Sorry, Esther, but that's life]

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'ACTUALLY, I rather like Esther' has not been a line likely to win you friends at fashionable dinner parties for some years. The world is divided between those who cannot abide her and those who dare not admit they admire her professionalism and commitment.

That's Life], sentenced by the BBC to a lingering death after more than 20 years, has outlived its usefulness and charm. But it will be a shame if Esther Rantzen does not stay around for us to make fun of - and secretly to envy - for a while. She is talking to the BBC about what she might do in future, and said yesterday that she was flattered, at 53, not to be thought of as 'over the hill'.

There are a dozen reasons why Esther (one of few stars readily recognisable without a surname) is a deeply unfashionable television personality. On screen, she invariably seems a lot too pleased with herself. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, when she rose swiftly from being a researcher on Braden's Week to hosting her own show, she was seen as pushy.

In those days, as a young woman in television, you had to be pushy to make your way. Esther, though, was so pushy that she married her boss, Desmond Wilcox - a marriage that, to nearly everyone's surprise, remains in apparently good shape after 16 years. Their early relationship, coinciding with the initial success of That's Life], provided one of the BBC's most entertaining scandals. Colleagues in the general features department were always complaining about them to senior management and likened Esther to the Sun Queen in the court of Wilcox's Louis XIV. The Sunday Times called them 'a mutual admiration society, succumbing to folie a deux, feeding each other's illusions of grandeur'.

Braden's Week was a blueprint for That's Life], a mixture of jokes and investigative reports on consumer affairs. It was something new to televison and it worked well. Petty swindlers who took advantage of gullible punters were mercilessly exposed, and so were bureaucratic officials who stuck to the rules to the point of absurdity because it was 'more than my job's worth' to bend them. No bumbling gas fitter or unreliable washing machine repairer was safe from Esther's strictures.

That's Life] was partly a misnomer, because it was not life in its entirety but in its petty minutiae - the irritating bits of life that John Major addresses in the Citizen's Charter. Individual cases were resolved triumphantly - washing machines made to work and timeshare cowboys brought to book - and the viewers loved it. At its peak it was being watched by about 16 million viewers, roughly double its present figure, and it still regularly figures in BBC 1's top 20 programmes of the week.

When the bounds of what was acceptable on screen were a lot narrower than today, Esther also exploited a rich seam of saucy- postcard jokes, involving sex and bodily functions, all delivered with a coy innocence that soon became irritating.

Viewers, who, after all, enjoy saucy postcards, sent her mis- shapen vegetables that looked, with a bit of imagination, like naughty bits of the anatomy. They sent her photos of gardeners hosing flowers from an angle that made it look as if the water was coming from . . . guess where.

They sent misprints from local papers. They told of their 'talented pets' - talking horses, soccer-playing poodles, cats that made morning tea - and persuaded her to send camera crews to record these miraculous events.

When that palled, she and her team got human beings to behave even more ridiculously than their animals. They joined in supermarket singsongs. They would be given silly things to do in front of cameras in the street.

Esther was careful to keep a core of serious purpose among the flummery. Her admirable campaigns on child abuse and organ transplants were pursued tenaciously, but the switch from the solemn to the flighty became harder and harder to pull off: sometimes you could hear the gears grating. That's Life] became a kind of national freak show, with Esther as its ringmistress, assisted by smarmy young men and usually an elderly 'character' - Cyril Fletcher was the most notable - to vary the mix. Long ago the programme succumbed to the worst of show-business failings: the cast seemed to be having a better time than the audience.

The best of its ideas have long since been copied elsewhere, and it is hard to remember when That's Life] seemed bold and innovative, but it did. And if it was all a bit undignified for the stuffy BBC, it allowed Auntie to claim she was in touch with the common taste.

It was never likely that such down-market fare could long survive the arrival as director-general of the high-minded John Birt. Like Wogan, it may have lasted as long as it has because, until the arrival of the formidable Alan Yentob as Controller of BBC 1, nobody had the courage to tell Esther that it was time to move on.

Her next role may not necessarily be on screen. The BBC is short of female executives, and she has even been mentioned in connection with the current vacancy for Controller of Radio 1. Like a lot of That's Life], though, it is hard to be sure whether that is a joke.

(Photograph omitted)

Peter Pringle is on holiday.