It's 1pm or thereabouts and I'm in Luton Town Hall with Esther Rantzen, the prospective Independent MP for Luton South.
We've just attended the launch of a campaign called 'Luton in Harmony' which aims to 'celebrate the diversity and unity of our communities, and to build a positive reputation for our town' but doesn't, in fact, appear to amount to much beyond a poster featuring various multi-ethnic people looking happy and doing that thumbs-up thing. The council have put on a bit of a do afterwards, which is where we are now, and have been for some time. I'm bushed - we've been up since what I consider to be the very crack of dawn itself - but Esther, now 69, is fizzing and mingling and posing for photographers like a mad thing, and I can't see how we are ever going to get away. Does Esther ever tire?, I ask Esther's agent, Louise. 'No,' says Louise. 'Bitch!,' I say. 'I know!' says Louise. I ask Esther later: do you ever tire? 'Nope,' she says. So there aren't days when you think, oh, forget it. I'm just going to stay in my jammies, flump on the sofa, and watch Cash In The Attic? 'No', she says. 'I suppose it would be different if I had young kids and a partner or a husband...' or something worth cash in the attic? '...but I don't. And I don't like not being needed.' Her three children are all grown up while her beloved husband, the film-maker Desmond Wilcox, died in 2000. Probably, Luton doesn't need Esther but Esther does (itals) need Luton. And heaven help it? True, people have never exactly warmed to Esther Rantzen, but I don't know. Her campaign for flameproof nighties certainly made it safer to smoke in bed, and I'll always be sincerely thankful for that.
Our day had started earlier, much earlier, at 8.30am - heavens to Betsy, who is up and running by 8.30am apart from Esther Rantzen? - when she picked me up from outside Hampstead tube station in her Toyota hybrid car. She is smartly turned out in a boxy tweed jacket with faux fur colour, brown trousers, pearls, and shoes with mock-snakeskin heels, the saucy little minx. She has a small body, quite a big head, and those splendid teeth which she constantly rolls her tongue against, rather as if she had lamp chops last night, has a scrap caught up in a molars somewhere, and is still desperately seeking to eject it. She speaks like people who have spent years in television always do, by turning up the volume on random words. She says: 'I must APOLOGISE for the fact I HAVE a cold.' I say: 'That is QUITE alright. I had ONE recently so am PROBABLY immune.' (I had no idea it WAS so catching. Talking like this, I MEAN, rather than the COLD, which I didn't catch although, of course, OTHERS might HAVE).
We head towards the M1. 'Now, the only thing that CAN hold us up is the fog, because you do get FOG on the M1,' she says. She was in Luton yesterday, meeting a charitable trust which 'aims to improve sporting facilities and health outcomes for people' and she'll be back in Luton tomorrow, doing something or other. (Leafleting, I think she said) .Today, she says, will be very (itals) interesting. 'We are going to see this very nice gentlemen who runs an organisation offering advice to the ethnic community and after that we are going to an event at the town hall called "Luton In Harmony." Then I will take you to my office to show you that. It was donated by the people of the indoor market in West Berry.' This doesn't strike me as very interesting at all, but that may just be because I wouldn't want to be an MP, and can't imagine why anyone would. I quote her that bit from the film In The Loop, where an MP describes holding a constituency surgery as 'being like Simon Cowell, without the ability to say: ''F**k off, you're mental.' She says, quite tightly: 'If YOU hadn't worked on a consumer programme, that MAY be your view. But for me it's like working on That's Life. I've already been able to change things AND improve people's lives.'
Esther produced and presented BBC1's That's Life between 1973 and 1994 and my, what a TV behemoth it was. At its peak, it would pull in 22 million viewers - more than any X-Factor final has ever achieved - with a deranged line-up that would put items on organ transplants and child abuse next to misshapen vegetables, dogs who could who could say sausages and the man who could play the Hawaii Five O theme tune on his shoe laces. ('F**k off, you're mental.....'). The show probably made her the most famous woman in Britain bar Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Did you feel it at the time? She says no, she was too busy working on it. 'Bill Cotton (Controller of BBC1) once told me that everybody gets their moment on Everest's summit, but often don't know it because they're too busy battling the hail and the snow.' Her decline from that summit has been slow but steady, resulting most recently in spells on Strictly Come Dancing and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, but not Big Brother 'even though I was tempted one year.' Everyone, she says, told her she was mad to stand, including Robert Kilroy Silk, if he counts, which I'm not sure he does. 'He said: "Don't do it, Esther. You'll be humiliated and you are not going to have any power and you don't want to be a social worker." So I looked at him and thought: Maybe I do.' And your children? 'They think I'm completely round the twist but do understand that I need to be needed. It's my fatal flaw.' Fatal flaw? 'Isn't it quite suspect if you're a do-gooder because it basically gives you (itals) a good feeling?' Don't ask me, I say, ask Bono. Honestly!
