Esther Rantzen: ‘People will accuse me of being the nation’s nanny - not meaning Mary Poppins’
- Credit: Dame Esther Rantzen
For the first episode of the Ham&High Podcast, Dame Esther Rantzen speaks about Hampstead life, turning 80, the role of journalism and her concern about how we treat aspiring young sports stars.
Dame Esther Rantzen has spent lockdown away from Hampstead at her house in the New Forest, and despite one of its shortcomings being that it is “hell for the internet”, the Ham&High Podcast managed to speak to her via a Zoom video chat.
The broadcaster turned 80 last month and said she has been missing north Londoners.
“I have a little group of friends - we call ourselves the ‘Hamsters’ because we live in Hampstead,” she said. “We meet once a month, well, now we’re meeting once a week.
“Then it was in a Hampstead restaurant around a table, now it’s via Zoom and I do miss them, and we have a lot of fun. Some of them are theatricals - as you can imagine, it being Hampstead - and therefore they have an almost endless supply of wonderful anecdotes that they tell really well.”
Certain subjects are off limits though.
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“I make the rules and I don’t like it when we fall out so we’re not allowed to talk about Brexit, of course; we’re not allowed to talk about Harry and Meghan - that produces passionate views, pro and anti which is strange.
“We have very different approaches to the lockdown. I don’t think I’m breaking confidentiality if I say that Stanley Johnson is one of our members and of his many skills, being present in one place is not one of them.
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“In fact turn around and he’s waving at you from Greece, when there weren’t any direct flights he got there via Bulgaria.”
For more than 20 years, Dame Esther hosted That’s Life! on BBC One reaching audiences of more than 20 million at the show’s peak.
“One of the things we did - which I suppose was a bit unjournalistic of us - was we didn’t just look at the problem, we tried to find a solution. We always ask that question: ‘Could it be solved, could it be done better? If so, how?’”
In 1986, off the back of work with That’s Life!, Dame Esther founded the charity Childline and in 2012 she launched The Silver Line to provide information, friendship and advice to older people.
Both have faced new challenges during the pandemic. The Silver Line has seen calls increase by nearly a third.
“This was a challenge for us because at the same time we had to find a way of working safely distanced from each other which meant that quite a lot of our team are working from home,” she said.
“That means we are asking them to do longer shifts, more shifts, and they are rising to the challenge.”
One of Dame Esther’s current concerns is the treatment of aspiring young sports stars. She said someone approached her years ago about the “bullying and abuse” in gymnastics.
“And I’m equally worried about children who play rugby, children who are talent scouted for football, children who take part in ballet,” she said.
“You know, if God had intended us to stand on our big toes he would have given us hooves like horses.”
She believes the prize of success is so great that people are willing “to see their child put through the most horrific ordeals while they’re training”.
“If you take a talented boy who shows footballing skills and is scouted by one of the big teams and brought into an academy - the thrill of it all, the glory of it all - and then if he’s not good enough at the age of 14 or 15 and dumped - the mental health issues that those children suffer,” she said.
“And that’s not counting the fact that this constant training can lead to terrible damage in later years - arthritis and so on.”
She continued: “People will accuse me of being ‘the nation’s nanny’, not meaning it kindly, not meaning Mary Poppins. And I know what they mean.
“You want children to be able to express their talent - it gives them huge pleasure. But I do worry about the intensity of the training we put on all young people who want to enter the professional field.
“I think that the child protection agencies need really to have a look at this, seriously.”
Childline is at www.childline.org.uk or on 0800 1111. The Silver Line can be reached via www.thesilverline.org.uk or on 0800 4 70 80 90.
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