The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold: Well that's life, Esther

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The Independent Online
UNHAPPY days, indeed. For 21 good-hearted years, Esther and her highly polished young men have had us in fits with their doughty mix of journalistic endeavour, wit, sunshine and oldfashioned British fun (incidentally, that's a word you don't hear much these days).

Twenty-one years . . . ah, memories] Who can forget those hilariously appropriate names such as Mr Barber, the hairdresser (or 'barber']]) from Teddington. Almost equally amusing were Mrs Brown, who helped in a sunlamp shop in East Molesey, Mr Spender, the tax collector from Manchester, and - if you can believe it] - Miss White, the laundress from Potters Bar. Priceless, one and all.

And still alive in the memory are those marvellously ordinary old women, rich in Cockney character, high spirits and honest-togoodness stupidity, whom Esther would somehow chance upon during her delightfully light- hearted consumer tests in the streets of London. For me, the star was that splendid old dear who, when Esther handed her something gooey to taste, quipped: 'Gorblimey, Esther, it tastes like cat's droppings]]]' - only to be informed that this was exactly what it was] Say what you like about Esther but she was always prepared to let ordinary, everyday working-class (let's be frank, in many ways thoroughly boring) people have their say on prime-time television - the only condition being that they had to swallow something disgusting on camera beforehand]

The contests, too, were an absolute must, full of healthy British jocularity, particularly the famous 'root vegetable' competitions, in which, as far as I can remember, each of the presenters sat behind his - or her] - desk and we, the audience, had to guess whether they more closely resembled a carrot, parsnip or other root vegetable.

And - on a more serious note] - let's never allow ourselves to forget some of the admirable campaigns championed by Esther and her hard-working crew. For instance, after a 52-year-old mother of three from Penge mistook a chainsaw for a banana, receiving severe cuts to the mouth and chin, Esther campaigned for years on end to have all chainsaws sold in Great Britain and Northern Ireland clearly labelled 'Unsuitable for Eating'.

When this proved unsuccessful she launched a secondary That's Life] campaign - equally doughty - to urge the Government to label all bananas unsuitable for cutting hedges. 'A great many people - some of them senior citizens, others hard of hearing - are going to face grave disappointment this year when they come to cut their hedges only to discover that their brand-new banana is simply not up to the job,' she sighed. I'm happy to report that the present Government has at last sat up and taken notice, and that the Citizen's Charter will carry provision for the labelling of all bananas and that a Banana Watchline is being set up for those who experience trouble with bananas and/or citrus fruits. Well done, Esther]

On a more personal note, a large number of what one might call 'ordinary folk' know Wallace Arnold not as a scrivener, raconteur or political philosopher but as the immensely lovable 'personality' whose presence adorned the That's Life] team from 1977-81. After a particularly poignant piece about the unscrupulous behaviour of one salesman or another - resulting, if we were lucky, in the loss of the life-savings of a recently widowed OAP - Esther would turn to me with one of her wry, quizzical looks and say 'Wallace?'

'Thank you kindly, Esther,' I would reply from a sedentary position on my famous leather sofa. I would then greatly amuse the audience with priceless bons mots concerning the aforementioned appropriate names of professional folk. 'I hear tell,' I would say, 'of a bank manager from Ilford who delights in the name of Mr Bank.' Allowing time for the laughter to die down, I would then quip, 'Let us hope Mr Bank gets to the Bank on time]]' Result? Collapse of audience] Rosy memories soon to be rendered obsolete, like so much else, by the mirthless moguls of the BBC.