'It's 16 years since I lost Desi... it's still painful'
Dame Esther Rantzen, TV legend and campaigner, has received public acclaim but experienced private heartbreak. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how the loss of her husband changed her life
Dame Esther Rantzen is animatedly describing her plans for a family Christmas, but behind the jollity, it's not hard to detect her sadness that there'll be an empty chair at the festive table.
"People assume it's the tough times in life which are hard to cope with when you've lost a partner, but for me, the happy times like Christmas are the hardest because you so want to share them with the person you've lost. It's that empty chair that's hard to bear," admits the That's Life! star, who was devastated when her husband of 23 years, TV producer Desmond 'Desi' Wilcox, died of a heart attack in 2000.
Today, she demonstrates her determination to avoid self-pity, by adding brightly: "I have so many comforting, lovely memories. Desi and I loved Christmas and our fancy dress party every Christmas Eve was a tradition. I can still recall him, dressed as one of Santa's elves, hoovering in the early hours after the guests had gone. That image always makes me smile."
The formidable 76-year-old TV legend, who defines her life strategy as "having fun, things to look forward to and incorporating as much laughter into my days as possible", has not allowed her loss to limit her.
Instead, she's used it as a force for good and in 2013, 27 years after she set up Childline, she launched The Silver Line, a helpline for older people, as a result of the huge response she received after revealing her own crushing loneliness as a widow.
"Do I still feel lonely? Absolutely. I'm busy during the day working, but at night, coming home to an empty flat with no one there to have a cup of tea with is hard. I have plenty of people to do something with, but no one to do nothing with," she declares matter-of-factly.
"It's been 16 years now since I lost Desi and the truth is, it's still as painful today. Someone once told me there would come a time when I wouldn't think about him every day. That time hasn't happened yet. In fact, I talk to Desi, particularly if I'm going to make a decision. I try to beam into him and work out what he would advise or think about something."
She's philosophical about ever finding love again and a recent appearance on Channel 4's Celebrity First Dates, was somewhat chastening. She was paired with 68-year-old lawyer John Wood, who told her: "For a lady of your advancing years, Esther, you're tremendous company."
"God knows he probably didn't mean to offend me, and I'm glad he thought I was splendid company, but sad my age was such an important factor. Basically, he saw me as a little old lady, which is definitely not how I see myself," she says with a wry smile.
"I'm glad I took part because it shows people that at my age, you can still be interested in romance, although I'm not looking for love at the moment. Never say never of course, but it sets the bar pretty high when you've had a marriage like mine. I have friends who've found love again, and a bit of me feels they're either lucky or clever to have found someone, but we all have different lives, so I can't feel jealousy."
Her aim is to challenge herself and "continually learn - because I still have a helluva lot to learn and hope never to reach the end of enjoying new things and adventures." That was behind her decision to take part in Strictly Come Dancing in 2004, although she describes the experience as "torture for someone who has no muscle memory whatever".
"It was like asking a person who is tone deaf to sing a complicated song, live in front of millions and be judged for it!" she adds with a grin.
It hasn't dimmed her enthusiasm for the show: "I'm such a fan and I'm so sorry Ed Balls has left the competition - he was such fun and so charming."
Her work provides her with huge fulfilment: "I'd never retire, although eventually I'd like to cut down a bit to give me more time with the family."
But slowing down won't happen until she's helped ensure older people are given their proper status in society, "as a fantastic treasure trove filled with valuable memories and life experience," says Rantzen, who is backing a campaign by TalkTalk to alert the elderly to scam phone calls.
"Too many feel they're past their sell-by-date, that nobody wants to know them, talk to them or value their opinions, and are particularly vulnerable to conmen who target them and charm them into giving away personal financial details.
"We've devised three simple steps to keep them safe: don't give any details and hang up. Make a cup of tea to give yourself time to consider if the call was genuine and allow the line to clear. Then ring an official customer enquiries number found on a credit card, bill or invoice so you can find out whether the call was genuine."
Her other focus is her family, of course, and currently, those festive preparations. "My three children and I have created lovely new traditions to mark the holiday because trying to do the same things we did when Desi was alive was too upsetting.
"My three little grandsons give me enormous pleasure and I want to live long enough to watch them grow up. Luckily, my mother lived to 94, so hopefully longevity is in the genes," she says, beaming.
Down-to-earth as ever, she states: "I don't worry about my health - my view is, if I wake up in the morning and nothing new has fallen off, I must be fine. Neither am I frightened of death, however, I am frightened of dying. There are certainly ways I'd like to avoid, like losing my mental health and getting Alzheimer's. What I'd hate is for my children's memories to be destroyed by my dying painfully or lingeringly so that's the last thing they remember about me. I test my memory regularly and sometimes if I can't sleep, I challenge myself with a game of Scrabble.
"At the end of the day," Rantzen concludes, "all you can do is take each day as it comes and make the best of it, and that's why I try to do."
- Esther Rantzen is working with TalkTalk to inform and empower more people to protect themselves against scams as part of TalkTalk's Beat the Scammers campaign. For information, tips and advice visit www.talktalkgroup.com/beatthescammers