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Esther Rantzen: That’s Life

at Gilded Balloon Teviot

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Broadcasting legend in conversation with daughter Rebecca Wilcox reliving her career, family life and what it’s like being Rantzen’s daughter

Image of Esther Rantzen: That’s Life

In an hour of pure showbiz nostalgia that’s a joy to hear, broadcasting legend Dame Esther Rantzen and her daughter, journalist Rebecca Wilcox, discuss careers, family life and what it’s like being Rantzen’s daughter. 

In a show-format made popular by Parkinson for over 20 years, and which has become popular at the Fringe, with the likes of Nicholas Parson’s Happy Hour and Fred MacAulay in Conversation doing it so well, this format translates well for a Fringe audience. It’s an opportunity for them to get close up and personal and “hear from the horse’s mouth”, as Wilcox says but is quick to point out “is a line her mother wrote” before we think she’s being rude.

Looking fabulous at 78 years, Rantzen is dressed in an elegant black dress and striking taffeta silk jacket with red shoes. The interview starts well with a short film of fellow broadcasters, friends and past colleagues marvelling at all she’s achieved, including getting herself a criminal record, courtesy of Police Constable A. Herbert, who arrested her for blocking the pavement while filming members of the public eating “bat stew” – it’s was more a case of “Bat’s Life then That’s Life“.

Daughter Wilcox may be an accomplished journalist with a script but it’s apparent early on that there’s no way her mother is going to stick to it. She lets Rantzen run with everything she has to say, at times trying to bring it back on cue admirably and for a second or two succeeding before her mother is off on another tangent. It’s rather endearing.

Two subjects are off limits Rantzen tells us – “Brexit, as it will end in fisticuffs” and “sex because it’ll make you sick in a bucket” she says to her daughter, sparing her daughter’s blushes, saying to Wilcox, “as of course, your parents never had sex”. Wilcox does remind her mother that even on her wedding day, Rantzen managed to embarrass her in the mother of the bride’s speech (as Desmond Wilcox had died by then) by telling the assembled guests that her daughter has been conceived in Mykonos. It’s clear who has the upper hand.

Using montage of photographs and videos to illustrate her accomplished career, the show is a whistle-stop tour of the past 50 years including all that this doyenne of broadcasting has achieved. There’s really not much this admirable lady hasn’t achieved: being the author of five books; starting up Childline, a charity which has helped over 4.5 million abused children in its 25 years; more recently Silverline, a helpline aiming to end loneliness for older people which has recently taken its 2 millionth call after four years; retracing her family’s past history on Who Do You Think You Are?; starring in Strictly Come Dancing and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

There’s also video footage to help illustrate the key moments from That’s Life which ran for 21 years before being axed: the little talking dog Prince who could say sausages; rude veg; the many campaigns the programme raised including seatbelts for children and safe surfaces in playgrounds; and Ben Hardwick, who thanks to That’s Life, received a liver transplant. The story though that moved many of the audience, including Rantzen, was the footage of Sir Nicholas Winton, a British humanitarian who organised the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport.

It’s no wonder that Rantzen has been awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting, a CBE for services to children and a DBE for services to children and older people, an honour she shared with Dame Joan Collins, and one of her favourite people she has interviewed.              

There is the opportunity for the audience to ask questions but Rantzen has so much to say that there’s only time for two questions. Unless they get roving mics for the next shows, this could be cut from the show. It’s nonetheless a joyous hour of entertainment, stories and good old-fashioned chat from someone who has done and achieved so much. If every one of us could achieve just a fraction of what she has, the world would be a much better place.