Esther Rantzen: 'My mother had Prince Charles in mind for me'

Esther Rantzen
Esther Rantzen Credit: Rex Features

We asked the broadcaster, 76, what her younger self would make of her today...

You can always spot a seven-year-old because they lose their front teeth. The seven-year-old me would be relieved to see I had all mine now. I seem to remember she was rather jolly. She loved her younger sister, Scilla, and they used to play lots of good games together. Suburban life in Hertfordshire was very secure and happy, looking back. We’d catch butterflies in the hollyhocks with our shrimping nets and mark our neighbours’ gardens out of 10. Another great game was pretending to speak in a foreign language, so as to fascinate passers-by.

I’m sure my childhood had a big impact on how I turned out. A lot of my contemporaries who were girls had only one ambition: to get married and have children. My parents were extraordinarily gender-blind for the times and they wanted my sister and me to get an education, go to university and have careers. Looking back I now see that was unusual.

Rantzen as a child

Certain habits were ingrained from a young age, however. My mother tells me that when I was 18 months old I used to wink at strangers from the pram. I don’t feel I’ve changed at all, although I’m better at looking after houseplants now than I used to be and my language is a lot worse. I didn’t hear the F-word until I went to university [Rantzen studied English at Oxford]. But now I’ve got grandchildren I have reverted to the age of two, which I think may be my natural age.

As a child I didn’t think about my future at all. I went to a small private boarding school where the head teacher was a sadist. She used to like making little girls cry and if she summoned you into her study you knew that the sooner you cried the sooner you’d be allowed to leave. I was quite stubborn and wouldn’t cry for ages. So when I turned eight and went to North London Collegiate School with a headmistress who was accessible, chatty, warm and a brilliant teacher, that was a great liberation and taught me never to give up hope.

Now should probably be the happiest time of my life. The problem is not having Desi around

I haven’t really planned anything in life. My first job was as an assistant to the arts buyer in an advertising agency that was owned by a member of my extended family. I don’t think it was particularly useful to learn that if you wanted to read the paper in the office you’d prop it in a drawer so that if the boss walked in you could shut it with your knee – but the job did teach me about typefaces and printing firms and that was very useful.

After university I went to see the BBC purely because they were recruiting people. It would have surprised me a lot to discover that I’d become well-known through presenting shows like That’s Life! and The Big Time.      I assumed when I was doing a bit of acting and performing at university that it would be my last opportunity. I never thought I was any good at it.

My mother always had Prince Charles in mind for me to marry but I’m quite a bit older than him so I’m not sure that would have worked… among other reasons.

The Jewish Chronicle interviewed me when I was 29 and asked why I’d never married, and I thought “is it too late?” It simply hadn’t been on my agenda.

Now should probably be the happiest time of my life, what with my children and grandchildren flourishing. The problem is not having Desi around [Rantzen’s husband Desmond Wilcox died in 2000]. And the trouble with before my husband died is that my older daughter wasn’t well [Emily suffered from chronic fatigue, ME, for 14 years], so that was a tough time too. You can never be happier than your least happy child.

Rantzen with her late husband, Desmond Wilcox Credit: RICHARD YOUNG/REX/Shutterstock

There are loads of things I’m sure my younger self would have wished I’d done differently but all the mistakes have helped me learn something.

Even standing for Parliament as an independent candidate in the 2010 general election and losing my deposit, which was really quite expensive, taught me a few things: it was while I was out canvassing, for instance, that I learnt quite how many people open the door naked.

I think the young me would be happy to know that I’d get one or two good ideas along the way as well. I wish she could see Childline and the Silver Line, and know that they would give back to her so much more than she could ever give.

Interview by Olivia Parker

Make Do and Send: Nostalgic Notes on Fifteen Years of Rationing in Britain by Esther Rantzen is published by Gibson Square (£9.99). To order your copy plus p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk