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Esther Rantzen: 'I know what loneliness is like, we're here 24/7 to talk to anyone'

By Staff Reporter

Published 22/02/2016

At 75, Dame Esther Rantzen is busier than ever with Childline and Silverline, the call service for older people she established after experiencing "excruciating loneliness" following the death of her husband, broadcaster Desmond Wilcox, in 2000, from a heart attack at 69, but she implies that retirement is not far off.

"The one thing the young and the old do need is time, which we're all so short of," she drawls in that distinctively varied-pitch voice, down the line from central London. "Through Silverline, I'm constantly being told that so many grandparents don't see their families because they're too busy.

"I'm sitting here in a traffic jam, on my way to see my three year-old grandson Benjy, which is new to me in the middle of the afternoon. I used to work every hour God sent me; now I realise that when my time comes, I'm not going to regret not having spent more time in the office.

"People remark on how good it is that I'm so busy. Is it? I'm 75 and you have to recognise you've got a limited time ahead, and you start to prioritise. I'll give myself another two years working at this pace and then I'll find a way to do what I love most, which is being with my family."

Compared to rising level of calls to Childline from Northern Ireland, however, the Silverline service has the fewest number from here.

"Why is that?" asks Esther. "We have to spread awareness of the service - I know what loneliness is like and we're here 24/7 for anyone who wants to call us and talk. We don't patronise and it's free. So if you know anyone who would benefit from it, say to them 'why not try it and I'll tell Esther what you think of it'."

Newly blonde once more, the mother-of-three reveals she hasn't yet gone grey, like her father before her. She puts her good health down to moderation in all things.

"I've varied a lot in weight and between 16 and 25, I was quite plump," she recalls.

"All mum's sisters were all plump, too, but I've stayed quite slender since then. I don't diet and I only eat when I'm hungry, and I don't drink much. I take a sip or two. The doctor asked me once how much wine I drank and he advised me to drink more.

"As for exercise, I don't. I get so bored with exercising. Mind you, I had two NSPCC committee meetings back to back for four hours recently, and my back went. It was extremely painful and knocked me out for three days, so I've got to keep moving and walk every day. At least, after I've been sitting faffing round all day at meetings, I'll have to go for the train and walk to the platform.

"I remember the former speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas, who was a Welshman well into his 90s saying the secret of growing old was 'activity, activity, activity'. So keep moving and keep your mind alert."

An agnostic, Dame Esther also spoke of the "huge shock" of her fellow broadcaster Terry Wogan's death, describing him as "funny, generous, knowledgeable and wise".

"He was a fantastic talent and brain. He would only ever do one take, despite these neurotic directors trying to get you to do five. He wanted to keep it fresh and spontaneous.

"I don't know for sure there's a heaven but if there is, Terry would be there, and David Frost - so many people, including my own parents and Dessie, of course. It would be nice to believe that. All I can do is wait and see."

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