Esther Rantzen, 79
Esther is a television presenter and journalist. She also launched Childline and more recently The Silver Line, a telephone support service for older people in the UK. She is a trustee of the NSPCC, a patron for 19 charities and has a damehood for services to children and older people.
“I lived with my grandmother in Hertfordshire until the Second World War finished. I remember air raid sirens and practicing putting our gas masks on under the dining room table, and then I remember victory in Europe and the news announcer declaring the end of the war on the radio. As a Jewish family, it meant so much to us. The only reason I am here today is that I was fortunate enough to be born in Britain. I never forget that.
I was very lucky that my parents never just wanted me to get married. In fact, my mother thought babies would be a good idea, but she wasn’t too sure about having a son-in-law! They had ambitions for me and they expected me to have a career. Even the school I went to drilled into us that women had fought for the vote. It gave us a sense of responsibility.
I went to university in Oxford and was recruited into the BBC afterwards as a sound engineer. One of my tasks was to produce the sound of a falling body and unfortunately, the best way to do that is to fall over. I had a meticulous producer who didn’t feel I produced the right sound until I’d done it five times. So the final time I got up, limped to my office and resigned.
I was then out of work for six months and that was really important, because once that has happened to you, you never want it to happen again. I spent longer and longer in bed. In the end, I wrote to the mother of someone I knew at Oxford. Her name was Joanna Spicer and she was very senior at the BBC. She regarded it as her mission to smuggle women into jobs there. A lot of us owe our careers to her.
There were barriers though, being a woman. I was a researcher for some time, getting glowing reports, but my boss told me he didn’t think I’d ever have the makings of a producer. I believe it was directly related to me being female. But if I can’t get over something, I get around it. I listened, nodded and went to work for someone else who immediately gave me a job as a director and then as a producer and a presenter, which I did for 25 years. It’s not sensible to say no to me. If you have a willing horse, you don’t drag it backwards, you steer it.
I think the situation with women in TV is improving now, but not quickly enough. Find me an older woman who reads the news. Ageism is everywhere, though, not just on TV. Fashion shoots stop at 55, if you’re lucky. Surveys and studies tend to end at around age 65, as though life and opinion stops then. The way the media treats older people is often negative, too. They report older people as bed blockers in hospitals. But why is that? It’s because there isn’t enough appropriate housing for them so that they can go home from hospital and stay safe.
My mother and her three sisters all did charitable work of some kind and I inherited that. I started when I was 13 or 14 and it slowly became more structured, culminating in me starting Childline in 1986. Yesterday, I was at a conference and two people who had used the service as children explained why they owe their lives to it. It’s unbelievably rewarding.
More recently I started The Silver Line, a helpline for older people in the UK. Loneliness affects all ages; the problem is, as you get older, you start to lose people that are the props of your life. I have lost the friend I always used to go for walks with, the friend I used to go to the theatre with, and of course my husband and my parents. When you lose people that matter so much to you, you realise that loneliness is actually about loss. There’s a terrific definition of it, which definitely applied to me after I lost my husband Desmond. It goes, ‘loneliness is having plenty of people to do something with, but nobody to do nothing with.’ People have suggested dating again and I always say never say never but I haven’t met anyone who might even be a possibility.
I met Desi when I was 27 and I was 37 when I married him. On my wedding morning, I said, ‘Desmond, we’ve only known each other ten years, I’m only 37 and I’m only 8 months pregnant, we’re rushing this.’ I had never panicked about missing the boat. It’s quite fun having children later in life – you’ve got your work ambitions out of the way and you don’t wish you could go out to dinner more often – you’ve done all of that. What you haven’t done is had babies.
My 16 year-old self would be very surprised that things have turned out so well for me. I’ve had all sorts of luck; luck to have parents who had dreams for me, but didn’t set punishingly high standards. Luck finding a husband who was my soulmate and then yet more luck having three children who are funny and loving and caring. And now five grandchildren who lift my spirits and make me so happy.
My life motto is a quotation from Rabbi Hillel. It goes, ‘If I am not for me, who will be? If I am only for me, what am I? If not now, when?’”
The Silver Line is looking for volunteers. Visit www.thesilverline.org.uk to find out more