Esther Rantzen

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Dame Esther Rantzen
Esther Rantzen at Nightingale House in January 2011
Born Esther Louise Rantzen
(1940-06-22) 22 June 1940 (age 77)
Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England
Occupation Journalist, television presenter
Years active 1968 - present
Spouse(s) Desmond Wilcox
(1977–2000; his death)
Children Miriam Wilcox
Rebecca Wilcox
Joshua Wilcox
DBE insignia

Dame Esther Louise Rantzen DBE (born 22 June 1940) is an English journalist and television presenter, best known for presenting the hit BBC television series That's Life! for 21 years from 1973 until 1994. She is well known for her work with various charitable causes. She is founder of the child protection charity ChildLine, which she set up in 1986, and The Silver Line, designed to combat loneliness, which she set up in 2012.

Early life[edit]

Rantzen was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England, to Katherine Flora Rantzen (née Leverson, 1911–2005) and Henry Barnato Rantzen (1902–1992). Rantzen has one younger sister, Priscilla N. Taylor. She attended Buckley Country Day School in New York leaving in 1950. She was educated at North London Collegiate School, an all-girls independent school in London. She studied English at Somerville College, Oxford, where one of her tutors was Mary Lascelles.[1] At Oxford, she performed with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), became Secretary of the Experimental Theatre Club (ETC) and joined the Oxford Theatre Group, performing in Oxford and Edinburgh.[2]



After training in secretarial skills, Rantzen was recruited by BBC Radio as a trainee studio manager. She began her television career as a clerk in the programme planning department, then obtained her first production job working as a researcher on the BBC One late-night satire programme, BBC3 (1965–66), created by Ned Sherrin. Having worked as a researcher on a number of Current Affairs programmes, she moved to the award-winning BBC Two documentary series Man Alive in the mid-1960s.

In 1968, Rantzen, who was a researcher for the programme Braden's Week, became a presenter because the producer of Braden's Week decided to put the researchers into the programme. The programme was hosted by Bernard Braden. In 1972, Braden decided to return to his native Canada to present a similar TV show there, and the following year, the BBC replaced Braden's Week with That's Life! with Rantzen as the main presenter. The format was very similar, although the comedian Cyril Fletcher replaced announcer Ronald Fletcher to read out amusing misprints.[3]

That's Life! ran on BBC1 for 21 years from 1973 to 1994, becoming one of the most popular shows on British television, reaching audiences of more than 18 million. During that time, it expanded the traditional role of the consumer programme from simply exposing faulty washing machines and dodgy salesmen, to investigating life and death issues such as a campaign for more organ donors, featuring Ben Hardwick, a two-year-old dying of liver disease, whose only hope was a transplant, and the investigation of a boarding school with a headmaster who was a paedophile who employed several paedophile teachers.[4][5]

The show's various health and safety campaigns resulted in nationwide changes, such as playground surfaces being dug up around the country and dangerous tarmac and concrete being replaced with safer surfaces. Another campaign led to a change in the law, enforcing the use of seat belts for children sitting in the backs of cars. In 1981, Rantzen gained national media attention when, whilst filming interviews with the general public for "That's Life!" in London's North End Road, she attracted the attention of Police Constable A. Herbert, who felt that she was obstructing the pavement while handing out bat stew. After warning her to move on, the police officer arrested Rantzen for obstruction, and she was taken away in a police van. The entire incident was filmed and shown during the next episode of the series to delighted audience response. The case later went to court and Rantzen was convicted and fined £15.[6]

To lighten some of these very serious and heavy themes and issues, "That's Life!" also had some humorous spots, like the funny misprints that viewers send in and it also featured special written amusing songs that often matched the theme of each show that were specially written and performed by artists such as Lynsey De Paul, Victoria Wood, Richard Stilgoe and Jake Thackray.[7]

In 1976, Rantzen devised the documentary series The Big Time, which launched Sheena Easton's singing career. She briefly hosted a junior version of That's Life in the 1980s. Rantzen was one of the founders of TV-am, the company selected to launch ITV's breakfast television service, but before the station went on air in 1983, Rantzen dropped out, opting to remain with the BBC. She later briefly took a consumer spot on the BBC's own Breakfast Time. Having made programmes about stillbirth (The Lost Babies), and mental health (Trouble in Mind), in 1985 Rantzen presented a BBC One programme on drug abuse, Drugwatch. In 1986 she produced and presented Childwatch, which alerted the British public to the prevalence of child abuse, and successfully campaigned for a number of legal reforms in this area.[citation needed]


