Dame Esther Rantzen doesn’t shy away from impertinent questions. She positively revels in them. “The journalist who just left asked if I had any health problems or memory loss?” chirps a beaming Esther inviting me into her Hampstead apartment. “Having reached the age of 75, she seemed to assume that I would, but I had to disappoint her.”
For those, such as myself, who have treasured Esther’s contribution to television over the past 50 years, her state of fine fettle can only be a good thing, along with her svelte figure which women of all ages must envy. “You just saw me eating a croissant with jam,” says Esther dismissing any notion that she has deprived herself of food to be TV slim (it adds 10Ilbs) for five decades.
“She understands when she is hungry, eats and then stops which I have never been able to do as I have no appestat,” admits Rebecca Wilcox, Esther’s 38-year-old daughter and side-kick/inquistor on the That’s Life UK Tour. With their sizable TV experience as consumer journalists and presenters, this mother and daughter duo make for a formidable team with Rebecca firing questions, but in truth it is really the audience who ask the tricky stuff when the women appear on stage and tell all.
“I’ve always loved a live audience – That’s Life was done in a television theatre – for their unpredictability,” replies Esther. “This tour also gives me a chance to be with my daughter as we both have busy lives, but this is contractual and so we have to turn up together.”
Rebecca laughs and acknowledges that spending time with mum and appearing for one night only in “the most gorgeous theatres” is not really hard work. And it would be less so if Esther stuck to the format.
“I wrote a script which ties in with answers mum gave in my preparatory interviews. But on the road she gives a different answer every bloody time, so my perfectly constructed archive material with clips from That’s Life, is not always seen. But she’s brilliant at keeping me on my toes and I’m finding out so much more about her.” A lot of the new finds are generated by the audience Q&A which “could go horribly wrong,” but hasn’t yet.
“There are people who’ve come who know my life better than I do,” says Esther who is memorably the face of That’s Life and founder of Childline, but also counts appearances in I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Strictly Come Dancing and even First Dates as career bullet point and more importantly her happy marriage to the late documentary maker Desmond Wilcox.
“The point of doing this was to look back at what we’ve both done and offer candid insight into our family life, so there are questions about characters people remember from That’s Life, notably the talking dog, to me getting arrested for offering the public bat soup. There have also been some bewildered tourists who’ve come with a friend and don’t know who I am. They are great fun.”
No-go subjects for Esther and Rebecca are sex and Brexit. “Sex because any mention of it in connection with her mother makes my daughter throw up,” sighs Esther. “And Brexit because it almost caused the break-up of the little group of friends I dine with on a regular basis in north west London. Brexit made these distinguished people of a certain age throw themselves across tables in order to seize each other by the throat. I read an article that summed it up perfectly with the headline –’The People Who Didn’t Vote The Way I Voted Are Much Less Intelligent.’ ”
“..Sex because any mention of it in connection with her mother makes my daughter throw up..”
While our future in Europe maybe off the table, Esther will talk knowledgeably about sexual harassment and the BBC equal pay row as a veteran broadcaster who got to be on screen at the Beeb when most women were either secretaries or researchers.
“ I’m pleased to say it is now very difficult to put a current affairs programme together that doesn’t have a strong female input on and off camera,” notes Esther. “But we have to be careful, because when one looks at the children doing least well, it is white working class boys; so we can’t let the pendulum swing too far in any one direction. We need to use our common sense so everyone gets a chance.”
With her Jewish background which was explored on BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? the asking of religious questions very much depends on where Esther and Rebecca are appearing.
“They do ask about me being an agnostic, but I’m a Jewish agnostic,” says the woman who is a member of two shuls (LJS in St John’s Wood and West London because of Dame Julia Neuberger).
For Rebecca it’s a little more complicated. “And more so for my poor confused son who has a Jewish mother, a Catholic father and goes to a C of E school where they have a Jesus corner. I told him Jesus was a great Jewish man, but my son insists he is nothing- as in without faith. But he knows his mummy is Jewish and he likes it when we sing Jewish songs plus his favourite food is matzah.”
“But Benji is only five!” chips in Grandma Esther who has four other grandchildren. Rebecca, who has a brother Joshua and sister Miriam, originally wanted to be an actress, but read English at Oxford before going into TV as a producer.
There was never ever a time when I didn’t want to do it. But I would tell people that I wanted to be a documentary maker like my father because I thought it sounded better, but what I really wanted was to run the world like my mother.”
Anecdotes about her late father arise only if there’s an audience question, but Desi is very present in the art in her mother’s apartment.
“After 18 years it is still a painful subject for me,” says Rebecca. “We don’t grieve for him and he is a point of happiness in our lives, but it is just so sad.”
“..I would tell people that I wanted to be a documentary maker like my father because I thought it sounded better, but what I really wanted to run the world like my mother..”
Describing herself as the archetypal Jewish mother forever tied to her children, Esther is still on a mission and founded The Silver Line, the UK’s only free, confidential 24-hour helpline for vulnerable and isolated people aged 55 and over. With the same commitment to campaigning that she gave to Childline, Esther has now sought the help of charities, organisations and individuals who offered their support and expertise to a neglected demographic.
Fiercely protective of her mother, Rebecca can’t resist attacking trolls on Twitter who insult her. “When I was little my great uncle Max told me that when someone brilliant and successful puts their head above the parapet people want to chop it down – and you must never listen to what they say. So I don’t. Unless it’s a stupid troll.”
I leave Esther and Rebecca talking about fashion. Evidently Esther is a wonderful shopping companion until her daughter spots something she likes. “Then she tells me it doesn’t suit me and tries it on herself.”
“That only happened once,” retorts the Dame. “I think you’ll find it was more,” says Rebecca. “Remember that Katie Holmes jacket reduced from £900 to £90 in Selfridges sale?”
“Oh, yes,” says a sheepish Esther. “It’s one of my favourites.” All evidence suggests this is a Jewish mother and daughter act you won’t want to miss.