Country living: Esther lives and works in the New Forest
Television presenter, journalist and campaigner Dame Esther Rantzen believes that higher wages would be available to care workers if elected as Chancellor.
Rantzen, who founded charities Childline and The Silver Line – a helpline for elderly people struggling with loneliness – presented the BBC TV series That’s Life! For 21 years.
She is now 81 and lives in six bedrooms in New Forest, Hampshire. Donna Ferguson asked her about the luxury that she loves to indulge in: Marks and Spencer chocolate eclairs. In 2000, her husband Desmond Willcox passed away.
How did you learn about money from your parents?
They thought it rude to speak about the matter. There were strong opinions about the appropriate topics to discuss. It was forbidden to discuss money, sex, or food. It’s possible you might be wondering what other topics there were. My father was an engineer, and he worked at the BBC as well as the United Nations. Volunteer work was something my mother did. We were middle class. My father owned a used car, and we didn’t take extravagant holidays. They also worried about money from time to time. They showed me how to take care of my finances and ensure I can pay my tax bill.
Are you a person who has ever had to struggle just making ends meet?
No. Yes, I feel lucky. I lived at home with my parents until I was nearly 30 which was unusual in those days. So bless their hearts, my parents picked up all the overheads – which was useful, because I didn’t earn much early in my career. When I got established I was able live independently and move on to other things.
Are you a victim of shaming money?
No. The News of the World once gave me a blank check. The News of the World wanted to interview me about my private life. They were very kind to ask me about my private life, so I declined.
Which was your best financial year?
It’s not something I can even imagine. This must have taken place during The 1970s and 1980s, when There’s Life was popular. ITV was very popular. At one point, I turned down £1million to move from the BBC to ITV. If you don’t want to feel dumb, then you can read my story.
The programme was my life and I couldn’t imagine leaving it. The programme was changing lives and had a lot fun. This was BBC’s most viewed programme, and it was my responsibility to produce, present and write the program.
Sometimes, people want to know if my pay was the same as that of the other men who were on the programme. My answer was no. Their salaries were higher than mine. But, when you compare what I received per viewer, you will see that I was worth it.
Which is your most costly purchase for pleasure?
I’m boring with money – I don’t spend lavishly on expensive cars and designer watches. So it would have been a trip around the world with my husband Desmond Willcox and our three children for my 50th birthday in 1990. It cost me my husband’s entire pension, which he received as a lump sum. The trip took us to exotic places like Bali, India and Hawaii.
What is the best financial decision you’ve ever made?
We fell in love in 1980s with a house in Hampstead that we couldn’t afford. We purchased it regardless of that fact, and every penny earned over the years went to paying down our mortgage. The Sun headlined the semi-truck Esther with a million pounds and said that it didn’t have a garage. It didn’t cost as much as they stated, though I think there was truth to the headline. However, I think it was a smart investment. The value of the property had increased significantly by 2011 when I sold it.
Are you saving for a retirement?
It’s not possible anymore, but it was something I did from about age 25. I must have saved into it for 40 years. You can’t predict what is around the corner. My children should not be anxious about their ability to pay for my services.
Are you a direct investor in the stock exchange?
Around 2000, I bought shares in M&S because I was so furious about the bad publicity it was getting. It was a complicated process that I didn’t like and I never bought shares again.
Is there any property you are interested in?
My home is yes. The cottage is a New Forest six-bedroom home with an amazing garden. My husband and I bought it for £117,000 35 years ago as a second home because we knew the children would love it, and they did.
This is my sole home now and it’s beautiful. Desmond passed away in December. I didn’t want to go here immediately after he died. I had seen him all over. It’s full of memories – and mice. Yesterday, I caught one and this morning, the other two. The price it is worth to me is irrelevant. I don’t plan on selling it. When I get off my perch, it will be my children’s.
Happi memories: Esther, her co-presenters at That’s Life! In the 1980s
Do you have one luxury that you would love to enjoy?
Once a week, chocolate eclairs. I get them from M&S and I don’t know how much they cost because I pay my bills with my eyes shut. Sometimes, I feel like I’m in denial of money.
Which is your first thought if you were to become Chancellor
People who care for children and elderly people in care homes would be paid enough to make them feel appreciated. They aren’t being paid enough, in my opinion.
Their work is vital and their salaries should reflect that. The pandemic demonstrated just how dependent we are on them.
Is it possible to estimate the cost of setting up Childline for you personally?
My friend was a great underwriter so it wasn’t an expensive expense. But it has been my absorbing passion for 35 years, so it was certainly an expensive and challenging decision in terms of my time – and I’m still completely involved with Childline and The Silver Line. It was not a decision I made for my career or financial gain at the time.
The idea was simple and it became my life-long dream. Childline has been helping 5.5million children for 35 years. It is a wonderful organization that many generations of staff and volunteers have transformed into an integral part of British life.
Which financial goal is the most important to you?
I want to make sure that my grandchildren and children are safe. To ensure that my children have the money they need to support their education and health.