As she prepares to be grilled on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, Esther Rantzen speaks candidly to TV Times magazine about ChildLine, becoming a gran and why her reputation won’t be tainted by Jimmy Savile…
What made you first want to work in television?
“My father had been one of the very early television pioneers in the engineering department at the BBC. He was in charge of the outside broadcast when Edward VIII made his abdication speech, so I knew about the BBC and that’s where I wanted to work.”
After making sound effects at BBC radio, you moved to TV and eventually secured a job fronting magazine show That’s Life! What memories do you have of presenting the show?
“It was very hard work and the most tremendous fun. People everywhere were talking to me about the item we did last night or telling me about their own lives. It was lovely for me because I’m hopeless at small talk!”
Does one campaign stick particularly in your mind?
“One of the most crucial things was talking to an anesthetist about a case where a toddler had fractured her skull because she was standing up in the back of her mum’s car. He said to me: ‘You would never put your fine china loose on the back seat, why do you put your children there?’ That resulted in an item on the show, which led to a private members’ bill and a change in the law.”
Did you always think how important your work was at the time?
“All you think about is the next challenge. We were all working so hard, you don’t lie around thinking about how terrific it is. It’s like a mountaineer in a range of mountains – you’ve always got the next peak to climb.”
One of the biggest influences you’ve had is the creation of Childline. How did that come about?
“We did a special show called Childwatch and launched a survey asking the viewers of That’s Life if they had experienced cruelty. We knew we had lots of children in our audiences, so we opened a helpline for them and it was absolutely jammed. It was only open for 48 hours but I thought it would be really terrific for it to be open 24/7. Experts told us it would be impossible to set up, so we went selectively deaf!”
Years ago, you juggled work with being mum to three children, Emily, Rebecca and Joshua. How did you make it work with your husband, TV producer Desmond Wilcox?
“The great advantage I had was having a husband working in the same world, who adored being a father and was determined to play his part very actively. We shared the responsibilities – he made his documentaries when I wasn’t working and vice versa. What we really prized were our holiday times together as a family, playing on beaches or riding in the New Forest.”
Are you apprehensive about appearing on Life Stories?
“I’m approaching the show with dread! I always love appearing on programmes I enjoy watching and Piers is a brilliant journalist, but you never quite know where he’s going to come from. I shall have to wear waterproof mascara!”
You appeared on This Morning when the Jimmy Savile scandal broke, as you were apparently aware of rumours but didn’t report them…
“I simply do not understand these attacks. ChildLine and the NSPCC never for one second doubted my absolute determination to protect children – I have fought as hard as anyone. I find it difficult to comprehend how anybody could think that I wouldn’t work as hard as possible to make sure that a predatory pedophile like Savile comes to justice.”
Your latest venture is The Silver Line, a free and confidential helpline for the elderly…
“We will be offering friendship to isolated older people, giving them advice and information. ChildLine is absolutely flourishing but with The Silver Line it’s a different challenge because we’ve got to create it from the ground up.”
You also have a new addition to your family!
“I’ve got a new role now as a grandmother and it’s fantastic, I love it. My phone is full of pictures of him. By some strange chance I seem to be the grandparent of the most beautiful, intelligent, gifted baby in the world… isn’t that odd!”
Piers Morgan’s Life Stories returns on Friday February 22 at 9pm on ITV.