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‘As long as I am not boring people’: Dame Esther Rantzen on Brexit, the New Forest and online 'poison'

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DAME Esther Rantzen is decluttering. Well, she’s not – her assistant is.

Having driven herself that morning from a job in Oxford, the 76-year-old is now overseeing a clear-out at her home in Bramshaw to file memorable documents and find donations to the British Heart Foundation.

At her time of life, she says: “I have a choice. I can leave it up to my kids – but they will chuck the lot into the biggest skip in the world. I want to be able to pull out the pictures and paperwork involved with the start of Childline and The Silver Line and create albums and scrapbooks.”

She wonders aloud if she should be uploading it all digitally to “the cloud” – then makes a face.

Her eclectic career launched as a researcher on Braden’s Week and has ranged from the silly – rude-shaped veg on That’s Life and a brief run on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! – to the serious, such as Childline and The Silver Line, which offer telephone support to vulnerable youngsters and older people.

On top of her charity work – she’s patron of 19 – and lectures, she is still an enduring media presence with TV appearances and writing for national papers, such as the Express and the Daily Mail.

“My mum said that when I was 18 months old in my pram, I would be winking to passers-by. I have always been an extrovert,” she says.

“I do not embarrass easily. My children do – at the many things I do and I am very used to ‘oh mum’ being shouted up the stairs. I have got an embarrassingly low embarrassment level.”

And she’s not slowing down. The next day she’s due in Waterlooville filming for BBC’s The One Show and she says: “I am as busy as ever. But not nearly as disciplined. In the olden days I would know exactly where I would be. Now I could be anywhere doing anything.

“It’s slightly more frenzied. But every day is different and every week is different.”

This weekend she’s in the New Forest which she has been visiting since 1948 when her family would travel from where she grew up in north London to holiday at her cousin’s, also then in Bramshaw.

Dame Esther Rantzen in the New Forest
Dame Esther Rantzen in the New Forest

“So for me the New Forest is and was completely magical. It’s really changed so little. The fact that you go over the cattlegrid and there are ponies and pigs – it’s just wonderful. The trees are glorious in the spring. Every season is a wonder,” she says.

“You could call it my first home, in my heart. I have to be in London for my work for Childline and The Silver Line. This makes a huge difference to my quality of life and my family life.”

She’s had her Bramshaw house for 33 years and her blooming garden, which she admits is tended by a gardener, is close to her heart as a creation between her and her husband for 23 years, TV producer Desmond Wilcox, who died in 2000.

She recalls: “Before we left to go back to London we would hold hands and race round the garden. We had parties here and spent Christmas here.” She still walks the garden when she arrives and leaves “so it’s clear in my memory”.

Locally, Dame Esther has campaigned for the 40mph speed limit and even did a mock This Is Your Life when local postmaster Derrick Roberts retired. Nationally, she was in the headlines when in the wake of the MPs’ expense scandal she stood for parliament as an Independent in Luton South in the 2010 general election – which, she admits, she was not disappointed to lose.

“I have no regrets. It was such a valuable experience. It taught me about politics and democracy. I learned a lot and was visiting factories and schools and social clubs. I went to so many different places. As a journalist it was a very valuable experience.

“I thought it was interesting, because I came fourth – Robert Kilroy-Silk had warned me that at the end of the day people go with the tribal allegiance not for the person, but the party.

“Do I wish I wish I was the MP for Luton South? Had I persuaded myself that I could have done the job? Not really. I was not disappointed – but it was quite expensive. It cost me £15,000.”

The election was another high-profile adventure for Dame Esther, an Oxford graduate whose CV also lists a short-lived run on Strictly Come Dancing alongside programmes on stillbirth, mental health and child abuse. It’s an eclectic mix; how does she choose what to take on?

“I like to get involved in things that make a difference,” she says. “I get very easily bored and I am not good at doing boring things. So what I love doing is something that makes me laugh or cry.

“I think I am an old tart, really. If someone comes with an idea or whatever, or a cause or an injustice that clearly needs publishing – if it interests me, I think it’s going to interest other people.”