That's Life! was influential in many different ways, not least in the introduction of the videolink for child witnesses in court procedures, and it was responsible for the launch of ChildLine in 1986, the first national helpline for children in danger or distress. Rantzen had suggested the Childwatch programme to BBC One Controller Michael Grade after the death of a toddler who had starved to death, locked in a bedroom. The aim of the programme was to find better ways of detecting children at risk of abuse and to that end, viewers of That's Life! who had themselves experienced cruelty as children were asked to take part in a survey detailing the circumstances of their abuse.

Rantzen suggested that after that edition of That's Life!, the BBC should open a helpline for children, in case any young viewers suffering current abuse wished to ring in to ask for help. The helpline was open for 48 hours, during which it was swamped with calls, mainly from children suffering sexual abuse they had never been able to disclose to anyone else. This gave Rantzen the idea for a specific helpline for children in distress or danger, to be open 24/7 throughout the year, the first of its kind in the world. The Childwatch team consulted child care professionals, who agreed that children would use such a helpline but that it would be impossible to create. Nevertheless, the team obtained funding from the Department of Health and the Variety Club of Great Britain, both of which donated £25,000. Ian Skipper OBE, a noted philanthropist who had already helped Rantzen set up a special fund in memory of Ben Hardwick, agreed to underwrite the helpline's running costs for the first year. Rantzen and the team went to BT to ask for premises for the charity and for a simple freephone number, both of which were provided.

The Childwatch programme screened on 30 October 1986, based on the results of the survey, launched ChildLine with a specially written jingle (by B. A. Robertson) which featured the free phone number 0800 1111. On that first night in October 1986, fifty thousand attempted calls were made to the helpline. ChildLine now has twelve bases around the UK, including two in Northern Ireland, two in Scotland and two in Wales. In 2006 ChildLine merged with the NSPCC, enabling it to expand in an effort to meet demand. The helpline has now been copied in 150 countries around the world.[citation needed]

The Silver Line[edit]

In 2013, Rantzen set up the charity The Silver Line for elderly people, to help combat isolation and loneliness in older people, to provide information and advice and to offer a helpline which is free, confidential and open 24/7. In addition The Silver Line offers a telephone befriending service, in which trained Silver Line Friends who are volunteers working from home make regular weekly calls to matched older people. It also offers Silver Letters and conference calls, discussion groups they call Silver Circles.

Later career[edit]

In 1988, Rantzen created a television series called Hearts of Gold celebrating people who had performed unsung acts of outstanding kindness or courage. The theme tune for Hearts of Gold was written by her close friend, the late Lynsey De Paul and was released as a single.[8]

After That's Life! finished its 21-year run in 1994, she presented her own talk show, Esther, on BBC Two from 1996–2002. The series received two BAFTA nominations. She also presented the ITV campaigning programme, That's Esther, with co-presenters Lara Masters and Heather Mills. In 2004, Rantzen took part in the second series of the BBC One show Strictly Come Dancing (later exported to the US as Dancing with the Stars), partnered by Anton du Beke, finishing in 8th place, notable for an elegant waltz, but a disastrous tango.[citation needed]

In 2006, Rantzen took part in the BBC Two programmes Would Like to Meet and Excuse My French, and was selected to present a new consumer affairs show with former Watchdog presenter Lynn Faulds Wood, under the title Old Dogs New Tricks. She made a documentary for ITV called Winton's Children about Sir Nicholas Winton who, as was first revealed on That's Life!, had rescued a generation of Czech children from the holocaust and was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. After the death of Rantzen's husband, film-maker Desmond Wilcox, she made a landmark programme, How to Have a Good Death for BBC Two, on palliative care. Recently she has campaigned on behalf of hospice care and better care for the elderly and terminally ill. She has also campaigned to raise awareness of M.E./C.F.S. (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), as her eldest daughter Emily has suffered from the condition. She created the Children of Courage segment for the BBC's Children in Need programme.

Rantzen was a Director but has now resigned from That's Media, which provides local TV programmes. In 2016 she was made an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford.

