Dear Esther Rantzen: That's Life] is dead, long live Esther] - the Chat Show. That's the script, anyway, but be careful, Esther, you're no Oprah Winfrey
Tuesday 05 July 1994
Now, just two weeks after the final edition of That's Life] and all the glorious farewell tributes in print, comes news that you're back.
Not just as the driving force behind a new hotline to help Britain's battered pensioners. Not just as hostess of the another heart-warming series of Hearts of Gold. But as presenter of an early evening Oprah Winfrey-esque 'real people' chat show on BBC 2, to be aired no fewer than four times a week.
Esther, I must counsel caution. The comeback market is an overcrowded one. Even as I write, those small-screen megastars of the Seventies, the Wombles, are developing a new series.
They too had a charismatic presenter (Great Uncle Bulgaria), a catchy theme tune ('Remember You're A Womble') and a burning sense of social justice - the war against litter. But does the public want them now?
The same brutal question faces you. And frankly, the facts speak for themselves. In 21 years, the That's Life] audience went from 20 million to 7.5 million. It's no good blaming the highbrow ambitions of the BBC 1 chief Alan Yentob, or the nation's declining population of performing pets. You, Esther, were the creator. You, Esther, were the presenter. And you, Esther, were the editor. That's Life] was you, and you went off the boil.
The question is, can you reinvent yourself? The cult of Oprah grew from her presentation of her life: the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, her struggle against obesity, her on-off engagement to Stedman Graham. Her problems are the celebrity-sized, hyper-real version of the problems suffered by her real-life guests, and ones that we can all identify with. We like her because she is warm, unjudgemental and all too human.
What about Esther Rantzen's real-life problems? Buck teeth? Didn't leave home until the age of 29? Pretty lame, I'm afraid. Married the boss? Now we're talking, but sadly, this is not something you're keen to talk about in public.
The other problem, Esther, is your approach to life. We know you can do investigative journalism, tragic children, isn't it a funny old world But Oprah is all about confession, incredulous voyeurism, and salacious detail. 'You slept with your brother? In front of your mother? And you weigh 21 stone?'
Esther, you're simply too moralistic, too suburban for this stuff. If your researchers came across an overweight, incestuous exhibitionist, you'd set up
a hotline, not 'get real' with them on the couch.
Finally, how many vegetable jokes can one woman withstand? Imagine the previews. 'Tonight, taking her lead from American television, Esther] interviews not one, not two, but three vegetables. They will be revealing why they enjoy watching their 21-stone children make love.'
Television celebrities never die, Esther. Think Morecambe and Wise. Think Porridge. The future is reruns, darling, reruns.
Yours, Ruth Picardie
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