creation of Childline, reunite child survivors of the Holocaust with the man who saved them, highlight the importance of organ donation, expose paedophiles and crooks - and amuse us for all those years on That's Life! But as she celebrates her five decades in television today, modest Dame Esther refuses to take credit for her victories saying it was the TV viewers who made it all happen.

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"I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity for so long and to still be making programmes," she says.

"It is challenging and exciting and it has been for 50 years - never a dull moment as they say. I was lucky enough to start off in a consumer programme called Braden's Week which relied on the viewers telling you their stories and believing that you will value them and be able to tell other people these stories that are crucial either because they are funny or because they change people's lives."

Esther was just 28 years old when she was thrust before the camera in what was back then very much a man's world.

"I had been a researcher working behind the scenes, so studios were familiar. They were home to me. But I didn't think for a minute that I would be presenting on TV 50 years later. I sat next to my lovely friend John Pitman and we clutched each other's knees.

DAME ESTHER RANTZEN (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

BOXING CLEVER: With Paddy Ashdown and Lady Elspeth Howe, with her dog, on a homelessness protest (Image: REG LANCASTER/ EXPRESS NEWSPAPER)

"We were quite frightened and thought we would be found out within five minutes and sent packing back to our typewriters. We didn't think for a minute we would last a week, never mind a series or 50 years. I just didn't think I had the cheekbones, I didn't think I was nearly attractive enough."

And despite her own undoubted skills and ability, she still insists good fortune has played a part in her enduring success.

"I think I have been very lucky and I do think it has been a particularly fascinating time because when I started on television in 1968 I think there were only two other women: one was Joan Bakewell [above] and the other was Angela Huth. It was much harder then for women and I was the ugly one," she laughs.

"Angela was the beautiful blonde and Joan the beautiful brunette, thinking man's crumpet and all that. So it was against the odds."

Television Presenter Joan Bakewell, in 1968 (Image: Associated Newspapers / Rex Features)

Sadly sexism is still a fact of life, but back when Esther started it was literally an everyday occurrence.

"Even when I was a researcher someone I was working for said I would never make a producer because I was a woman," she recalls.

"I asked permission to do some reporting from Belfast and the person who was running the programme said 'Oh we can't do that, Esther, because what would you wear?' Some of our finest war reporters are women and we see them in the most dangerous situations producing wonderful work, but in those days everybody thought it would be impossible because of huge decisions like what we would wear!"

Esther is witty, charming, self-deprecating, modest, intelligent and kind. But most of all she understands real people and what matters to them. 

LIFE SAVER: Esther set up ChildLine in 1986 (Image: Tony Harris)

She has made programmes about childbirth, stillbirth, addictions - and most recently about how to have a good death after her own heartbreaking experience losing her beloved husband Desmond Wilcox to a heart attack 18 years ago.

But the show with which she will be forever linked is That's Life!

For 21 years it attracted millions of viewers with its mix of humour, satire and hard-hitting investigations that saved and changed lives.

Esther, now 78, believes the show had a unique appeal, which meant the whole family could watch it together and that is why people still talk about it 24 years after it last aired: "Children loved That's Life! because there were daft things like talking dogs and adults let them watch it because there were important messages about how to keep yourself safe and not get swindled. It had that entertainment value but something to say."

With That's Life team: (l-r) Paul Heiney, Cyril Fletcher, Chris Searle and Richard Stilgoe (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

Its greatest legacy has to be the creation of Childline, the first helpline for children in distress or at risk of abuse.

It was born out of a special programme that Esther suggested called Childwatch after the death of a toddler who starved to death in a locked room.

"I remember thinking we have just got to be able to reach these children earlier and help them effectively. That was when I asked on That's Life! if anyone who had suffered abuse when they were children would take part in a survey and something like 5,000 people took part."

Esther came up with the idea for a special helpline after that edition of the show. 

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The line was swamped with calls over 48 hours and within months the Childwatch team had secured funding to launch the 24/7 helpline that became Childline.

It is just one example of how Esther gets so emotionally involved and driven to make changes with her work.

She has also created the Silverline, a phone line and support network for older people who may have become socially isolated, something she is immensely proud of.

But the story that made her break down live on air was when she reunited Sir Nicholas Winton with some of the hundreds of Jewish children he saved from the Nazis. 

She recalls: "He had rediscovered an album in his loft which contained the personal details of hundreds of children whose lives he had saved by organising transport for them, trains to get out of Prague, just before the Nazis invaded and found families to bring them up in Britain.

"The children didn't know he was responsible and he didn't know where they were. He wanted to return these photos and documents to them because he realised they were the only link to their own family life before the Holocaust. We invited him to the studio and we sat him next to two ladies, they didn't know who he was and he didn't know who they were. It was the most moving moment when Vera Gissing turned to him and said thank you and gave him a hug. I just had to stop, I couldn't carry on on air.

"We were then inundated with responses from other people whose lives he had saved. So the second time he came into our programme I said 'Will you stand up if you owe your life to Nicholas Winton' and the whole of the ground floor of the studio stood. He just couldn't believe it. It is a video that has gone viral and has been viewed 40 million times."

But That's Life! wasn't all about tragedy, emotion, abuse and investigations, it also had plenty of laughs from talking dogs to viewers sending in rude-shaped veg.

HEARTBREAK: Beloved husband Desmond (Image: Setve Wood)

She laughs: "There were so many funny moments. We had 10 dogs that went completely mad in the studio. We were testing some pellets that were supposed to protect your lawns from dogs making a mess on them. But a lady said the pellets had an opposite effect and attracted dogs like a magnet. So we invited 10 dogs into the studio, but we didn't realise that one of them was a bitch who had just come into season, so all the male dogs went completely mad. That show got our biggest audience."

After 50 years of success, it would be hard to imagine Dame Esther having any regrets.

But she says part of her wishes she had gone for the top job at BBC One when she had the chance.

George Layton, Esther Rantzen and Bob Wellings in That's life 1973 (Image: That's Life 1973)

She explains: "At one stage it was suggested to me that I could become the controller of BBC One, but I didn't apply and that was a bit wimpish of me. But on the other hand it was because I stayed with That's Life that we were able to expose a boarding school called Crookham Court.

"A child who had been at the school wrote to me at Childline and it was because That's Life! was on the air that we were able to expose it."

The school was closed in 1989, and former owner Philip Cadman and teachers William Printer, Anthony Edmonds and Mark Standish were jailed for abuse.

Dame Esther Rantzen today (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

Despite being in front of the camera for so many years, Esther has no plans to stop just yet.

There's talk of a return of That's Life! and she says she has two similar shows in the pipeline - one exposing people who try to swindle the elderly and a consumer affairs programme with Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford.

"My children are on at me all the time to retire," she says. "But the right moment never seems to come along."

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