In addition to her television career, as a patron or vice-president of 55 charities, she mainly concentrates on working for children, vulnerable older people and disabled people. Much of her voluntary effort is for ChildLine as a volunteer counsellor on the helpline, and as a fund-raiser and spokesperson for children, and latterly working to set up the new helpline for isolated and vulnerable older people. ChildLine currently has 12 centres around the UK, 1,500 volunteer counsellors and answers around a million calls and on-line contacts from children each year. For twenty years, she chaired ChildLine's Board of Trustees and since ChildLine merged with the NSPCC in 2006, she has served as a Trustee of the NSPCC, as well as being President of ChildLine. In 2013, she also became the Vice-President of Revitalise, a charity providing those with disabilities, and their carers, with short breaks and holidays.[9]

After Wilcox died in 2000, Rantzen wrote about her feelings of loneliness in two articles in the Daily Mail, and because of the huge response invented the concept of a new befriending helpline for older people, to be called The Silver Line. This helpline piloted at the end of 2012,(the pilot funded by Comic Relief was independently evaluated by the Centre for Social Justice in their report "When I get off the phone I feel like I belong to the Human Race") and launched nationally in 2013. In the first two years it has made and received one million contacts from older people. Among first the major donors were the Big Lottery Fund, Swiss Re, and BT. The free phone line (0800 4 70 80 90) is the only confidential helpline for older people offering information, friendship and advice which is open 24/7, every day and night of the year. The CEO is Sophie Andrews, for 3 years Chair of the Samaritans.[citation needed]

Rantzen also contributes the problem page "Ask Esther" in the children's newspaper First News.[10]

Rantzen appeared on the 2008 series of ITV show I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! and was the fifth celebrity to leave the camp. She has been the face of the Accident Advice Helpline since 2003.

Rantzen regularly writes on social issues for the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express. She wrote in January 2017 in the Daily Mail <Daily Mail January 7, 2017> about her successful battle to have a libellous and defamatory entry on Google removed, because it could have harmed her work for Childline. She has written several books, including an autobiography, Esther, a book on 'growing old disgracefully', If Not Now When, the novel, A Secret Life; and "Running Out of Tears" (published by the Robson Press), interviews with young adults who had rung ChildLine when they were children, to celebrate ChildLine's 25 years, royalties to ChildLine.

Guest appearances[edit]

Political career[edit]

On 26 May 2009, on Stephen Rhodes's BBC Three Counties Breakfast Show, Rantzen announced her intention to stand as an independent candidate for Parliament, if the incumbent Labour MP Margaret Moran stood for Luton South again. Rantzen's decision was made against the backdrop of the Parliamentary expenses scandal and Moran's expense claims for £23,000 to eliminate dry rot in her second home in Southampton. Two days later, Moran announced she would not stand at the next General Election, but Rantzen said she was still considering standing herself and confirmed her candidacy on 28 July 2009.[12] Rantzen stood for election in Luton South against eleven other candidates, of whom four were independent. At the May 2010 election, Rantzen came fourth with 4.4% of the vote, behind the three main parties. In accordance with UK Parliamentary electoral process,[13] Rantzen lost her deposit, as only candidates receiving over 5% of the total votes cast have their deposit returned. Labour Party candidate Gavin Shuker won the seat with 34.9% of the vote, the Conservatives got 29.4% and the Liberal Democrats 22.7%.[14] Rantzen remains friendly with many she met during her campaign, including the then CEO of the Mental Health Services, Professor Patrick Geogeghan, who now Chairs the Board of The Silver Line.

In August 2014, Rantzen was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to September's referendum on that issue.[15]

Savile child abuse allegations[edit]

In Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, broadcast on 3 October 2012, Rantzen, after seeing the interviews the programme contains, stated that the jury was no longer out concerning rumours of the late BBC broadcaster Jimmy Savile's abuse of children.[16]

She told Channel 4 News: "If anybody had had concrete evidence, I think and hope the police would have been called in. But all they had was gossip – and gossip isn't evidence."[17]

Abuse campaigner Shy Keenan in The Sun newspaper, subsequently claimed that, using a different name, she had told Rantzen 18 years earlier of allegations she had heard about Savile. Rantzen has denied hearing specific allegations and said she had no recollection of a conversation with Keenan.[18] Speaking on ITV's This Morning she invited Keenan to describe what evidence she had, and why she had not reported him to the police, but Keenan declined.[citation needed]