Anyway, if all this is anyone's fault, it is probably the fault of Margaret Mohan and her dry rot. Luton South was a safe Labour seat until Moran became one of the most high profile MP's involved in the expenses scandal, claiming £22,000 for dry rot expenses for a second home in Southampton used by her partner. Esther was so outraged she wrote a newspaper article, finishing it with the words 'it's enough to make you want to stand against her' after which 'I was rung up by ITN who said: why don't you come up to Luton and have a look?' She went, she looked, she was convinced. And although Moran later announced she would not stand at the next general election, Esther decided to continue. How so, Esther? I mean, tilt all you like, love, but I think you'll find your windmill has gone. She says by that time it was too late. She'd gotten to know Luton, and the people of Luton, and 'I was hooked.' Plus, she would be very good for Luton. 'I'm standing as an Independent and have no ambitions in Government. My ambition is solely to change Luton for the better.' I've always thought of Luton as a bit of a dump but she won't have it. 'It speaks to me,' she says. 'I love it.'
We join the M1. She is a good driver. A friend, she says, recently bought her an advanced driving course for her birthday and she was rather offended until she attended it, 'and the instructor told me he could see 40 years of experience in my driving.' I ask about her plans for Luton. She says she wants to make it a 'destination town' through 'fun and shopping.' Fun and (itals) shopping? You spoil us, ambassador! She says: 'There is no reason why it shouldn't be.' Is there any fun and shopping at the moment? 'People go to Milton Keynes,' she says. She thinks designer outlets may be the way forward. 'Those wonderful bargains. Last summer I LIVED in an LK Bennett dress and coat which I bought for a FRACTION of what they would have cost the year they came out. And it looks FAB' Ah, I say, a Jewish girl after my own heart: never buy at the full retail price. I add I'd read that Desmond converted to Judaism prior to his death, and wondered why. 'Des always felt a great kinship with Jews.' she says. 'Once, in New York, he got in a fist-fight with someone who'd said something anti-Semitic and knocked him down the stairs. He studied with a Rabbi and had a barmizvah and everything. His biggest complaint about me was that I wasn't Jewish enough'. She misses him horribly and particularly misses his adoration, I think. When I put it to her that I'm surprised she hasn't been made a Dame - not, perhaps, for her campaign for flameproof nighties, but for founding the helpline Childline - she says: 'I will tell you the absolute truth. If Dessie were alive it would be a huge pleasure to get an honour of some kind, and indeed when I got the CBE (in 2006) I was thrilled, but when I got the OBE (1991) Desmond threw a party for me. He glowed with pride, he was just thrilled to pieces, and now it just isn't the same....' Her eyes fill with tears. Luton may well have spoken to her, but isn't she running away from loneliness too? Are you, I ask, running away from something Esther? 'I do find,' she replies, 'that if I haven't got a challenge I slump on the sofa and think: who am I?' And you're running away from that moment? 'Yes.' You don't know who you are? 'I'd RATHER not KNOW!,' she exclaims. Introspection is not really her thing but that's OK. I did it once and didn't like it at all.
We come off the motorway at the Luton exit, stopping momentarily on the slip road to pick up Tim and Clive, two of her helpers. She has phoned ahead to say she is due: 'Tim, darling, it's Esther. We are just coming up to the layby now, darling...' She calls everyone either 'darling' or 'm'dear' or even 'sweetipops' as in: 'Would you mind, sweetiepops?' when she later asks if I might carry her coat. And bag. Tim and Clive climb in. 'How are you, Esther?,' asks Clive. 'Very good but now, darling Clive, are you going to direct us, or do I need my sat nav?' Tim used to work in the music industry while Clive used to work for the local newspaper. They started as volunteers but now Esther pays them something. 'It's from my own savings,' she says cheerfully. I ask how they all met, adding: 'You weren't picking up strange men again in the street, were you Esther? You promised me you'd stopped.' Esther smiles one of her oddly frozen smiles while Clive says: 'I was working on the paper and met Esther on assignments and I kept in touch with her when I took voluntary redundancy.' Tim says he was very disillusioned with Mohan, whom he'd written to many times about local issues without ever even receiving a reply, met Esther and 'found her really warm, not like a celebrity at all.' This cheers Esther up, I think, although it's hard to tell. Her expression seems almost embalmed. Botox? You bet. 'It hurts, like a wasp sting, but it soon passes.'
