For more than 40 years, Esther Rantzen has been one of the country’s most recognisable TV faces. The host of BBC One’s That’s Life from 1973 to 1994, she also became a tireless charity campaigner, founding Childline in 1986, and The Silver Line, a phone service for older people, three years ago. She was made a Dame in 2015 and still makes regular TV appearances, everywhere from Newsnight to Celebrity First Dates.
Married to her beloved ‘Desi’ – TV producer, Desmond Wilcox – until his death in 2000, she now lives in a rooftop Hampstead apartment, not far from two of her three children.
Why do you do so much charity work? You’ve said it’s due to loneliness. Is that true?
Yes and no. Charity work is something I started in my teens, when I helped found a social club for disabled people. I love to see the improvements that you’re making to people’s lives.
I honestly think people in the entertainment industry should take pleasure in giving something back. Will Young sang at a Childline event where he said one of the best things about success is that he can pick up the phone and get things done.
I do get knackered, but, even now, I still feel I haven’t done enough.
Do you have exercise and diet regime to help you keep going?
Sadly, my body wasn’t built for exercise; anyone who saw me on Strictly Come Dancing will tell you that! Diet? Yes, I suppose, subconsciously, I watch what I eat. I was heavy when I was young, which was difficult. People can be horrible.
But it’s activity, activity, activity: that’s what keeps me fit.
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Your daughter, Rebecca, said you need a toyboy.
Ha ha! Thank you, Becca! I do enjoy working with bright, younger men in a professional capacity. But you won’t catch me flirting with them.
Does the need for The Silver Line, combatting loneliness in the old, reflect badly on their children’s generation - the post-war baby boomers?
Plenty of 50 and 60-somethings volunteer for The Silver Line. In my experience, that generation is keen to share their good fortune with their children and grandchildren; helping out with childcare costs or education. Yes, pensions are in a mess and house prices are out of control, but you can’t blame baby boomers! That generation has contributed self-discipline, a willingness to work hard, to society. Honesty. I think it comes from living through 1950s austerity.
Apart from your charity work and family, what else is close to your heart?
I have a dozen or so very good friends – some of whom are famous. Then, there’s an even smaller group of what I would call my closest, dearest friends. The ones I talk to every day… mainly about TV programmes and Donald Trump. We have a weekly dinner club. There’s no cooking involved, though - we try out new restaurants. A dinner club with my cooking wouldn’t last very long.
What does Christmas mean to you these days?
Technically speaking, Jews aren’t supposed to celebrate Christmas, but my mother used to love it and throw wonderful parties. I carried on that tradition and used to do a fancy dress party on Christmas Eve.
I started sorting my Christmas card list back in October. This year, it’s a picture of my three wonderful grandchildren, Alexander, Benjamin and Teddy. And, yes, I do actually send physical Christmas cards by post. None of this email and text rubbish.
I spoil my grandchildren, but not with piles of expensive presents - they always end up playing with the boxes. I let them break the rules. Make lots of noise, eat sweets and go crazy. It’s Christmas! Do what you want!
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What will you be doing on December 25?
With three children, there’ll be a bit of staggering visits over the holiday, but I’ll be with one branch of the family and I’m sorry to say that they’ll have to put up with my cooking - doing my best to tackle the traditional Christmas dinner. My favourite part of the day is opening the stockings. The grandchildren get so excited because Santa has actually been to their house!
The holidays are often a busy time for Silver Line, so I’ll be taking a few calls there, too.
How has being a Dame changed your life?
Oh, it’s changed my life immeasurably [laughs]. There’s not a day goes by when someone doesn’t call me Dame Edna. I’m not sure whether I should be annoyed, amused or just try and ignore it. It even happened on the radio!
[The title] does seems to add a bit of oomph when I’m introduced at Silver Line events, though - gravitas, a sense of occasion. Hopefully, it makes people sit up and take notice of what we are doing.
Are you happy?
I certainly feel… content. Maybe it’s because I’ve finally got used to Desi not being around. It took many long years, though. The Silver Line taking our millionth caller was a wonderful milestone.
A lot of 1980s TV greats, such as Terry Wogan and Victoria Wood have died. End of an era?
It feels as if we’re losing all the great trees from the forest. We grew up alongside them, part of that golden age of TV when 20 million people might watch a TV show. The whole family laughing together.
A few months ago, I told myself that I wasn’t going to any more funerals or memorial services. I find them so upsetting. But you have to, don’t you? You have to say goodbye.
How hurt have you been by people accusing you of involvement in the Jimmy Savile scandal?
The accusations have been flying around since 2012, when I took part in the documentary. People said I should have told someone. Told someone what? All I heard was gossip and rumour. There was gossip and rumour about everyone. Even members of the Royal Family. The accusations then became more lurid. Apparently, my cottage in the New Forest was used for strange parties.
Let’s be clear, if someone has harmed a child, they should be brought to justice. One of the next projects I’m going to be involved with is setting up a new, online resource that will help give young people the confidence to come forward and ask for help if these terrible things are happening to them.