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 career that would help 4.5 million children at risk of abuse through Childline, reunite child survivors of the holocaust with the man who saved them, highlight organ donation, expose paedophiles and crooks – as well as giving the nation 21 years of laughs on That’s Life!
But modest Dame Esther says the viewers made it happen.
“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 to start off in the consumer programme Braden’s Week, which relies 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 28 years old when she was thrust before the camera in what was very much a man’s world. “I’d been a researcher working behind the scenes, so studios were familiar, they were home to me,” she recalls.
“But I didn’t think for a minute I’d be presenting 50 years later. I sat next to my lovely friend John Pitman and we clutched each other’s knees. We were quite frightened and thought we’d be found out within five minutes and sent packing to our typewriters. We didn’t think for a minute we’d 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.”
She still insists luck has played a part in her enduring success.
“I think it has been a fascinating time because when I started on television in 1968 there were only two other women – Joan Bakewell and Angela Huth.
“It was much harder then for women and I was the ugly one,” she laughs. “So it was against the odds.”
Sexism was an everyday occurrence. She says: “Even when I was a researcher someone I was working for said I’d never make a producer because I was a woman. I asked permission to do some reporting from Belfast and the person running the programme said, ‘We can’t do that Esther because what would you wear?’”
Chatting to Esther it is obvious her talent and personality have helped her to stand the test of time. She is charming, witty, modest, self-deprecating, kind and intelligent. Most of all she understands real people and what matters to them.
She has made programmes about childbirth, stillbirth, addictions and how to deal with death following 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 humour, satire and investigations that saved lives. Esther, 78, believes its appeal was that the whole family could watch it together and that is why people still talk about it 24 years after it last aired.
She says: “Children loved it because there were daft things like talking dogs and adults let them watch it because there were important messages about how to keep safe. It had entertainment value but something to say.”
Its greatest legacy has to be Childline, the first helpline for children at risk or distress. Esther suggested a show called Childwatch after a toddler 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.
“I asked on That’s Life! if anyone who had suffered abuse as children would take part in a survey and something like 5,000 people took part.”
Esther came up with the idea for a helpline – and within months the Childwatch team had secured funding to launch a 24/7 service. It is one example of how Esther gets so emotionally involved to make changes. She has created Silverline, a phone line and support network for older people who may be isolated.
But the story that made her break down live on air was when she reunited Sir Nicholas Winton with some of the Jewish children he saved from the Nazis.
She recalls: “He had rediscovered an old album in his loft that contained the details of hundreds of children whose lives he had saved by organising transport for them, trains to get out of Prague, 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
documents because he realised they were the only link to their family life before the holocaust.
“We invited him to the studio and we sat him next to two ladies. It was the most moving moment when Vera Gissing turned to him and said thank you and gave him a hug. I had to stop, I couldn’t carry on on air.
“We were inundated with responses from other people whose lives he had saved. 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 stood. He couldn’t believe it. It is a video that has been viewed 40 million times.”
But That’s Life! also had plenty of laughs. She says: “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. We invited 10 dogs into the studio but didn’t realise one of them had come into season so all the male dogs went mad. That show got our biggest audience.”
After 50 years of success, it would be hard to imagine Dame Esther having any regrets. But part of her wishes she had gone for the top job at BBC1.
She explains: “It was suggested I could become the controller of BBC 1 but I didn’t apply and that was a bit wimpish of me. 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.”
The school was closed in 1989 and former owner Philip Cadman and teachers William Printer, Anthony Edmonds and Mark Standish were jailed for abuse.
Esther has no plans to put her feet up. There’s talk of a return of That’s Life! and two other shows, one on the elderly as targets for scams and a consumer affairs show with Ruth Langsford and Eamonn Holmes.
She laughs: “My children are on at me all the time to retire. But the right moment never seems to come along.”
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