Writing for The Daily Telegraph before the broadcast, Katy Brand also criticised Rantzen for failing to act on rumours she had heard about Savile.[19] Pete Saunders, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, at Keenan's request, temporarily asked for all references to Rantzen to be removed from the charity's website, but subsequently defended Rantzen and said she would continue as a patron.[20]

Personal life[edit]

In 1968, Rantzen started an affair with Desmond Wilcox, who was the head of her department. He was married at the time to her friend Patsy who also worked at the BBC.[21] After several years they decided to live together, and informed BBC management of their relationship.[22] Management's solution was to move the entire production team of That's Life! out of Wilcox's department. The new arrangement meant that Rantzen and Patsy were now working in the same department, causing both women concern.[23] Patsy Wilcox had always refused to divorce her husband, but agreed when Rantzen became pregnant.[24] After Rantzen and Wilcox married in December 1977,[25] BBC management moved her back into General Features department run by him.

By that time, That's Life! was achieving huge audiences ratings, and reaching the number one position, gaining more viewers than Coronation Street. This created tension among colleagues in General Features,[26] who ascribed the success of the programme to Wilcox's relationship with Rantzen.[23] They complained to management, quoting the BBC's regulation that husbands and wives should not work in the same department.[23]

As a result, Desmond Wilcox resigned,[23] and set up his own independent production company, making award-winning documentaries such as The Visit, which included a series of programmes about The Boy David. For these, as well as previous films, he received many international awards, including the Grierson Life-Time Achievement Award in 2001. Wilcox and Rantzen had three children – Miriam (formerly known as Emily, b. 1978), Rebecca (b. 1980), and Joshua (b. 1981).

In 2001, Patsy's daughter Cassandra Wilcox gave an interview in response to comments Rantzen had made about Patsy in her autobiography, alleging amongst other things that Rantzen had long harboured animosity towards Patsy.[27]


Rantzen was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1991 for services to broadcasting, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2006 Birthday Honours for services to children, and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to children and older people through ChildLine and The Silver Line.[28][29] She received the insignia of her DBE from Princess Anne during an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 25 June.[30]

She has received honorary doctorates from six universities (including the Southampton Institute, the London South Bank University, the University of Staffordshire and the University of Portsmouth) for her humanitarian work and her career as a broadcaster. She is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford and Liverpool John Moores University.

Rantzen has also received a number of professional awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women in Film and Television organisation, the Royal Television Society's Special Judges' Award for Journalism, their Fellowship, and Membership of their Hall of Fame. She was the first woman to receive a Dimbleby Award from BAFTA for factual presentation. She received the Snowdon Award for services to disabled people.[31]

Rantzen is President of ChildLine, and of the Association for Young People with M.E. (AYME), President and a Trustee of The Silver Line and a Trustee of the NSPCC. She is a Patron of various hospices and charities for children and disabled people, including the Red Balloon for bullied children, the Iain Rennie Hospice at Home, the Hillingdon Manor School for autistic children, the North London Hospice and the Campaign for Courtesy. She has also served on a number of government committees, including the National Consumer Council, the Health Education Authority and the Campaign for Quality Television.[citation needed]

Family origins[edit]

Rantzen was the subject of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on 3 September 2008. Her paternal line was traced back, as far as the 1760s, to an established Jewish neighbourhood in Warsaw. Tracing Rantzen's forebears was greatly helped by the rarity of the surname "Rantzen" (even in Warsaw) and the survival of records in Warsaw. In the late 1850s, her great-great-grandfather emigrated to Britain and settled, as a cap-maker, in Spitalfields, a slum district of London's East End. Rantzen's great-grandfather moved to a more comfortable neighbourhood with the help of his brother-in-law, Barney Barnato (born Barnett Isaacs), who had become extremely wealthy as a diamond merchant in South Africa. Her father's middle name was Barnato.[32]

Barnato died relatively young in unusual circumstances, being lost at sea, but left a generous legacy to his sister Sarah (née Isaacs) Rantzen. In the BBC programme, Rantzen professed her gratitude for the comfortable upbringing she had enjoyed in Hampstead but also, having visited the site of the family home in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw later destroyed by the Nazis after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, she was moved by "survivor guilt".[citation needed]

