Esther: behind the tough TV professional – the still grieving widow

Esther in her cottage garden. Photo Hattie Miles
Esther in her cottage garden. Photo Hattie Miles

The ever-complex character who is Esther Rantzen is the latest guest on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories this evening (9.00pm ITV).  She will talk about That’s Life! – the groundbreaking programme which turned over dodgy businesses and made fun out of rude-shaped vegetables and talking dogs along the way. It was pioneering telly – part consumer affairs and part topical entertainment – and it made her a household name.

Also up for discussion are her charity ChildLine and inevitably the loathsome Jimmy Savile. Rantzen of course like everyone else who worked at the BBC, or so it would seem, thought Savile was a decidedly strange, perhaps rather unsavoury character but crucially didn’t actually realise just how evil he was.

Rantzen will also talk about her affair and subsequent marriage to documentary-maker and producer the late Desmond Wilcox. This is where viewers are likely to catch a glimpse of the real Esther Rantzen. Not the tough Tv professional but the sad, rather vulnerable widow.

I talked at length with Esther at her country cottage last summer in preparation for a magazine feature I was writing. Together with ‘Desi’ she had bought the idyllic Victorian property deep in the Hampshire countryside nearly 30 years earlier. It offered somewhere to escape the pressures of city life and a healthy environment in which to bring up their young family.

Esther still spends many weekend there but the beauty and tranquility of the cottage and its garden cannot dull the grief she has suffered since Desmond Wilcox died 13 years ago.

She has planted a grove on top of a nearby hill – alive with buttercups during my visit – dedicated to his memory. Sitting there looking back across her picture-perfect two acre estate with the roof of her cottage peeping through the trees, Esther told me the memories of what used to be are sometimes just too much.

Her first grandchild was imminent as we spoke and in  many ways the arrival of a new baby in the family offered a chance renewed purpose for Esther and her country bolthole.

Esther on Desi's Hill Photo by Hattie Miles
Esther on Desi’s Hill. Photo by Hattie Miles

She’d already been excitedly telling me about how she saw the garden once more becoming a nature playground for little feet and how she was putting up safety gates and planning for the future. But there was still the shadow, the bleakness of life without the man she loved.

She gestured to the buttercup hill: “When I was sitting there last night I just knew that Desie should be sitting beside me wearing a battered straw hat with a glass of cool beer in his hand and we should have been contentedly planning the week ahead, talking about the kids and our new grandchild. It got too much for me. I had to go see a friend and we had a barbecue. I just couldn’t sit there any longer. It was too painful.”

She is philosphical about living with her grief. When I suggested that  the garden and Desie’s grove must be a comfort to her she fixed me with a knowing stare. “Not in the slightest,” she said firmly. “There was a whole year when I couldn’t visit at all because I saw him everywhere.  Now I’m getting used to it a bit and I think with a new grandchild it might be a little easier.” I wonder. I hope so!

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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