Esther Rantzen: Thrilled Childline is Runher's new charity partner
Esther Rantzen's practised 100-watt smile precedes her. She's not one of the invisible women brigade.
Now 71, Esther is wearing a smart print dress and figure-hugging jacket plus black peep-toe shoes with decent 3 1/2-inch heels when we meet up at an NSPCC fundraiser in Belfast.
She explains her style choice: “John Charles do occasion dresses which are really comfy yet quite smart, and because there's a catwalk show on today I thought I'd better get out of my jeans.”
She moves confidently around the City Hall on a charm offensive for ChildLine, the charity she founded 25 years ago.
With characteristic enthusiasm, Esther declares herself “thrilled” that Childline — co-hosting the NSPCC event to raise funds and thank the volunteers — has become the Belfast Telegraph Runher's charity partner for 2012.
Karen Walker, NSPCC’s community fundraising manager, is busy with arrangements, but says that the link is a fantastic opportunity. “By taking part in Runher and by raising funds for ChildLine, women can make a difference to the lives of local children who need our help and support, and all the funds raised in Northern Ireland will be spent here.”
Esther reminisces about the last time she was in this Victorian wedding cake of a building.
“I love Belfast and when I was last here, invited over by one of the cancer charities, it was at the height of the Troubles.
“Odette Churchill, the resistance warrior and an incredible woman, was speaking. She said ‘When you look into the eyes of your torturer, that's when you know you have won'.”
Esther feels that there is a link to be made between this celebrated wartime spy and the spirit of the women “who create peace” in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
Breaking for the photo-shoot, she briskly turns down the opportunity to pose outside in the sun. “When in doubt, stay inside,” she explains, adding that the wind has never been one to respect hair or skirts, or celebs for that matter.
And as she poses with a couple of young female runners, Esther demonstrates that enviable ability of hers, to get on with people of all ages, as she helpfully tucks a strand of hair into place for a RunHer volunteer.
From the beginning, Esther was a hands-on chief at ChildLine, the charity that offers a free helpline to children needing to talk about abuse. She would field some calls herself — something she still does today — and remembers clearly one of the early callers from Northern Ireland. “Not that long after we opened, a 12-year-old rang in. She was in care and said her father had sexually abused her. Her mother found out and said that if the child ever spoke out, she wouldn't be able to see her brothers or sisters. This girl was desperate, and felt she was totally to blame. I talked to her about it and asked her if she saw that happening to another child, who would she blame? I tried to make her see it wasn't her fault ...”
When Esther put the phone down, she burst into floods of tears.
Because of Esther Rantzen's original desire to help, some 2.7m children and young people have been heard. As Esther revealed recently, her teenage experience of abuse sharpened her sense of outrage at what happens behind closed doors in some homes here.
“That wasn’t what made me start ChildLine, but I was treated inappropriately on one occasion by a creepy old man, a distant relative,” she explains. “My mother didn’t believe me — slight lack of empathy there — but it was horrible — yeeurch — and gave me nightmares.”
The decision to use trained volunteers on the ChildLine switchboard was made partly because of the emotional strain of listening to traumatic stories.
As Esther says: “Paid staff tend to burn out because of the trauma of receiving call after call. Volunteers can (do a shift) and go back into the real world which helps them cope with the pain.”
Sadly, the need for ChildLine hasn't gone away, which is why Esther continues to bang the drum for her cause.
As well as a tireless campaigner, Esther is an entertaining conversationalist. After all, this is the woman who — as presenter of That's Life! for 21 years — introduced the British public to top consumer advice alongside very rude root vegetables.
One of her recent projects was a documentary on dating, something Esther admits can be difficult as you get older.
“It was quite funny. They sent me to do speed dating and I found an event in which young guys were looking for ‘older women',” she recalls
“By older, they meant 35. I think I was quite a shock.” There's a pause for that trademark warm laugh, then she produces the punchline: “I asked one young man what he was looking for and he said he was looking for a ‘grateful old slapper'.
“Well, I don't think I want to be regarded as a grateful old slapper.”
Of course, nobody would associate her with either of those epithets. The adjective that does suggest itself is driven.
The week before we talked, Esther had spent “Monday in Dublin, Tuesday in Shrewsbury, Wednesday in Stoke and Thursday in Shrewsbury for Childline, Friday at a school for deaf children, and today here”. It's the kind of schedule that would floor a lesser, and indeed younger, person. You sense that one of the reasons she keeps so busy is to fend off the condition she has written movingly about in the tabloids — namely, loneliness.
There is a kind of stigma about admitting to being lonely in our frenziedly connected society, but typically Esther wanted to square up to the taboo.
“Although you can be lonely at any point, it tends to happen after a certain age,” she says. “People who have been the breadwinner, nurturer and provider find their families need them less and less.” Warming to her uncomfortable theme, she adds: “Families move away, the people you need have died and nobody needs you any more. It’s heartbreaking.”
Needless to say, Esther is working on a solution — Silverline, a companion phone helpline to ChildLine, but offering links to useful groups for the older generation, as well as a listening ear.
The main reason that Esther is now an expert on the subject is that her adored husband, TV documentary maker Desmond Wilcox, died 11 years ago. Theirs was one of the most successful media marriages, and losing Dessie, as she calls him, changed her life. “You can find people to do something with, but you miss having somebody just to do nothing with,” she says.
They used to share everything and Esther still misses him in daily life as well as in romantic settings. “Next week I will be visiting the tulip fields in Holland with a close friend who used to edit That’s Life!
“It would be so good if Dessie were with us; he’d be so funny and appreciative, he’d turn it into a celebration. When you’re in a ro
mantic place — and I think a sunset over the tulips will be romantic — you want to be with your other half.”
Dessie was also a hands-on father to their three children — Emily (34), Josh, a doctor (30) and Rebecca (31), a TV presenter who will be adding ‘grandmother’ to her mother’s CV in July.
On rare nights in, Esther watches reality TV, with her box tuned to The Apprentice (“I love it.”) and, of course, X-Factor. A story appeared recently, claiming she’d said that Simon Cowell owed her a fortune after stealing the gilt-edged format from the Search for A Star slot on That’s Life!, on which he worked as a young music producer. “What a load of rubbish!” she shouts, in mid-snap, to the consternation of the photographer. “I’ve known Simon for years and I think he’s a genius. I do not feel ripped off, but he did buy me a meal in The Ivy, and I’m always grateful for a meal.”
The fire is still there, and recently Esther was talking to the Director General of the BBC, Chris Patten, about the return of That’s Life! But if it returns, it will be without her and her smile, as she wants to hand on the baton. While Esther Rantzen isn’t planning on retirement or even semi-retirement (“I’m not sure how that works”) at some point she may make time for herself.
Gym appointments definitely won’t be filling her diary. “Why sit when you can lie? Those are my trainers!” she says, pointing at her spike-heeled courts. She enjoys keeping in touch with her “boys” from That’s Life! and tells a story about appearing on BBC2’s Eggheads quiz and losing because she followed their advice instead of her own instinct — “The so and sos — I knew it was The Savoy that had the first writer in residence.”
She loves living in Hampstead, where she was brought up, and occupies a flat in a block which has views over the Heath. Residents will be getting out the bunting for a big Diamond Jubilee party this summer.
Esther believes in living life to the full, and quotes Rabbi Hillel: “He said ‘If not now, when?’ as well as ‘If I am only for myself, then what am I?’”
That rather sums up Ms Rantzen’s career to date. Whatever Esther may feel about her reduced family role, she’s still very much needed by the rest of us.
ChildLine: Tel 0800 1111