Brickbats, bouquets and tabloid TV's first lady

For 30 years Esther Rantzen has been a consumer guru, campaigner and talk-show queen
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The demise of That's Life had seemed to signal the end of Esther Rantzen's television life. After 21 years as the programme's presenter - and after attracting up to 18 million viewers - when the BBC pulled the plug two years ago, Ms Rantzen was so closely identified with the programme that she seemed destined to slip into relative obscurity.

Instead, she reinvented herself, and came up with a discussion show, Esther, a sort of British version of the Oprah Winfrey format, and is now the presenter of The Rantzen Report.

If That's Life was sensational and humorous in the way of a downmarket tabloid, then The Rantzen Report has a more mid-market approach, combining "investigative" journalism with unashamed emotion and moralising in front of a live audience. As far as Ms Rantzen is concerned, "tabloid TV" means accessible and populist television.

The Report came into being, Ms Rantzen said recently, because viewers were still "writing down their stories to see if I can help".

However, the three-episode series - the BBC was unable to say yesterday whether there are plans for more - has already attracted criticism.

After the first 30-minute show on ME, or "yuppie flu", the television critic of the London Evening Standard wrote a vitriolic review and sent a copy of the episode to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. A doctor, who claimed on the programme that the condition is treatable with anti- depressants, said he had never encountered such "aggression and refusal to listen" from a studio audience.

Yet, strengthened by a 30-year career in the media, Ms Rantzen is as well-used to the brickbats as well as the bouquets, which include the Dimbleby Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). After working as a TV researcher, Ms Rantzen's first profile role was as a reporter for Braden's Week in 1968 where she stayed for four years before producing and presenting That's Life in 1973, the programme which was to shape her career. There was a frivolous, trivial streak running through the show, typified by appalling jokes, unfunny monologues and dogs which were persuaded to say "sausages". Most mindless of all were the I'm-a-woman-of-the-people street interviews in which she persuaded members of the public to behave in peculiar ways.

However, despite its silly side, the show did capture the viewers' imagination as a television David fighting against the corporate Goliaths. Ms Rantzen soon emerged as one of the first high-profile champions of people's rights, an early guru of consumerism.

One of her achievements was to highlight the issue of children and organ transplants through the life of Ben Hardwick. She recently complained that no one would take up such issues now.

"If Debbie Hardwick rang up today because her little boy, Ben, was dying of liver disease, what programme would put it on?" she asked.

Other programmes followed, including Childwatch and Drugwatch, as well as lighter shows, such as The Big Time.

She became a part of the consumer Establishment, becoming a member of the National Consumer Council and the Health Education Authority. In 1991, Ms Rantzen, married to former BBC executive Desmond Wilcox, was awarded the OBE for services to journalism.

However, she says the "most important" part of her career was founding Childline, a free counselling service for children in distress, in 1987, which, despite occasional financial difficulties, has brought comfort to thousands of children.

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