Broadcaster and campaigner Esther Rantzen isn’t used to staying at home, but, she tells Gabrielle Fagan, she’s savouring the change of pace.
Dame Esther Rantzen has always been an indomitable force of energy, constantly on the go with her career as a journalist, broadcaster and tireless charity campaigner. So for the former That’s Life presenter, lockdown has brought a dramatic change in pace — but she says it’s been a surprisingly positive experience.
“It’s such an odd feeling not to be busy. I find my work so absorbing and I’ve always spent my life rushing around in a slightly idiotic manner,” she says. “But for the first time ever, I’ve cancelled all my work commitments and have an empty diary. As the Queen said in her speech, it’s a time to ‘pause and reflect’ and rather unexpectedly, I’m really rather enjoying being able to do that.”
Characteristically, Rantzen — whose energy and zest belie her years (she will be 80 in June) — hasn’t completely stopped working though. She’s supporting the NSPCC’s emergency ‘We’re still here for children’ appeal, urging the public to donate £10 to help fund vital services like ChildLine, to help young people that desperately need someone to talk to, especially when home isn’t a safe place.
“Young people need a lifeline even more at the present time. School is normally a safe place but with the lockdown, they don’t have the support of their friends and teachers,” says Rantzen, who helped found ChildLine back in 1986 (the helpline has delivered some 2,789 counselling sessions about coronavirus since the end of January).
She’s also concerned about the dramatic rise in the number of calls about serious issues, including physical and emotional abuse and neglect.
“These are very frightening times for all of us but for children who are imprisoned in a home or a family which is potentially dangerous, it is even more frightening,” she says.
Her own home right now is a peaceful sanctuary in the New Forest, Hampshire, which she’s sharing with her eldest daughter, Emily (41), who has ME.
“It’s lovely to spend time with her. She has health problems and I’m in a vulnerable age bracket, so it makes sense,” she says. “Also, she’s totally practical and brilliant with technology, which is brilliant for me as I’m totally hopeless at anything like that.”
The house is surrounded by a beautiful garden created by her late husband, broadcaster Desmond Wilcox, who died 20 years ago. It’s the place, she says, where she feels most “connected” to him.
“I still, in a sense, feel he’s with me, especially when I’m here,” says Rantzen, who was married to the documentary-maker for 23 years and with whom she had three children.
“I have lots of photos of him everywhere and still miss him dreadfully. I know if he was here, even in this weird situation we find ourselves in, he’d still manage to be positive, exuberant and funny.”
She remains single, despite attempts at dating — even appearing on TV’s Celebrity First Dates in 2016 — and isn’t sure Wilcox would have wanted her to find a new partner. “I don’t think he saw himself as replaceable in any way,” she says, laughing.
Over the years, she’s been open about her ongoing “heartbreak” over the loss and loneliness — it inspired her to help set up charity, The Silver Line, which provides help for older people — but recently she reveals she’s entered new emotional territory.
“You can’t go on feeling that agony of loss forever — although I know some people do — but I think things heal a bit. You find ways to cope,” she confides. “It’s an interesting place to be at this age — maybe one of the comforts of getting older — you lose the exhilaration of youth but you also lose the agony, worry and insecurity and enter calmer seas. It gives you a chance to realise how lucky you are.”
She’s currently focusing on writing her life story and sorting through boxes packed with souvenirs from 50 years in broadcasting — that includes 21 years presenting That’s Life!, creating and hosting Hearts Of Gold in the late-Eighties, and later her own chat show, Esther, on BBC Two.
“The sensible thing would be to plan my funeral so my family know, when the time comes, they’re doing what I’d want, but instead I thought this was the perfect time to start my autobiography,” she says brightly.
“Would I rewrite anything in life if I could? Definitely, I wasted an awful lot of time worrying about things, many of which never even happened. Also, looking back, I don’t know if I was a very good parent. I had this busyness syndrome working long hours, which I was quite proud of at the time but in retrospect, I feel I could and should have spent more time with my children.”
She’s making up for that by thoroughly enjoying — and indulging — her grandchildren. “Become a grandmother is another wonderful compensation for getting older, and I can never say ‘no’ to any of them, which can irritate their parents!” she admits.
“Michael Caine once said that as he got older he began to think life would diminish and become less fun, but that was until his grandchildren came along. Then life took off like a firework and was even more fun again. I think many of us feel like that.”
Currently, with no pressing commitments apart from joining remote meetings with ChildLine and The Silver Line, she says: “With plenty of time to myself, I’m finding it very easy to relax. A wonderful boost to my wellbeing is simply sitting in the sun just looking at nature. I don’t feel it’s time wasted because I feel it actually irons out the wrinkles in my brain. I like walking but can never be bothered to do any formal exercise because I find it boring — that lack of activity will probably catch up with me in the end — but so far I’ve stayed pretty healthy.”
Three parties planned to mark her 80th birthday have been postponed because of the pandemic until next year. But Rantzen, who says most days she feels only 28 — “a great age as I’d found a job I loved and fallen in love with Desi” — is philosophical about ageing.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky and had a charmed life really, with a wonderful family and career and being able to support causes I’m passionate about. My mother was a good role model, as she just decided she wasn’t going to die so had a jolly good time right until she eventually did at 94,” she says.
“I’d like to do the same. Anyway, I’ve promised my grandson Benjamin, who’s seven, that I’ll dance at his wedding and so I need to get into at least my mid-90s. I’m just focusing on that.”
The NSPCC’s ‘We’re still here for children’ emergency appeal is urging the public to donate £10 to help fund vital services like ChildLine, so the charity can be here for young people that desperately need someone to talk to, especially when home isn’t a safe place