A young BBC trainee was sent, in the late 1970s, to film an Edinburgh dog that was reputed to sing along to his master’s bagpipes. “But,” he recalls, “the film crew set up, the guy in a kilt started playing, and the dog didn’t sing at all. It just sat there.”
The fledging director was Adam Curtis, who recently won his fourth Bafta, for Russia 1985-99: TraumaZone. Back then, he was a junior in the Talented Pets section of That’s Life!, a BBC One series run by Esther Rantzen, a noted perfectionist with total control of a show that was first broadcast 50 years ago this spring and had 15-20 million viewers.
Curtis worried the silent canine meant the end of his career. “I rang Esther and said, ‘He’s not singing!’ And Esther said, ‘Darling’ – it was always in that theatrical way – ‘Darling, that’s brilliant! Just keep filming!’ So I took various shots of a dog sitting silently next to a man playing the bagpipes incredibly loudly in his front room. I took the footage back and Esther – she always did the editing – turned it into a three-minute film of a dog doing nothing while this guy piped away with increasing desperation. And it was incredibly funny.”
In between amusing animals, though, Curtis could find himself working on “stories about housing estates collapsing because councils had taken bribes to build on brownfield sites”. This mix of reporting and chortling was central from the start. “I had been brought up to believe,” says Rantzen, “that mixing comedy and tragedy was a great British tradition. Hence the Porter scene in Macbeth. Taxi drivers used to ask, ‘Is your show meant to be funny or serious?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’” (The 82-year-old revealed this March she had lung cancer “which has spread”, but generously answered my questions.)
When That’s Life! premiered, at 10.25pm on Saturday 26 May (the show later became a Sunday fixture), the Radio Times teased: “When the Council won’t budge, when the Ministry won’t reply, when the Managing Director snubs you, do you say ‘That’s life’ and give up? Or do you turn to this programme: a late-night collection of the jokes, dramas and problems that happen in real life?”
The series ran until 1994, and its creator went on to found the emergency contact services Childline, for abused children, and The Silver Line, helping lonely older people. But that Saturday was the start of everything. “We ‘Lifers’, as graduates call ourselves, remember it as the hardest work we have ever done,” says Rantzen, “but the most rewarding in the sense that we were in constant touch with our viewers, who were telling us exactly what they thought of what we had done, and what they wanted us to do next – 15,000 letters in the days before emails. It was a real partnership with the audience.”
Rantzen had previously been a researcher-reporter on 103 episodes of Braden’s Week, hosted by Canadian consumer champion Bernard Braden. When he became unavailable to the BBC due to opportunities elsewhere, Rantzen, at 32, took over as host, with the credit, rare then and now, of “presenter-producer”.
William Nicholson – now a double Oscar-nominated screenwriter, for Gladiator and Shadowlands – was a trainee on the first series, responsible for Heap of the Week. “Consumers would write in and say they had a product that had badly let them down but they were not getting any response from the manufacturer,” he says. “So they got to destroy it in an emotionally satisfying way. A woman sent in boots that the heels had come off. We took her to a fairground and an all-in wrestler took them into the ring and ripped them to pieces while the young lady and her family leaped up and down in delight.”
Curtis was also the researcher on the show’s most celebrated pet item: a dog that allegedly said “Sausages!” This had a transcontinental spin-off: “After the dog who said ‘Sausages’, someone wrote in about a dog in Australia who could say ‘Scissors’ and ‘Mother’, and they did an international satellite link-up where the dogs would have a conversation.” Curtis approximates canine conversation: “Sausages!” “Mother!” “Sausages!” “Scissors!” “Esther,” he says, “was amazingly good at knowing how to get laughs.”
And tears. One “Dear Esther” letter was about a fraudulent equity release scheme. The handwriting changed halfway through – a daughter was continuing a plea for help started by her father who had killed himself in despair at being conned. Increasingly, between the canines and blown-up toasters, the programme campaigned for organ transplants, rear seatbelts in cars, softer bone-safe surfaces in children’s playgrounds – and an exposé of sexual abuse at a school, which led to the charity Childline.
“Our clout came from the size of our audience,” says Rantzen, “which meant that decision-makers, even prime ministers, knew we were watched by the people they answered to. It helped that Sunday night was the evening MPs were most likely to watch TV.”
