Dame Esther Rantzen and James in Esther's garden

This is a kind of love letter; a love letter to a woman who has had an incalculable effect on my life and that of so many others. She is someone I am honoured to call a friend, as well as a mentor, confidant, ambassador and colleague.

This person is Dame Esther Rantzen: journalist, campaigner, charity founder, whirlwind, inspirational leader and all round general force of nature.

I have been meaning to write a blog about Esther for some time. However, the recent news that she is facing a battle after being diagnosed with lung cancer has brought home to me just what an incredible influence she has been on my life. I know many others feel the same.

So, this is a love letter to thank this bona fide National Treasure and an ask to the cosmos to deliver whatever it is she needs as she takes on yet another challenge in a life which has seen her achieve so much.

A supportive friend

I first met Esther in London about nine years ago when we were both keynote speakers at an event discussing how innovation can help older people. My theme was that such innovations are not limited to laboratories and institutions but can originate in all of us; giving the example of the OKEachDay button which was inspired by my own grandmother and allows people to control the amount of daily contact they receive, whilst still ensuring “everything is okay”.

Esther was speaking – in her usual utterly compelling way – in her role as the founder of The Silver Line, a 24-hour charity helpline for older people and several times she referenced my own talk, which I had given only moments earlier. She was naturally intrigued by the work we were doing at my company Alertacall and was soon asking me a range of typically shrewd and incisive questions.

(It’s worth noting that I initially, foolishly, had a little jealously that Esther had created The Silver Line because it was always my goal to get my own venture working and use it to fund a charity helpline like that – but as with so many things Esther got there first and did a better job of getting that going than I ever could have!).

As a result of this chance meeting, I invited her up to the Lake District to visit our headquarters in Windermere, where she spent the best part of two days learning everything about the products and services we provide. The thing that impressed me the most , is that she spent time calling our older customers, properly talked to them and really listened to them.

Dame Esther on an early visit to Alertacall
Dame Esther on an early visit to Alertacall

Esther went on to become an ambassador for our unique brand of daily contact and her advocacy and support has been invaluable over the years. She “totally got” what we were about, and what I was about – and that gave me confidence to keep moving forward.

I count myself really very lucky to have such a person in my life who has encouraged me and imparted countless nuggets of advice, often delivered from the comfort of her living room or garden whilst guzzling down Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding (a delicacy I bring down from the Lake District on my visits to see her) or flapjack!

Now, I must admit, I was a bit sceptical when I first heard that Esther had founded The Silver Line, and then more so when she expressed an interest in Alertacall. Was this a celebrity who was simply looking to maintain her profile by hitching her wagon to good causes?

My goodness nothing could have been further from the truth. In her association with Alertacall, just as with Childline, The Silver Line, and the around 50 other charities she is involved with, Esther is genuinely invested in trying to change the world for the better.

Esther is the real deal.

Her celebrity may be what catches your attention but it is the fact she works so hard for causes she truly cares about which has made me, and so many others, admire her over the years. I will repeat it again, she is the real deal.

An inspirational leader

This blog is not just my way of paying homage to Esther. It also hits upon two of my major themes; those of leadership and change.

I have spoken before about how it is a leader’s job to sell a vision of the future which inspires people to make change. It is not often that somebody incorporates so many of the traits which are necessary to make this happen so easily; traits such as experience, razor sharp intelligence, charisma, a natural ability to tell inspiring stories, a deep desire to improve the world and an ability to connect with people on any level. Esther has that full package.

For a start, she is wickedly, sometimes mischievously, intelligent and able to juggle multiple roles as a TV presenter, producer, charity founder, patron, and mentor, flitting effortlessly from one to the other and always learning as she goes.

As a lifelong journalist and broadcaster who has made it her speciality to tell human stories with emotional resonance, it is no surprise that Esther can always deliver a compelling narrative in a way that galvanises people to take action. She is able to do this via the written word, TV or radio and she is also a fantastic public orator. Ever heard her speak? Then you know this already.

However, like all good leaders, she is also able to listen as well as speak. Esther really does listen and, if the argument is strong enough, she is not afraid to change her mind. She is emotionally attached to finding the best solution to a problem rather than ensuring her idea comes out on top.

Esther, James and Sophie at The Silver Line
Esther, James and Sophie at The Silver Line

If she wants something to happen, Esther will also commit to it entirely. What’s more she will make sure you are committed to it with an equal tenacity, hold you to account and ensure you follow through on your promises. She is not someone who you can mess about. She makes things happen. If this means challenging authority or the status quo then so be it.

At the same time as affecting change, she is also a voracious learner, keen to keep up with the latest developments in society, adapt to new technology and use it to beneficial ends.

The result of all these skills is that she has genuinely made the world a better place. Just two examples of this are the founding of Childline and The Silver Line  – I am proud to have helped out myself with the latter, sitting alongside her as a fellow trustee until quite recently, along with some other great people. What isn’t immediately obvious, is that every day she’s also guiding, supporting and championing dozens of others charities and causes too. Her positive effect is beyond anything you might initially comprehend.

So – thank you Esther

Jams and Esther at James' house in the lakes
James and Esther at James’ house in the lakes

Esther, as I write this, I know there will be multitudes of people who share my sentiments.

Throughout your life you have helped thousands and told the stories of just as many. It is this genuine connection with and affection for human beings that has driven your work and made it so meaningful.  If anyone is going to bend the cosmos to their will, whatever that will is – then it’s you.  For now I’ll echo the feelings of all those whose lives you have enriched with yours by sending you all my love and support. Thank you and see you soon, with sticky toffee too.

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