Esther Rantzen: The time of her life

That's Life!'s mix of heartache and comedy vegetables was a ratings winner for two decades. But its presenter isn't ready to retire yet. Julia Stuart meets broadcasting's true survivor
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Esther Rantzen is standing next to a wall in the offices of ChildLine about to have her picture taken. The photographer has asked that Rantzen and I continue talking while he's shooting. I launch into a tale of having just spent an hour with a dominatrix – all in the name of journalism, of course – learning the precise manner in which one should whip one's slave. Rantzen's jaw drops. It's not a look the photographer was after. She has, she explains, interviewed many a dominatrix in her day, but never actually gone as far as having a good old thwack herself. She mutters something about feeling inadequate.

Rantzen isn't a woman known for her feelings of inadequacy. Those who have read her autobiography, Esther, published last year, will remember its startling boasts, such as "sometimes I feel as if God is writing the script", "I was one of the pioneer career women who pushed back the frontiers", and "I claim now to have interviewed more people than any other television reporter in the world". There is even the suggestion that a script of That's Life! lent to John Cleese may have inspired the character of Basil Fawlty.

Nor can I remember ever having seen Rantzen looking shocked before. During her time as presenter (and producer) of That's Life!, which finished in 1994 after 21 long years, she was the master of two facial expressions. The first was that of barely controllable mirth tinged with smugness, pulled while sharing some jolly jape that a viewer had got up to. The lips would saw furiously up and down over those famous gnashers like a demented pink ruched blind, and at the end of the tale would finish yanked fully open, exposing yet more of that blinding white enamel. The second expression was that of grave concern, achieved with the eyes momentarily shut, head tilted to one side and lips nibbling at a reverential speed as she imparted the full horror of what had befallen a particular child. Those who need reminding will be able to witness the mesmerising spectacle this Sunday when BBC1 screens a That's Life! retrospective.

Today, Rantzen is elegant in a taupe Joseph trousersuit, part of what she describes as her "classic discretion" look. The change of image has, one suspects, caused untold chagrin across the viewing nation. During the odd moment when That's Life!'s scripts failed to raise a laugh (remember those hilariously shaped fruit and veg?) there was always Rantzen's frocks – from off-the-shoulder polka-dot numbers to those that resembled tin foil – and a hairdo which had been teased to the point of torture to snigger over.

Now aged 61, lines radiate from her eyes and years of relentless grinning have left cracks on her checks. But she remains attractive. She places a jewelled hand on either side of her face and slowly tugs the creases out. "I sit like that in front of the mirror," she says, "like the Duchess of Windsor did. I spoke to her butler once and he told me she used to sit like that all the time." She still presents Esther, her "topical discussion" show on BBC2, and says she may consider having cosmetic surgery next year. "Studio lighting is very unpleasant and puts a shadow under everything," she explains.

While up to 20 million viewers tuned into That's Life! at its peak, Rantzen readily admits that "plenty of people loathed" her. "I am extrovert, I am upfront, I do tend to give my beliefs, don't I?" she says, giving a naughty schoolgirl snort. "And some people think women should be seen and not heard, and are more interesting if they are silent and mysterious. I'm not silent and mysterious." It may also have had something to do with her appearance, she says. "Some people find me gruesome looking."

But it is not only some members of the public and critics who have been irritated by Rantzen. The waters around her family are only now starting to settle after she criticised the first wife of her late husband, the broadcaster Desmond Wilcox, in her autobiography. Rantzen and Wilcox had an eight-year affair while working at the BBC, before going on to marry. At its inception, Rantzen was a reporter/researcher on the consumer programme Braden's Week, and Wilcox, then head of the general features department, was her boss. Rantzen and Patsy, Wilcox's wife with whom he had three children, were not only colleagues but friends. Rantzen wrote that the couple had not been in love, that Patsy's identity "depended on being married", and that she not only "remained angry and bitter until the day she died" but "gloried" in her bitterness.

Patsy's children were devastated. In a subsequent newspaper article, Cassandra Wilcox called it a "malicious attack on a woman who can no longer defend herself". Patsy died of cancer in November 1999. "She wanted my mother to set aside her pain and join hands with her in friendship. To forgive her so that Esther and my father could live happily and guiltlessly ever after. Esther wanted a happy, fairy-tale ending." It never came. Not only did Patsy never forgive her, but Wilcox died after a major blood vessel burst in his chest in September 2000. He had, she insists, read and approved of the comments before the book was published. "Quite a lot of it was what he felt and thought. He'd been criticised over the years a lot and this, in a sense, put the record straight from our point of view. I said to him: 'I don't know what to do about this,' and he said, 'You must tell the truth,' and he read it."

Did she not think her stepchildren would be upset by it? "They're adults, they're in their forties." Does she regret it? "I regret their pain, I didn't want to distress them."

Wilcox's affair with Rantzen, who still lives in the home they shared in Hampstead, north London, was by no means his first. During the couple's relationship – they were married for 23 years – was Rantzen ever worried that he would be unfaithful to her? "I'm not jealous and I'm not possessive, and he and I were deeply committed to each other in every way that mattered," she says, in Margaret Thatcher-like hushed tones. "He always knew where I was and tracked me down, and I would be talking to him on the phone perhaps eight or 10 times a day all our lives together, all our lives. So there wasn't much time, bless his heart."

She says she's "still up and down" following his death. Sometimes she wakes up happy and wonders why. They had planned that she would have retired by now, so they could spend their time pottering together. Instead, she continues working and devoting time to numerous charitable causes, in particular ChildLine, of which she is founding chairwoman, which she considers her greatest achievement.

She is also working on her first novel, to be published next spring, which draws on her experience of fickle friendships in television. "There have been times in my career when I assumed I had friendships which were not friendships," she says. When Rantzen was presenting That's Life! some colleagues resented her relationship with her boss, then her husband, and complained that he was giving her special treatment. In the end, Wilcox resigned. "They really wanted me out. That's quite a discovery when you think they're friends of yours. It taught me that jealousy is a very destructive emotion," she says.

Despite the fact that both she and Wilcox had both been voracious workhorses (after That's Life! Rantzen went on to make numerous other programmes, including Hearts of Gold), she now doubts the merits of both parents working, having seen the effects it can have on some of the children who contact ChildLine. She claims that her children – Emily, 22, who is in recovery from ME, and Rebecca, 22, and Joshua, 20, who are both at Oxford – didn't suffer. "The point of having help and having a nanny was that she could bring them to me whenever it was possible. I think I put the kids first, I think I pushed the career around to make room for the kids, not the other way round."

Is that how they remember things? "They understood that whenever we had the choice we were with them, that they were the most important things in our lives."

Still missing Wilcox, she now relies on her children for the odd hug. She is not seeing anyone romantically and doubts whether she ever will. "I'm 61, the scars of time are all over my face," she says, this time leaving the creases where they are. "I think it's very unlikely."

'That Was Life!' is on BBC1 on Sunday at 5.40pm