Country life: Esther lives in the New Forest
Journalist, campaigner and TV presenter Dame Esther Rantzen would increase wages for care workers if she were made 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.
Now 81, she lives in a six-bedroom home in the New Forest, Hampshire, and tells Donna Ferguson the one luxury she likes to treat herself to are chocolate eclairs from Marks and Spencer. Her husband Desmond Willcox died in 2000.
What did your parents teach you about money?
That it was rude to discuss it. They had strong views about what it was rude to talk about. You didn’t talk about food, sex or money. You might wonder what else there was to talk about. My father was an electrical engineer who worked for the BBC and then the United Nations.
My mother was involved in voluntary work. We were middle class. We didn’t have lavish holidays, my father had a second-hand car and from time to time, they worried about money. They taught me to look after my savings and make sure I could pay my tax bill.
Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?
No. I think I’ve been 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. Once I became established, I was able to move out and still live within my means.
Have you ever been paid silly money?
No. I was once offered a blank cheque by the News of the World. It wanted to interrogate me about my private life. It was kind of them to be interested, but I turned them down.
What was the best financial year of your life?
I haven’t the slightest idea. I suppose it must have been during the 1970s or 1980s when That’s Life! was popular. At one point, I turned down £1million to move from the BBC to ITV. And if you want to know what it’s like to turn down a million pounds, you feel stupid.
But I didn’t want to leave the programme. We were changing people’s lives for the better and having a lot of fun. It was the BBC’s most popular programme and I was producing, presenting and writing it.
People sometimes ask me whether I got equal pay with the men on the programme. No, I didn’t. I was paid more than them. But if you look at what I was paid per viewer, I was value for money.
What is the most expensive thing you have bought for fun?
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. I think it cost my husband his entire pension which he took as a lump sum. We went to magical places, including Bali, India, Hawaii and Australia.
The best money decision you have made?
To fall in love with a house we couldn’t afford in the heart of Hampstead, North London, in the 1980s. We bought it despite that, and for a while every penny we made went into paying off the mortgage.
I remember The Sun ran a newspaper headline ‘Million-pound semi for Esther and it doesn’t even have a garage.’ I don’t think it cost quite as much as they said, but there was some truth in that headline. Anyway, it proved a good investment. By the time I sold it in 2011, it had risen significantly in value.
Do you save into a pension?
Not any more but I used to from the age of about 25. I must have saved into it for 40 years. My view is: you can never tell what’s around the corner. I never want to cause my children anxiety about how they can afford my care.
Do you invest directly in the stock market?
Around 2000, I bought shares in M&S because I was so furious about the bad publicity it was getting. I found the process quite complicated and I’ve never bought any shares since.
Do you own any property?
Yes my home. It’s a six-bedroom cottage in the New Forest with a garden I’m very fond of. 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.
Now it’s my only home and it’s lovely. Immediately after Desmond died, I couldn’t come here because I saw him everywhere. It’s full of memories – and mice. I caught two yesterday and one this morning. I’m not interested in how much it’s worth. I’m not planning on ever selling it. It will be for my children when I fall off my perch.
Happy memories: Esther with her co-presenters on That’s Life! in the 1980s
What is the one luxury you treat yourself to?
Chocolate eclairs once a week. 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 think I may be in denial about money.
If you were Chancellor, what is the first thing you would do?
I would pay people who look after children, disabled people and the elderly in care homes enough for them to feel valued. In my opinion, they are not paid enough at the moment.
They do a crucial job and should be well paid for it. It became clear during the pandemic just how much we rely on them.
How much did it cost you, personally, to set up Childline?
I had a friend who wonderfully underwrote it, so setting it up wasn’t a huge financial expense for me personally. 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. At the time, I didn’t see it as a financial or a career decision.
It was just an idea that took hold of me and I had to run with it. Over the past 35 years, 5.5million children have been helped by Childline and I feel so lucky that generations of volunteers and staff have turned it into a crucial part of the British way of life.
What is your number one financial priority?
To make sure my children and grandchildren are OK. If my kids need money to spend on their children’s health or education, I want to make sure that I have enough put by to help them.
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