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Love and bickering, that’s life

Esther Rantzen and her daughter Rebecca Wilcox star in a new show together, showcasing the Jewish mother-daughter relationship

    Esther Rantzen and her daughter Rebecca Wilcox (Photo: Getty)
    Esther Rantzen and her daughter Rebecca Wilcox (Photo: Getty)

    We love our Jewish mothers, even when they drive us mad. Mine, for example, lets herself into my home unannounced to check I’m doing the recycling properly and then justifies her breaking and entering by telling me I’ve got it all wrong.

    Just sometimes you might find yourself identifying her with the stereotype — a mother aggressively critical of her daughter, while nurturing her to the point of suffocation.

    Would you want to test that relationship on stage in front of an audience? I’m not sure I would, but that’s exactly what’s going to happen when TV legend Esther Rantzen and her daughter Rebecca Wilcox go on tour with their new show.

    I went to meet them to find out more. And when I arrive at Rantzen’s north London apartment, I’m not surprised to find myself in the role of mediator.

    They never stop bickering, without it upsetting their deep love at all. As part of their show, Esther Rantzen That’s Life, the presenter and founder of the Childline charity is interrogated on stage by her daughter, on a tour which takes in St Albans and ends in London.

    It’s fair to say that they are both a little nervous. Rantzen says of Wilcox: “I never know what she is going to say next.

    “We were on the Steve Wright show recently and she started to reveal her fury and bitterness about being the middle child.”

    Wilcox retorts, “Well, if you think that is bad, at my wedding she stood up to give a speech and told everyone about where I was conceived.”

    Her mum shrugs her shoulders. “It seemed appropriate at the time.”

    I ask if they think there is something unique about a Jewish mother daughter relationship?

    “You know, once upon a time I took my daughter Em to an audience with Joan Collins and I asked her a question from the audience and she said to me straight away: ‘Are you Jewish?’

    “I said to myself then that there must be something about the Jewish mother daughter bond that gives it away.”

    I suggest that it might have something to do with arguing. “My husband does say we will argue the toss on everything,” says Wilcox, who is also a journalist and has two young children. “That doesn’t have to mean we’re in a huge fight. We try not to take things to seriously.

    “It sounds like a huge generalisation and it is, but I think when gentiles argue it means something different. In Jewish families it is just a constant debate.”

    The show marks Rantzen’s 50th year as a broadcaster.

    “I suppose it is a sort of landmark for me,” she says, sipping tea from a delicate teacup. She started her television career in the 1960s, as a BBC clerk, rising through the ranks to become presenter of That’s Life in 1972. Its mix of humour, consumer journalism, talking dogs and strangely-shaped vegetables kept it at the top of the rankings for two decades. Around the same time she married Desmond Wilcox, then a BBC executive and her boss.

    “The thing about Becca is she manages to combine her father’s talents with a little bit of my own,” she says, rather pointedly.

    This is a glimpse of the “spiky sense of humour” that Wilcox says she has learnt to deal with.

    “My mum has a very wicked sense of humour; we have this saying about her in our family that she often prefers the joke to the person.”

    Rantzen, who has shared some of the most intimate details of her life in public, promises the show is an opportunity to get to know stories about her life and career that we may not know.

    Physically there’s a strong resemblance — both blonde with dazzling smiles — but their style is completely different. Wilcox, 38 wears a playsuit, while her mother, 77 is smart in a two piece suit.

    A family portrait from 1986 (Picture: Getty)
    A family portrait from 1986 (Picture: Getty)
    They’ve worked together before, often writing pairs of articles in which they — you’ve guessed it — disagree.

    “When we do work together it always feels fun and never feels like work.”

    The to-and-fro of criticism between the pair is constant and I can’t help wonder what the lovely people of Somerset and Norfolk (both stops on the tour,) will make of this very Jewish banter.

    Neither of them come up for air as they dispute everything from the best way to discipline your children, to alternative parenting practices, such as swaddling. The age-old practice of wrapping infants in blankets to restrict movement of their limbs is evil, according to the grandmother. But “I just don’t think you should judge. I hate judgmental parenting,” her daughter responds with a familiar glare.

    Baby-led weaning is another point of contention.

    “It was working really well for my son, who has allergies” she explains, adding that unfortunately it did make him choke.

    “Oh yeah, it really works,” Rantzen quips.

    Despite the angst, the love and warmth of their bond is palpable.

    Wilcox says: “Our relationship is very strong, she is the first person I go to when I have a problem, which annoys my husband, and she is always there for me.

    “She came and lived with me when she had pneumonia last month. I got her through it with three meals a day plus snacks.”

    Rantzen takes this opportunity to remind her daughter that she has nursed her back to health on a number of occasions, even providing daily home cooked meals for her when she had her son.

    “I cooked fish pie and I don’t even like cooking.”

    As the only one of Rantzen’s three children who has followed in her footsteps into the media, I ask Wilcox what it was about her mother’s career that made her so keen to follow.

    “She worked so hard and my mum and dad were always talking about what they were doing and I wanted to do that.

    “I saw them making a difference. I used to quiz my dad in the car and he would call me his little journalist.”

    What has she always wanted to ask her mother?

    “I’ve always wanted to know who she votes for but she has never told me or anyone in the family.”

    Rantzen explains “I don’t want to be known as a tribal voter. I never have been.”

    And again, despite her daughter’s pleas not to, she uses the conversation to berate Wilcox for missing the chance to vote in the EU referendum.

    “I had a new baby, I was trying to organise our passports. I campaigned in my local area as a remainer and I was so cross that I didn’t vote. I should have prioritised it more,” Wilcox defends herself.

    One subject they’ve debated in public is whether mothers of small children should work, with Wilcox on record as saying that her childhood had a “Mum-shaped hole.”

    Today that’s all forgotten and she’s full of praise. “She was amazing. Now as a working mum myself I can see how impossible it must have been.

    “She was always there somehow, in spite of being one of the pioneering women in broadcasting and setting up a national charity.

    “She took us to school in the morning; she was always home for dinner.

    “My sister and I always say our greatest problem in life is getting over the fact that our childhood was so happy and that adult life does not compare.

    “Real life is harder.”

     

    For tour details: www.dameestherrantzen.com

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