On the line

Liz Nicholls

Esther Rantzen

Liz Nicholls chats to Dame Esther Rantzen, 78, patron of Silverline and Childline, about life, loneliness and love

Q. What would be a helpful change for youngsters’ mental health?
“Families should have a big basket by the door and, as each person walks in, drop their mobile phone in. For the next three hours they all talk, eat, laugh, watch television, whatever. But it’s not easy; I’m a phone addict myself. For young people not to have real conversations with people they love is terrible. The artificial pictures created by social media and virtual friendships, which can turn into cyber-bullying or online grooming, are harmful. I’m not saying all families are perfect but I think tech-free family time can boost self esteem.”

Q. Are older people lonelier today than previously?
“Yes. Extended families live together less than they used to, and are dotted further apart. Technology is supposed to bring us closer but quite a lot of older people feel uncomfortable with it. Most Silverline callers call us because they’re lonely, often in the evening to say goodnight to someone as they haven’t spoken to anyone for days or weeks. We offer friendship calls on a regular basis and much more support and are urgently looking for more volunteers.”

Q. Do you get hassled much and what’s the weirdest fan mail you’ve had?
“I don’t think of it as ‘hassle’ – I never mind posing for a selfie. People who dislike me avoid me, I suppose! A group of lads from Scotland once wrote to me asking if I’d send a photo of myself in black suspenders. I didn’t reply, no. I remember when I started on television the producers used to laugh at the letters I had from gentlemen over 60; I was a pensioners’ pin-up. Now I’m a pensioner myself and I don’t get any.”

Q. Did you enjoy your time at Oxford?
“I loved it. I think you can be at your happiest and at your most unhappy at university because you’re in that volatile stage in your life and, of course, you have exams upon which your future depends. You have time to indulge in your favourite hobbies but you have to be quite resilient. I’ve got friends who live in Oxford and I’m very proud of being an honorary fellow of Somerville. I love wandering around the colleges, especially in spring and summer. And of course, going for a punt on the river with some white wine on a piece of string. You must do that!”

Q. What is the most surprising lesson from motherhood?
“What an appalling grandmother I am! I can’t say ‘no’, I spoil them rotten which my children hate. Being a granny is quite wonderful.”

Q. Where’s your favourite place to visit?
“There’s a beautiful rose garden at Mottisfont which I absolutely adore. They’ve got lovely herbaceous borders at this time of year.”

Q. What do you eat?
“Practically everything except chilli and pork – neither of which I like. I hardly ever drink alcohol – it doesn’t agree with me. I eat lots of fruit and whatever else comes my way.”

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
“My mother always said things will look much better in the morning, and they do. And my late husband Desmond used to say ‘never let the sun go down on your wrath’ when I tried to sulk.”

Q. What’s your abiding memory of George Michael?
“I had lunch with him to thank him for his fabulously generous donations to Childline, which he wanted to keep secret. He was a fantastic, talented human being; it’s a huge loss. His music was background to some of my best times. My favourite hit has to be Jesus to a Child – George donated all of its royalties to the charity.”