We drive to West Berry, the heart of Luton's Asian community. (Luton is two thirds Asian with one of the highest Muslim populations in Britain). It is cold and it is grey and it is raining but Esther almost glows with a sense of purpose. Our destination is a small house backed by a mosque. Esther recounts that one of the first things she ever did in Luton was to go into a mosque 'where I sat on the carpet and said to imams: "Can a 68-year-old Jewish woman represent you?" and they said: "Fine."' The house is an advice centre which also offers a luncheon club. I can smell the curry and, as I am famished, would rather like some. 'Yum, curry,' I say appreciatively, sniffing the air. Curry is good, particularly for famished people who have been up since the very crack of dawn, I might have further added, but Esther gets in first with an announcement that goes: 'I have TO tell you all I AM allergic to curry.' I'm not sure it's the most sensitive remark; might be rather like standing up in synagogue and saying: 'Bagels! Pah! Vile!' but the old gents in their salwar kameezes just smile weakly. Esther passes me her coat (Hobbs; 15 per cent cashmere; nice ) and her bag (Mischa Barton; fancy!) and settles down for a talk with Mobeen Qureshi, who runs the centre. She says: 'I'm standing as an Independent and have no ambitions in Government. My AMBITION is solely to change Luton for the better. Now, HOW can I help you?' They talk about the possibility of a surgery for women, domestic violence, some recent trouble caused by extremists - 'DO you think IT would help IF I TALKED to them DIRECTLY? - and the 82 year old woman who was recently left without central heating when her boiler broke. Esther thinks Age Concern should be on it . 'Do they have an office here?,' she asks Clive. 'I don't think so,' replies Clive. 'Well, they SHOULD,' she says, and I'm guessing they soon WILL. Esther does seem like a woman who gets things done. As we are leaving I ask: really, allergic to curry? What happens? You explode? Your ears spin and then fall off? 'It just sets my mouth on fire.' she says. I think she just doesn't like it, but there you are
Next, it's the town hall via her ad hoc office to pick up Louise. The office is in the indoor market which has quite a few '£££££££££'s for gold' stalls, and so doesn't shout 'fun and shopping' quite yet. The office is fairly bare: a sofa, a computer which Esther needs Tim to sort out - 'Tim, darling, be a dear...' - and a big map of Luton South on the wall. If you're elected, I ask, how will your constituents feel about you commuting from your seven bedroom house in Hampstead? She'll have a place here too, she says. I ask how she'd describe her own politics. 'I've voted three ways,' she says. 'My heart is always with vulnerable members of a community but at the same time I enjoy commercial challenges. I'm left of the Tories and right of the Labour Party and I've only once voted Lib Dems.' What do you believe in? 'Informed choice.' What are your chances of winning? 'Ladbrokes have me at 5-1.' Can we eat yet? No, we have to do 'Luton in Harmony' first. Damn.
At the town hall, there's a presentation, which is mercifully short, and then a buffet lunch, yippee. I eat my own body weight (twice) in sandwiches and crisps while Esther doesn't eat a thing. Tim says Esther's PA is always tell him to make sure Esther eats, 'but she never does.' Esther, eat, I implore her, but she doesn't. (Why didn't you eat?, I ask her later. 'Not my kind of food,' she replies) Plus, she is much to busy talking to all the local dignitaries and councillors and whatnot. 'As an Independent,' I hear her say, 'I have no ambitions in Government. My ambition is solely to change Luton for the better.' I talk to one of the teenagers who had been part of the presentation. I tell her that Esther was once one of the most famous women in the country. 'Yeah, right,' she says. 'She had this TV show,' I continue, 'and there was a dog that said 'sausages.'" The girl gives me a look which may say: 'F**k off, you're mental' and then moves off. Obviously, dogs that say sausages don't impress like they used to. We leave at about 3pm but, no, we are not going home. It's back to her office where she writes a newspaper article and taps away on the computer while I lie on the sofa, annoying her. Have you dated since Desmond died. 'No, she says, adding: 'Vanessa Feltz says I'm too picky.' Can you cook? She makes a good casserole, she says, and a good fish pie 'and scrambled eggs people come miles for'. What is the secret? 'You have to watch it like a hawk. Watching like a hawk is the key.' She eventually drops me back in Hampstead at 7pm-ish. She's going home to bowl of soup. On your own? 'Yes,' she says. Probably, Esther does need Luton more than Luton needs Esther, but you know what? I'm too tired to think about that now. I pick up a taxi. 'You look done in,' says the driver. 'I am,' I reply. 'I am...'