On her wealthy maternal side, Rantzen's great-great-grandfather, Montague Leverson was one of the founders of the West London Synagogue. His son, her great-grandfather Montague Richard Leverson, at the age of 18 accidentally fatally shot a parlourmaid, Priscilla Fitzpatrick, at the family home in fashionable Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London. Later, in his 30s and working as a solicitor, Montague disappeared after a warrant was issued for his arrest for fraud, fleeing to Paris and abandoning Rantzen's great-grandmother. They divorced in 1876 but he then moved to the USA. After his wife died, he later returned to Britain, in his 80s, took back his nationality, and married again at the age of 82.[33] Montague Leverson was the maternal grandfather of British composer Gerald Finzi.[34] Rantzen is also related to Ada Leverson, a British writer and friend of Oscar Wilde, who was portrayed by Zoë Wanamaker in the 1997 film Wilde. She is first cousin once removed of the novelist and translator, Michael Meyer.


  1. ^ Anderson, Eric (14 December 1995). "OBITUARY: Mary Lascelles". The Independent. Retrieved 20 April 2017. 
  2. ^ Rantzen 2001, pp 58-60
  3. ^ Cable, Amanda (6 December 2008). "Young, gifted and lost for 40 years: Bernard Braden and his remarkable record of the Sixties". Daily Mail. London, UK. 
  4. ^ Westminster, Department of the Official Report (Hansard), House of Commons,. "House of Commons Hansard Debates for 17 Apr 1996 (pt 7)". 
  5. ^ Esther Rantzen "Jim fooled us all into thinking he was a saint. When I saw the truth, I wept", Daily Mail, 1 October 2012
  6. ^ "Back to my roots: After 40 years, Esther Rantzen is giving up her daily trip to the hairdresser". London, UK: 27 February 2008. Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  7. ^ "That's Life!". 26 May 1973 – via IMDb. 
  8. ^ "Gold (30) - Hearts Of Gold". 
  9. ^ "Esther Rantzen VP". 21 May 2015. Retrieved 25 May 2015. 
  10. ^ "First News Children's Newspaper". October 2009. 
  11. ^ Profile,; accessed 27 December 2014.
  12. ^ "UK | UK Politics | Key details: MP expenses claims". BBC News. 19 June 2009. Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  13. ^ "Who can stand as an MP?". UK Parliament. Retrieved 7 September 2011. 
  14. ^ "Luton South". BBC News. 7 May 2010. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  15. ^ "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories". Retrieved 26 August 2014. 
  16. ^ "Esther Rantzen – “The jury is no longer out” on Jimmy Savile sexual abuse allegations", Radio Times (website), 1 October 2012; accessed 27 December 2014.
  17. ^ "Why I believe Jimmy Savile sex claims – Esther Rantzen",, 1 October 2012; accessed 27 December 2014.
  18. ^ "Savile: 'Victims' Prepare To Sue NHS And BBC". Sky News. 13 October 2012. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  19. ^ Brand, Katy (5 October 2012). "Jimmy Savile allegations: Esther Rantzen's response defies belief". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  20. ^ Mason, Tania (17 October 2012). "Child abuse charity stands by Esther following Savile claims". Retrieved 20 July 2014. 
  21. ^ Esther, The Autobiography, p. 140
  22. ^ Esther, The Autobiography, p. 150
  23. ^ a b c d Esther, The Autobiography, p. 233
  24. ^ "Esther, The Autobiography", p. 153
  25. ^ Esther, The Autobiography pp. 152–54
  26. ^ Esther, The Autobiography, p. 232
  27. ^ Craig, Olga (2001-02-18). "That's life: Esther Rantzen broke my mother's heart". The Telegraph. 
  28. ^ "No. 61092". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2014. p. N8. 
  29. ^ 2015 New Year Honours List Archived 2 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ Freeth, Becky (25 June 2015). "James Corden sharpens up in navy blue as he's joined by proud wife Julia Carey at Buckingham Palace to receive OBE honour". Daily Mail. Retrieved 25 June 2015. 
  31. ^ "Bio Page". Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  32. ^ "Who Do You Think You Are?". BBC. Retrieved 3 September 2008. 
  33. ^ Esther Rantzen (9 March 2008). "Esther Rantzen: The moment I discovered the shocking truth about my killer great-grandfather". London, UK: Retrieved 22 October 2009. 
  34. ^ McVeagh, Diana (2005). Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music. The Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-170-8. 


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