Bryher Scudamore, who worked on the show for 14 years, eventually as editor, keeps the That’s Life! archive in her London home, including every typed running order. She also unfurls for me what looks like a sheet of wallpaper for a cartoonists’ rest home. Each week’s credits were drawn to order: the artist Rod Jordan “got sent the script on a Saturday morning. Every picture was hand-drawn and all the credits done in Letraset, to the precise length of the exit music. If we lost an item on the Sunday – for legal reasons, say – he had to stick a new section over. Then it was unwound on rollers in front of the camera.”
The show was recorded to length early on Sunday evening, allowing it to be checked by producers and lawyers. “It was just in case you got a name wrong or put up the wrong photograph. People were very litigious. So we did what were called ‘rock’n’roll edits’, where you went back to where the mistake was on two-inch tape, and then dropped the right thing in. Sometimes you were very close to transmission.”
Watched now, the first edition has a strikingly cabaret feel, with Rantzen in a black velvet evening dress flanked by an onstage band that backed three songs, suggesting a cross between Parkinson (the chat show had started in 1971) and Nationwide, BBC One’s early evening magazine show (since 1969) that would feature a skateboarding duck, something sometimes misattributed to That’s Life! The influence was not accidental: three of the younger show’s early stars – Rantzen, reporter Bob Wellings, and comic songwriter Richard Stilgoe – worked on Nationwide.
Curtis fascinatingly applies to Rantzen the deep cultural analysis familiar from his shows such as The Power of Nightmares: “Esther was part of that political moment of change away from a collective idea of society to the rise of individual rights. That’s Life! was very much part of Thatcherism. Esther wasn’t interested in community action: it was the plucky, preferably funny or peculiar individual who took on a big institution. Although, to be fair to Esther, she didn’t distinguish between state and private bureaucracies.”
On earlier magazine shows, lurches from slight to serious items had popularised the sort of phrase satirised by Monty Python’s Flying Circus as: “And now for something completely different.” That’s Life! wanted to avoid such editorial swerves.
“We started with high-street vox pops,” Rantzen explains. “Then the first consumer item was also light-hearted, to seduce viewers into watching. Next we put a ‘half-hard’ consumer item” – curious coinage, perhaps, in a show otherwise so alert to innuendo – “which led into the centre of the show where we put our most serious reports. The transition out of the most serious – and we did life-and-death issues, so they could be very serious – was usually done via recaps by the reporters, bringing past stories up to date. The last recap was a fun one, so we could finish with talented pets or a live piece of nonsense that meant we could end on laughter. Ruthlessly, I also used to start the show with a pre-title clip of the funniest item from the previous week, to remind viewers of what they missed if they failed to watch us. Serve them right.”
Curtis says: “You know how movies learned to get rid of the transitional shots – people driving a car or walking down a corridor? Now you just cut from a bedroom to a theatre. Esther also got rid of the transitions. There were no ‘links’. She would just cut. She was actually quite modern in how she used television.”
Even the music – from Stilgoe, folk singer Jake Thackray or, in some of her earliest TV appearances, Victoria Wood – was not a diversion but part of the main journey, explains Curtis. “They were asked to report an event from the week, or spin off from an item.” This musical strand led to a regular feature called Get Britain Singing. Rantzen says: “Myself, I only once sang a single note in a hospital – and a patient died!”
The most extreme content shift in the series was from phallic-shaped vegetables held up to camera with a snigger to graphic stories of sexually abused children. “Sadly for Esther,” says Scudamore, “people keep going on about the rude vegetables, which were a small part of the show.” It might have been larger except for a former UK prime minister. Boris Johnson, as a Brussels reporter in the late 80s, specialised in pieces about EU rules making European legumes a uniform shape, reducing the risk of a Brit’s Sunday veg resembling genitals. “As an ardent Remainer,” says Rantzen, “my only gripe against the EU was their ban on wonky parsnips.”
That’s Life!’s most YouTubed item dates from 1988, however, but involved lives saved five decades earlier. Rantzen placed on the desk of junior researcher Katinka Blackford Newman, now an Emmy-nominated documentary-maker, a photograph album found by the wife of a Berkshire stockbroker in their attic. It showed that her husband, Nicholas Winton, had organised trains rescuing 669 Czechoslovakian, mainly Jewish, children from Nazi genocide, finding them British foster families. Blackford Newman explains: “Esther said, ‘I know this isn’t really a That’s Life! sort of story but it could be really amazing if we could track down some children.”