Does she have a politics that guides her? With a general election looming, she answers literally: “I am a floating voter. I vote on the issues. I read the manifestos. I suppose therefore I would place myself somewhere in the middle.”

She takes the chance unprompted to bring up her strongly pro-remain Brexit views and reveals she’s “gloomy” about how the UK will fare in the upcoming negotiations.

“I am a remainer. I am also a remoaner. The reason I am a remoaner is I think partnership and collaboration is terribly important. But I understand we’re an island with an island mentality. So I am not surprised that we are going to float off. We owe a lot to the Normans – especially in the New Forest.

“I was surprised at the result, but three of my best friends are Brexiters. We rarely talk about it; referendums lead to such profound disagreement, more so than elections. Every single vote counts and you feel very involved with the issues.”

There is “absolutely” a difference between pro-remain London and the New Forest, which voted by almost 58% to “take control” and leave the EU, she acknowledges. But she counters: “I am sorry if people feel decisions are being taken without consulting them. To which I say: do you think it’s better in North Korea? At least we have all this put to us for our views.”

She rejects the claim that Brexit has divided young and old, and insists families still depend on the generations working together for child care and support.

More generally she does think society’s emphasis on youth, and the trend for people to move away for work, has lost older people their former place at the heart of families. In isolated rural areas, like the New Forest, that can prove particularly isolating.

“A cloak of invisibility descends upon you, that’s right. I deliberately talk to older people in the queue or smile in the street because I know from The Silver Line that some of them are completely isolated and desperately lonely and starved of conversation. ‘Hello’ is not exactly a conversation but at least someone has validated you.”

“We do not want people to feel they’re a waste of space because they are ‘past their sell by date’.”

The Silver Line and Childline would be expected to be top of Dame Esther’s career highs. But instead she reels off individuals she helped bring to prominence like characterful pensioner Annie Mizen on That’s Life, singer Sheena Easton, and a little boy called Ben who needed a liver transplant.

If you can't stand the heat... Dame Esther Rantzen in her homely kitchen
If you can't stand the heat... Dame Esther Rantzen in her homely kitchen

Her career low – which typically she happily refuses to regret – was Strictly Come Dancing, an experience she describes as “very painful and humiliating”.

“It was so difficult and frightening. It was live and Anton [Du Beke] choreographed every dance with his hand round my wrist so I could not run away. I have no muscle memory. I was persuaded to do it because it was such a wonderful show.”

But she’ll be taking to the dance floor all over again, she says, when she takes on ceroc dancing in a programme about babyboomers for Channel 4. She jokingly berates herself: “It’s not a good thing, Rantzen. Do not do it.”

It didn’t take long for her to be voted off both Strictly and I’m a Celebrity and she accepts she has a Marmite quality.

“In this day and age it’s very rare that you can appeal to everyone. You’re photographed in close up. Your mannerisms are worrying or irritating. You can sound volunteered or patronising or all sorts of things. I am just used to the fact that you can’t please everyone all the time.”

The worst thing that has been said about her was false claims online that she killed babies and buried them in her garden – which she called in the lawyers to deal with. The anonymity of the internet breeds “a kind of poison”, she thinks.

“I am a Jew so I therefore know how cruel and brutal humanity can be, so this is not news to me. When I was 16 and first read about the Holocaust, it was a hideous shock. When I was 46 and discovered the reality of child sexual abuse, I was terribly shocked.

“Nowadays I think it’s part of the human society and we need to protect people from it and guard against it. I think the internet needs very careful policing because there’s this streak of cruelty that some people exploit and use to torture other people. It’s dreadful.

“Then you see the volunteers at Childline – that’s the wonderful side of humanity.”

She launched Childline in 1986 after a BBC television programme on child abuse was inundated with calls, and it’s probably what she is best known for.

She doesn’t give a direct answer as to how she would prefer to be known: a journalist, campaigner or TV presenter.

Instead she says: “Not boring. There’s always a new adventure round the corner – you never know. Marmite’s not boring – I happen to love it.

“I think as long as I am not boring people, that’s okay.”

To call The Silver Line dial 0800 4 708090.

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