Back in the ’70s and ’80s consumer show That’s Life pulled in 20 million viewers a week and made journalist and presenter Esther Rantzen a household name.
Twenty-six years on and its teams – who campaigned against injustice and brought audiences laugh out loud moments such as items including talking dogs and odd-shaped vegetables – are as tight today as they were back then.
Even the lockdown can’t keep them apart. And, as they approach the 47th anniversary of the BBC show’s launch in 1973, Esther – now a Dame – reveals they have just held their first “virtual” That’s Life reunion.
Speaking from her country home, she tells P.S: “We have had some physical reunions, which we love and which keeps us laughing for hours, but this was the first virtual reunion and it was absolutely brilliant.”
The cyber celebration saw dozens of the programme’s former presenters, researchers, producers, and directors enjoy three fun-filled hours fuelled with snacks and drinks. Those “Zooming in” included former co-presenters Gavin Campbell and Adrian Mills, Helen Tumbridge who is now executive producer of ITV’s The Chase, and producer Richard Woolfe, the man behind the final show on June 19, 1994, and who with Esther and researcher Norma Shepherd, came up with the idea for the online party.
It’s a scene that’s being played out up and down the country as the population feels it’s way through these dark days with the help of social media, video conferencing and – let’s face it – wine.
But for Esther, 79, tackling a challenge head-on is what she does best, whether she’s charming the nation in TV’s Strictly Come Dancing; surviving the jungle in I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here; beating The Chaser to bank £60,000 for her charities Childline and The Silver Line, or braving Celebrity First Dates.
Esther, who is currently self-isolating in her home with her daughter, Miriam, reveals: “For all the wrong reasons I am very lucky because I am with my daughter Miriam – and when I say for all the wrong reasons it’s because she has M.E (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a systemic neuro-immune condition).
“I would love her not to have that health issue, but because she has, and because of my age, we have to isolate ourselves completely and we are doing it together.
“Miriam has had to force me to meal plan because I usually wander around thinking, ‘What do I fancy?’ I am a terrible cook. I would just balance a bit of cheese on a biscuit, but I’m not allowed to do that.
“I have to plan so that we can get the right food delivered. Thank heavens for the big supermarkets that are actually prioritising people like us who cannot get out ourselves.
“And we are lucky because we have a garden and have our meals outside as much as possible.
“We are able to watch this beautiful spring. It’s a reminder that we need to look after the planet. This virus is hitting our huge towns and big populations and maybe reminding us that we need to more careful about the way we live.”
Esther’s doctor son, Joshua, and his family are in the south west of the country, while younger daughter Rebecca, with whom she went on tour with That’s Life With My Mum in 2018, is in London home schooling her children. All, she says, are well.
And Esther is keeping occupied. “There’s a lot of work to be done with both Childline and The Silver Line.
“I have a dining club that has a virtual dinner together on Monday nights. Friendship keeps going somehow, thanks to technology. And I have been talking to my lovely Margaret Laverick in Melrose in the Borders.”
The Sunday Post revealed in 2018 how Esther personally befriended housebound Margaret, 88, through The Silver Line.
“I think of her as a friend. We usually talk on a Wednesday or a Sunday. She is very used to isolation and she says she just raves about The Silver Line to everyone. We will meet when this pandemic ends.”
And she reveals: “I’m still in touch with my date from Celebrity First Dates.”
Esther reduced fans of the Channel 4 show to tears in 2016 when she admitted it was hard to date again after the death in 2000 of Desmond Wilcox, her husband of 33 years.
Her date, Dublin lawyer John Wood invited her to his homeland but she recalls: “At the end when I asked him how well he enjoyed the date, he said, ‘Well, Esther, for a lady of your advancing years you were good company.’ That blew it for me, because clearly the first thing he was thinking about was how old I was.
“I think I was 76 then and he was 68, no spring chicken. But I don’t bring that up when he sends me messages on the internet.”
Is she still looking for love?
“I don’t mind a virtual romance, that could be rather fun but I’m not doing that – absolutely not! I am 80 in June. I was arranging three amazing parties and I have had to cancel them all.”
She is cautious about coming out of lockdown too soon: “I don’t think people in our 80s should take the risk. It could be lethal, and I promised my grandson I would dance at his wedding – he is seven and has already picked out his bride,” she laughs. “He calls me Etta. He did not ask me, I have invited myself.”
Esther was last able to hug her grandchildren – Benji, seven, Xander, five, Teddy, five, and “blonde bombshell twins” Florence and Romilly, two – just before going into isolation on March 14.
“I Face Time them all as often as I can and we play ‘True or False’. I tell stories of my family and my youth and they have to tell me if the story is true or false.
“I don’t see a quick end to any of this. I think the virus is going to be part of our lives and we will never eliminate it completely.
“It is like the most far-fetched disaster movie. I am looking out of my window at the sunshine, the forget-me-nots and tulips and everything carrying on as normal.
“But it’s not normal for me to be able to spend a month just watching flowers bloom in this way. It makes me think that I have gotten all my priorities wrong for years; that I should have been enjoying the world.
“I’ve put the birthday off for a year, I will still be 80 at the beginning of June next year so I hope we will have our parties then.”
‘Please, do not give up on vital helplines’
Earlier this month, The Sunday Post joined forces with Age Scotland to raise money to fund a vital befriending calls service.
Now, Dame Esther is pleading with the public not to forget Childline or The Silver Line during the coronavirus crisis.
The presenter launched Childline as a result of a That’s Life programme on child abuse. The free 24/7 phone counselling service and website has helped millions of children and young people since its inception in 1986.
The Silver Line, launched in 2012, is a free, confidential helpline providing information and friendship to older people.
But she says both are suffering from the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown.
Esther said: “The situation with children and young people who are not safe at home is very worrying.
“Our volunteer counsellors are getting contacts and calls from young people who say they really want to run away but there is nowhere safe for them to go.
“The fact that they can talk to us about what they are living through has become more and more important and we are having to find ways of ensuring they are safe.
“The demand for The Silver Line has been higher than ever. Older people are telling us they are worried that the people who care for them may no longer be able to support them. And they are frightened of dying alone.
“I am asking the public please, please don’t give up on us. We know times are tough but no matter how small the donation please stick with us.”
Age Scotland’s helpline is at 0800 12 44 222.