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One of the most important new faces in British television in 1973 was Esther Rantzen’s. Her giant gnashers became the teeth of television and, as the consumer watchdog for millions, she needed their bite and used it more and more on tricksters and charlatans.
What came out of her mouth over the 21-years of That’s Life was a great deal of sound sense and sincere concern – if you could stand the schmaltz and poor puns.
Esther presided over a succession of lap-dog males who sat behind desks on the stage and brightly reported back to Big Sister on their investigations.
The shows were recorded so close to transmission that there was no time to edit out any but the most serious mistakes, which added a near-live edge of excitement.
That’s Life loved animals – and not only dogs who could say “sausages”. Esther once tried to investigate ‘Scent-Off’ pellets, claimed by the manufacturer to dispatch any hound which sniffed them.
A viewer had reported that her dog, far from being repelled, had liked the pellets so much he’d eaten them all.
Esther arranged for a dozen assorted dogs with their owners to come into the studio to test them. There was chaos.
A large Airedale took a passionate interest in a Yorkshire terrier and pursued it around the studio. Two others fought, while another decided to cock its leg up by the pot-plant next to Esther’s chair.
The scent on the plant encouraged others to follow suit. Esther had to get help to remove the dogs so that she could carry on with the show.
As Esther produced three children and became a famous working mother, she championed more children’s causes.
Ben Hardwicke, a toddler with liver disease, became the focus for Esther’s campaign for child organ donors. In 1986 she began publicising a help-line for children suffering sexual and other abuse.
Strangely, viewers responded to such life-and-death heart-breaking subjects, wedged as they often were between tax inspectors gargling to music and racing bunny rabbits.
That’s Life was always in the BBC’s Top Ten, and by the late 80s, its peculiar mix of pranks and preaching had made Esther Rantzen (the surname translates as ‘old bag’) the most authoritative woman in British broadcasting.