Esther Rantzen – In Conversation

For over half a century, writer and broadcaster Esther Rantzen has remained at the cutting stage of public service broadcasting, specialising in live consumer affairs television. Beginning her career as a junior director on the seminal documentary and current affairs programme Man Alive, Esther was one of just a handful of women to be in a production role. At a time when women were sparsely represented both in front and behind the camera, she was offered trainee director on Man Alive following a strong of unsuccessful considerations for roles which she believes she was denied as a direct result of her gender. Man Alive also proved a catalyst in Esther’s relationship with fellow television producer Desmond Wilcox whom she married in 1977. This began a successful union which would last for the next twenty years until Wilcox’s untimely death in September 2000. Esther remained on Man Alive until the mid 1960’s before moving on to new pastures which would ultimately celebrate her talents as a broadcaster.

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Yet all this was about to change when Canadian born actor and comedian Bernard Braden moved his successful ITV satirical entertainment series On The Braden Beat to the BBC in 1967 under the new title Braden’s Week. Originally contracted as a junior director, it didn’t take Braden long to realise that Esther’s talents didn’t lay behind the camera but in front of it. This made Esther even more determined to succeed in this male dominated era, not just for her own career prospects but for every female who came after her. Indeed it could be said that standing up for a cause would be something that would ultimately surround her whole career.


When Bernard Braden decided to return to his native Canada in 1972 the BBC was forced to replace the show with a similar consumer affairs programme and Esther was chosen to front it. That’s Life reigned supreme on the BBC from 1973 to 1994 and helped to bridge the gap between consumer affairs and Light Entertainment dealing with everything from high food prices to talking dogs. Beyond entertainment That’s Life also had a strong conscience for standing up to human poverty and in the days before lavish television appeals, raised awareness for those who needed support. In 1986 the series was responsible for the creation of a brand new charity campaign inspired by the death of a toddler who had starved to death, locked in a bedroom. Esther was appalled by this and quickly set about a charity which would offer children such as the toddler in question a lifeline. Now into its thirty-third year, ChildLine has helped and supported over thirty million children in the UK which was a major factor in Esther’s knighthood in the 2015 New Year’s honours.


Esther’s determination to take a stand and support children in our country didn’t just stop at ChildLine. In November 1980, following a successful Christmas Day television appeal just a year previously, BBC Children In Need was launched. The seven hour extravaganza was broadcast live from the BBC and was something groundbreaking for the corporation. Yet things didn’t start smoothly as seconds into transmission all equipment went down and Esther and Terry were faced with filling for time for seven hours. Luckily the production crew was able to restore everything back to normal and the show continued. But in the hands of more inexperienced broadcasters, it may here been in serious doubt as to the show’s recovery. Esther and Terry provided safe hands to steady the ship, eventually making it one of the corporation’s largest accomplishments.


In 1976 Esther fronted the documentary series The Big Time which followed the lives of members of the public attempting to fulfill their dreams of becoming famous in their chosen field. In an era before reality television, the series provided a platform for potential entertainers to showcase their talents in a bid to hit the big time. Among the line-up was a singer called Sheena Easton who captured the audience’s imagination which resulted in a Number One hit 9 To 5 in 1980. Yet Easton wasn’t the only entertainer to be given a platform by Esther as following a successful performance on ITV’s New Faces, future comedy powerhouse Victoria Wood became the resident pianist on That’s Life performing her now legendary repertoire of comedy songs. This combination of consumer affairs mixed with Light Entertainment was something revolutionary for its day and paved the way for the topical consumer programmes which we see today.


After That’s Life, the BBC were determined to keep Esther’s unique talents as a broadcaster and had already began planning new challenges for her. Yet Esther has always been blessed with a substantial level of foresight and had already launched another successful entertainment which was still going strong. Hearts Of Gold honoured members of the public who on their good deeds by arranging life changing surprises. In the days before The Pride Of Britain Awards this gave a platform to some of Britain’s unsung heroes. Running for six years, the series was Esther’s brainchild and was something which she felt extremely proud of.


In 1996 Esther stepped into the talk show format for her self titled afternoon vehicle. Determined to steer clear of the outlandish and chaotic structure of Jerry Springer, Esther used her journalistic pedigree to explore the lives of her guests and maintain a light hearted tone throughout. Unlike Jeremy Kyle and his contemporaries, Esther was adamant to keep the show light as much as possible in order to get everyone on her side. Although Esther was classed as a talk show, her vast experience as a journalist and broadcaster forced her to get an accurate representation of her guests as opposed to prescribing what they should do. This in turn made it more enjoyable for both the audience and guests as there was a universal positivity that ascended the whole studio. This formula proved popular up until the show’s final airing in 2002.


Slowly becoming an elder statesperson of entertainment, Esther once again identified with another vulnerable group in our society who required assistance. In 2012 she founded Silverline: a 24 hour helpline for all senior citizens to assist with issues from loneliness to financial support. With the slogan No problem too big, no question too small, no need to be alone, SilverLine has quickly become an invaluable helping hand to those in their twilight years. When she’s not campaigning for age discrimination, Esther hasn’t given up her TV career and is soon to be seen on Channel Five in the second series of Esther Rantzen’s House Trap. It’s clear that the veteran broadcaster isn’t going anywhere any time soon. It was great to speak with the legendary Esther Rantzen and wish her all the very best with the rest of her remarkable career in broadcasting.