Esther Rantzen interview: ‘There’s nothing more important than protecting our children’

Dame Esther Rantzen in the News Letter offices in Belfast talking to journalist Laura McMullan
Dame Esther Rantzen in the News Letter offices in Belfast talking to journalist Laura McMullan

She is slight in stature – much tinier than she appears on the television – and impeccably turned out, with a long, flowing coat and striking red nails.

I’m waiting for a flash of that trademark wide smile, but when it comes to early mornings, Dame Esther Rantzen is like the rest of us – tea first, and then talk.

“Tell me,” she says, her soft, precise tones of received pronunciation. “Might it be too much trouble to get a cup of tea?”

It’s no trouble at all for a woman who has devoted most of her life to helping children and giving them a voice; in 1986 the broadcasting household name (she shot to fame after presenting magazine-style television show That’s Life!) set up ChildLine, the free 24-hour counselling service for children and young people affected by serious and tragic issues, such as abuse, bullying, pregnancy and much more.

She remains president of the organisation, which has helped over four million children since it was launched, and a trustee of the NSPCC, the organisation which now provides the service.

She is also president and a trustee of The Silver Line – a similar helpline set up in 2012/23 for older people who face loneliness and isolation – and is a patron of a variety of hospices and charities for children and disabled people.

The mother of three and grandmother of three (her late husband was renowned documentary maker and producer Desmond Wilcox, who passed away at the age of 69 in 2000, after suffering a heart attack) arrived in the Province at the beginning of this week, where she began a round of duties to mark the massive milestone that is the third decade of the existence of such an important service as ChildLine.

And for Esther, it is, she tells me, “a wonderful opportunity to thank everyone who has made it possible”.

The whole concept was her idea, and it was her drive and determination that ensured it came to fruition, but she’s not one for self-congratulation.

“Although I sometimes get the credit for it, actually, to help over four million children, to have 12 bases around the UK, two of which are in Northern Ireland, means there have been generations of staff and volunteers who are so passionately committed to our work that they have dedicated themselves to protecting children who had nowhere else to turn.

“So this visit gives me an opportunity to go round, as I have been doing in Belfast, and thank people.”

She reveals that she has also shared some of the messages she has received from adults who themselves rang ChildLine as children with the volunteers to highlight what she terms as “the legacy of ChildLine”.

“After 30 years, we now have a solid record, and what has happened, and what the end of the story has been, is that our volunteer counsellors really very seldom know what happens to a child once they’ve helped them – but these emails are coming through to me, from teachers, social workers, youth workers.

“There is an upward spiral that nobody talks about which is that if a child is helped effectively at the time they need it most, they never forget it, and they want to pass that on to other children.

“My daughters say saved children save other children, so it’s really good news for everyone working in child protection, in that it’s not just the child in front of you, or the child on the phone that you are helping, it may be generations of future children. It is a legacy. It’s wonderful.”

On Monday, Esther enjoyed a birthday event at Stormont: “It was all very grand with the biggest birthday cake I have even seen – and the most delicious. There are fantastic bakers here in Northern Ireland, and the bread is amazing!”

But she reveals that she intends to take full advantage of the milestone, and “spend the next year raising awareness”.

I ask her if she ever believed ChildLine would be as successful as it has been.

“I think I’ve got a very limited brain,” she says, her wonderfully dry sense of humour creeping in. “So I don’t try and predict anything. I also have this great genetic inheritance from my father of selected deafness.

“When people told me that this was a necessary service that people would use, I heard that. When they told me that it would be impossible to actually set up, I somehow didn’t hear that.”

The roots of ChildLine can be traced back to the Childwatch programme which was screened in October 1986, which was aimed at finding better ways of detecting children at risk of abuse.

Viewers of That’s Life! who had themselves experienced cruelty as children were asked to take part in a survey detailing the circumstances of their abuse.

Esther says: “But That’s Life! had talking dogs and horses and a cat that played ping pong, so there were also a lot of children watched it. And it occurred to me that we might have children in our audience who were suffering now.”

And so the producers said that the helplines were also open for children. It was open for just 24 hours, and was swamped with calls from children, disclosing stories of abuse, experiences they had never told anyone before.

“I believe it’s called a lightbulb moment,” says Esther, her voice dropping.

“I stood there in our office and I thought, this is more important than anything I’ve ever done in my life before, and maybe if we could keep a helpline open 24/7, more children will be able to access help.”

She and her team eventually managed to secure a free number from BT which would serve as that all-important number.

“I went to BT and said, ‘I need a number that the youngest child will remember.’ They gave us 0800 11 11, which had been an engineering testline, and is the only phone number that has remained entirely unchanged for 30 years.”

One can’t help but wonder from where this heartfelt desire comes to help children who are suffering, and who need a voice.

Esther’s huge eyes are filled with emotion as she replies.

“Lady Thatcher once said to me, ‘nothing is more important than protecting children from abuse. Nothing’.

“And she’s right. She gave us a reception at Number 10 when we were brand new and she helped put us on the map because it was actually on her personal agenda. I didn’t agree with her on everything, but I did on this.”

She adds: “I have three children and three grandsons, and they are the light of my life. I grew up in a family where children were always put first, children were regarded as precious, to be protected and to be nurtured. I still feel that if you walk into a room and there’s a child in it, it’s like the sun coming up.”

The Silver Line is, to put it in its crudest sense, the equivalent counselling service for older people who are facing and struggling to cope with loneliness in their lives.

Esther explains that she realised that admitting you were lonely in your twilight years “had a stigma”, in the way that many children were afraid to speak out about abuse because they feared it too had a stigma.

“Because I wrote about my feelings, a close friend said, ‘how could you write like that Esther, haven’t you got too much pride?’” she reveals.

“I suddenly thought when I was talking to a group of charities, if ChildLine was the answer to breaking through the stigma of abuse, maybe we could set up a helpline that would help break through this other stigma of loneliness?

“And when I asked the experts, this time, instead of saying it would be impossible to do, they said – do it!”

Esther and her crew went on what she described as a “fact finding year”, visiting both the north and south of Ireland as part of that tour. She reveals that what she has since discovered in terms of the popularity of the Silver Line here in Northern Ireland to be quite surprising.

“We have had fewer calls per head of population here than anywhere else in the UK. Is it because older people in NI have more families? More church congregations? More support? Are they less lonely?

“Or it is that they don’t think about the Silver Line and they don’t know it’s there. So we’re going to come back in the summer and do a bit of a campaign with Age NI and work to spread awareness.”

You can call the Silver Line on 0800 4 70 80 90, and ChildLine on 0800 11 11.