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Esther Rantzen: ‘Strap on your tin helmet and keep going’

Esther Rantzen’s lifelong gawkiness hasn’t stopped her achieving her dreams – and ultimate happiness

Journalist and broadcaster Dame Esther Rantzen was a fixture of British television for decades, most notably as presenter of the long-running BBC series That’s Life! 

Now, aged 80, Rantzen has moved out of London to New Forest, somewhere she spent many happy years on holiday.

Here, writing her Letter to My Younger Self and looking back on a long career, she says she can’t be sure she made the right decision. 

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I was very happy and secure in my suburban nuclear family, and at my single-sex school. I had a big extended family, and we all lived very near each other, all circling around my grandmother. I used to see my cousins, my aunts, uncles, my grandmother every weekend. And I had a very good relationship with my father and mother. My mother’s mother loved children. I used to jump up her arm like a mouse. She would tell me stories and sing me old songs, she would teach me how to play patience and old-fashioned card games like canasta. Children were always the centre of attention in my family. They always were the priority. And that’s passed down to me. I’ve always felt that if a child comes into a room, it’s like the sun suddenly shining, like rare sunlight. I feel that way about my grandchildren.

I was slightly frumpy as a teenager, a bit podgy with short brown hair. Not very sophisticated, not very sexy like some of my fellow 16-year-olds were. So I realised I had to be entertaining, and make people laugh. I think humour and being overweight do go together. You make jokes about yourself. All my professional life I made jokes about my teeth. Because even if I lost weight, there was still the teeth. So I was confident in some ways – setting up a theatre club and doing the pantomimes and so on. But at parties I used to go sit on the stairs.

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I’m Jewish so through my teenage years in the Fifties I became aware of the history of the concentration camp. Memoirs were beginning to be published and the shock-horror of those things, that was a real trauma. To discover what human beings would do to each other if they were unaccountable, if no one saw it. There were people where I lived in North-west London who you could see were concentration camp survivors, people with tattoos on their arms. People who had clearly suffered from mental health problems as a result. So I was aware of belonging to a minority, and I was very grateful that I was British.

I’ve had several big breaks in my life. One was getting into university, which was a major thing, terrific. I was absolutely thrilled and loved my time at university. I did a lot of writing and performing and having fun and it was a remarkable three years. I made friendships which have remained strong to this day. And I’m lucky enough now to be an honorary fellow of my old college. I don’t know why I’m so shy about saying Oxford University. I’m proud of that. Maybe I’m suffering from self-consciousness.

In terms of my career, my big break was getting a researcher’s job on Ned Sherrin’s satirical programme BBC-3. So I didn’t feel too intimidated when I became the main presenter on a big new programme [the hugely popular BBC One show That’s Life!, which ran for 21 years]. I’d served my apprenticeship, so it was just a logical next step. I never took it really seriously because when you appear on television some people love you and some people hate you and that’s part of the deal. Not much has changed and I’ve been doing it 52 years now.

The most nervous I’ve ever been was when I was playing Dick Whittington in Bognor in pantomime [in 1982], or appearing on Strictly. I loved my friendship with Anton Du Beke, and he’s still a friend. But I can’t think of anything else I liked about doing Strictly [in 2004]. It was terrifying, the worst challenge of my life. People say, surely the dresses were lovely? But those lovely dresses were just rubberised corsets with sequins and feathers on top. There are people for whom dance is a natural element. But for me it was like watching some poor elderly trout trying to quickstep on dry land. I think I got through the waltz alright, but from then on it was downhill all the way.

The tango, oh my god. I stayed on for three weeks – it was very kind of Quentin Willson and Carol Vorderman to be slightly worse than me – but I think the next week was going to be the pasodoble. I mean it would have been… and Anton was still in his serious mood then. He hadn’t yet moved into the dizzy heights of comedy that he reached with Ann Widdecombe.

It’s when the bullets stop flying, when you’re no longer battling the elements, when hope is flagging; that’s when you need your strength

If I was to go back and tell my 16-year-old self everything that’s happened to me, she would be absolutely amazed that I got married and had three children and five grandchildren. And that I ended up living here in the New Forest, the place she thought was the most magical place on Earth. I used to go for a precious couple of weeks a year as a holiday and I loved it more than anywhere, and to be here now… it’s such a treat and a pleasure. I don’t take it for granted, it’s as magical now as it was for me when I was 16. I think I was a bit worried back then about whether things would turn out alright in the future. So I think she would be amazed that they did. I was also quite religious at 16, and had just been confirmed, so she’d be shocked that I’m now an agnostic – she might disapprove of that. But she’d be glad that I don’t have a weight problem any more. She’d wonder how that happened.

When it comes to the most difficult things in life, I’d tell my younger self, strap your tin helmet on and keep going. I’ve always found it easiest when things are at their roughest. Then I just try and concentrate on surviving. It’s when the bullets stop flying, when you’re no longer battling the elements, when hope is flagging; that’s when you really need your strength. When you lose someone [her husband, pioneering documentary maker Desmond Wilcox, died in 2000] there are so many things you have to do, so many decisions you have to make, it takes up all the front of your mind.

I think for the first couple of years after my husband died, I was still following in the footsteps that he laid down, the plans that he’d asked me to put in place. But after that I was on my own. That’s quite a decisive moment. It’s quite intimidating. For example, last year I decided to move out of London permanently and live here in the New Forest and that’s a major decision. I find it quite frightening. Have I done the right thing? I’ll tell you in five years.

When you appear on television some people love you and some people hate you and that’s part of the deal. Not much has changed and I’ve been doing it 52 years now

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be with my husband. We would sit down in this house which he knew and loved. And I would say to him, I’ve put your portrait here, what do you think? And he would say, Well, not sure about that, why’s the one of you round the corner? I’d say, What do you think about the way I’ve arranged the furniture? He would say, Well yeah, but if you put that table over there and put a lamp on it, you’d find in the evening it would be nice and cosy. I’d say, Anything good on television tonight? And he’d say, Well, they aren’t repeating enough of my documentaries, I think they ought to do more of those. And then he’d make me laugh with some outrageous stories. That’s what I miss the most. I miss the laughter.

If I could go back and live one moment again, it would be a crazy birthday party we had in the late Eighties, here in this house. We were all together with our friends and family, there were lots of children having great fun, and the sun was shining on this beautiful day in June. And right in the middle of it a plane flew by with a big banner proclaiming ‘Dessie still loves Essie’. I didn’t know it was happening – my mad husband had found a pilot to do it. That poor pilot got his map upside down and flew around the wrong house for some hours before he discovered his mistake, then he flew over us. And it was a magical moment. Every other wife was absolutely furious with every other husband; “Why don’t you do that sort of thing for me?’ So we never did it again because it made our guests too cross. But it was lovely. Someone filmed it, and I’ve had a look at the film recently; we were so happy, having fun and being crazy. We were just fantastically happy.

Esther Ranzen presents a show on Boom Radio with her daughter Rebecca Wilcox on Sunday evenings at 5pm

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