The researcher rang the British Czech and Slovak Association, which turned out to be run by someone Winton had saved, who provided other names. “It was so moving. The first person I spoke to was Vera Gissing, who told me she had been taken by her parents to Prague station and that was the last time she ever saw her family. I will never forget it.”
Winton had never publicised his mission because another attempted rescue train had been thwarted, in his view cancelling out the salvations. So his wife used a pretext to get him to the recording where he discovered he was sitting between two of his refugees. “When he realised why I hadn’t let him sit next to his wife and stopped being angry at me, he became a friend,” says Rantzen. “Those reunions with the people he saved are everywhere on the internet.”
“It was electrifying in the studio,” says Blackford Newman. “And we appealed for others who had been rescued and the phones just kept ringing.” The following Sunday, Rantzen asked any children of the Czech Kindertransport in the audience to rise. Winton slowly turned to see a standing ovation. “It was overwhelming,” says Scudamore. “Not only the survivors but the sense of all their children and their grandchildren that would otherwise not be alive. She was just a very good journalist. She didn’t throw things, she didn’t shout at people.”
She was certainly direct. James Hawes, a former researcher, recalls: “I put forward a film idea once and Esther held the room pin-drop quiet and said, ‘James, darling, you’re not a director and never will be.’ I’ve carried that ever since.”
Curtis’s view is that “she was a ruthless TV executive who had to get a programme out every week. I found the men in the BBC more insidious. She thought she was more charming than she was, perhaps. I was wary of her smile, which usually meant you were going to lose something you’d been working on. But it was, effectively a newsroom, and newsrooms have to be tough.”
Nicholson feels Rantzen was also a victim of her pioneering career: “This was a world where every male producer had a female PA, who he was probably having an affair with. Apart from that, women were there to make coffee and arrange meetings. And when Esther rose to power, there was a lot of ill-feeling, which was almost certainly sexism. Certainly she was tough and direct. But I’ve known very many male producers who were absolutely brutal and didn’t get the stick Esther got.”
Rantzen says: “I was always conscious of the fact that if I failed, it would make it even harder for other women in the industry to be given the opportunities they deserved. So I tried to be first to arrive in the office and last to leave.”
A particular aspect of her femininity became a complicating factor; she had been the protege, next lover, then wife of Desmond Wilcox, her head of department. Nicholson says: “I was aware that there was a lot of ill-feeling about Esther and Wilcox. The feeling was, that was why she was where she was. But I completely reject that. Whether you liked Esther or didn’t, she was extremely good and was there on pure merit, as she went on to prove on That’s Life! and everything else she has created: Childline, Silver Line.”
Scudamore is dismayed that these stories are still being brought up: “Esther’s very ill, and we’re trying to celebrate a programme that saved many lives and brought a lot of joy and humour. So I’d prefer not to talk about arguments at the BBC up to 50 years ago, involving people some of whom had other agendas.”
In 1994, Scudamore was called to the director of television and told that the 21st series would be the last. “We were losing ratings – but then everyone was. And the culture was changing so it was harder to do that mix of items. I was just very sad and I sat with Esther as they broke down the studio for the last time. It was very emotional.”
The legacy of That’s Life! is a number of other buyer-beware shows including Watchdog, Scambusters and Rogue Traders. “Life has changed so much,” says Scudamore, “but exactly the same sort of scams are still going on. Tricks that used to be played by letter, phone, fax are now being done by email and text.” There have been various direct attempts to revive That’s Life! (for which the BBC and Rantzen share the rights), including a pilot presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell, but none has yet reached the screen.
“I’m pleased for two reasons,” says Rantzen. “One is that these projects may prove the show is remembered with affection. And the other is that the fact that none of the attempts has succeeded shows that it was a difficult show to make.”
The series has also, through osmosis, regularly been honoured at the Baftas. Watching Curtis’s documentaries, it struck me that the daring juxtapositions in That’s Life! might have influenced his own tapestries of the sinister and ridiculous. “I hadn’t thought about that. But, yes, it probably reinforced my interest in collage. She would go from incredibly serious stories to silly ones, and I learned from that.”
James Hawes, told by Rantzen that he would never become a director, did, with credits including Black Mirror and Slow Horses. He is currently finishing One Life, a movie in which Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Flynn play the old and young Sir Nicholas Winton, with Samantha Spiro as Rantzen. During the research, Hawes talked to his old boss. Did he remind her that she said he’d never direct? “No,” he says. “Not yet.”
• One Life will be released later this year