As she turns 84, how Esther Rantzen is benefiting from each second

Nature’s bunting is up in Dame Esther Rantzen‘s beloved garden in the New Forest. The tulips – the ones she dithered over planting, because she didn’t think she’d live to see them bloom – have been and gone. Now the roses are in full flower, and providing genuine joy.

What a day to be alive. And what a lovely time of the year to celebrate a birthday.

Dame Esther turns 84 tomorrow, which seems remarkable, perhaps especially to her. When she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer last year, the doctors told her there was little they could do – although they did hurl a little lifeline in the form of an experimental drug which could delay, if not eradicate, the inevitable.

It is still holding, and while it would be an exaggeration to say Dame Esther is still blooming herself, she’s here, and enjoying the view.

‘I certainly never expected to see this birthday – it’s a tribute to the new cancer treatments which seem to be holding it back,’ she tells me. ‘So I am taking each day as an extra treat and trying to make the most of every moment.’

What a vintage year 1940 was, in terms of providing us with national treasures.

Today, Esther – who always loved a showbiz party – chuckles at the idea of all the famous contemporaries who could help blow out her candles.

‘I am delighted to share my birth year with Sir Cliff Richard, Sir Tom Jones, Sir Ringo Starr and Dame Prue Leith. Imagine us all as newborn babies in the same maternity hospital!’

Esther Rantzen in her New Forest garden... she bought the house in the hopes of having it as a retirement nest with her husband Desmond Wilcox, plans stymied by his death 24 years ago

Esther Rantzen in her New Forest garden… she bought the house in the hopes of having it as a retirement nest with her husband Desmond Wilcox, plans stymied by his death 24 years ago

So how will she mark the day? Esther has always been quite big on al fresco birthday celebrations. She once told me that for her 50th, she ran round the garden stark naked, save for a hat. She laughs at the idea of a re-run.

‘Those naked days are firmly in the past,’ she says, ‘but I do love parties.’

Will there be one today? What of presents, cake? How does someone who didn’t expect to reach a particular birthday mark the occasion?

‘My elder daughter becomes extremely mysterious when I ask her any questions and tells me not to worry because everything is in hand – which is a bit of a struggle for a control freak like me – but I am doing my best.

‘The best presents my three children can give me is their presence (pun intended), to be with me to blow out my candles.

‘I hear a rumour that various pairs of multicoloured summer trousers may be on the way so if we get any summer, I’ll be suitably dressed.’

Luckily, it looks like the weather has finally decided to co-operate on this detail, and the sun should shine today. Clearly it’s an Esther party fan, too.

The photo albums in this house – which was first bought as a holiday home by her husband, the producer Desmond Wilcox, and planned as their retirement nest (the plan stymied with his death in 2000) – speak volumes about Esther’s love of a good party, at any time of year.

‘Our Christmas Eve fancy dress festivities are immortalised in many family photo albums. There’s Desi dressed as an elf, my middle-aged cousin as a schoolboy and me as a French maid. The best party I can remember was a surprise for Desmond’s birthday when a helicopter arrived to take him on his first helicopter flying lesson. It landed at the end of the party, by which time Desi had several champagnes inside him, so we were all lucky to survive.’

Another party Desi was lucky to survive was his 60th, when Esther arranged friends to leap out, in a darkened room, to surprise him. ‘It was only when I saw him turn grey with shock and clutch his chest that I remembered he had a heart condition,’ she says.

‘Then there was a fantastic celebration for my 70th, when I handed my cheque book to my children and asked them to surprise me. They created a quiz, a boat trip to Greenwich, an overnight in a beautiful country-house hotel and Michelin-starred meal the next day. It was glorious.’

Dame Esther’s mood today is upbeat, business-as-usual. Conversation zips from the funny to the deeply serious, the formula she famously used on That’s Life, the consumer programme that will be one of her biggest legacies.

She has previously said it is her greatest wish to ‘die happy’, and one imagines that the ideal time for her would be mid hilarious anecdote.

This is extraordinary in itself. Some would want to hide away faced with her prognosis, but not her, although there is an honesty about her summing up of the situation: ‘Bette Davis memorably said that old age is not for cissies, and how right she was.’

She talks a little of the ‘compensations’ of growing older, and of the knowledge that time is limited.

‘You haven’t got all the energy in the world so you prioritise the things you really want and need to do. You’ve worked out what television programmes you most enjoy, which chair is the most comfortable and who makes you laugh.

‘But I also know how many older people suffer intensely from loneliness and that many others are faced with caring for a fragile partner or indeed may become intensely vulnerable themselves, so I am taking nothing for granted and trying to appreciate each new day.’

She’s also taking this ‘miracle drug’ of hers religiously. It does seem to be the game-changer, but she also knows that one day the scan results will tell her that it’s game-over.

‘Like everyone on these new cancer treatments I live from one scan to the next. We call it ‘scanxiety’ because we all know at some stage the treatment will fail and only a scan can tell us when that moment arrives. But then we all have to die of something, don’t we?’

Dame Esther says there are compensations to getting older, with the knowledge time is limited

Dame Esther says there are compensations to getting older, with the knowledge time is limited

Dame Esther at home in Hampshire with her three daughters and grandchildren

Dame Esther at home in Hampshire with her three daughters and grandchildren

How are the family coping, I ask. Esther has three children – Miriam, 46, Rebecca, 44 and Joshua, 43 – plus five grandchildren. ‘Bless them, they have challenges of their own, so I try not to add to them.’

And how are you coping? This one takes a little consideration. ‘When Desi died, someone asked my mum how I was coping, and she said, ‘Esther copes because she has to cope’, which is the best answer I can think of. We all have to cope with what life flings at us, don’t we?’

Typically, Esther has used her forthcoming death to prompt a conversation on the laws surrounding assisted dying.

Last year she took the extraordinary step of speaking out about how she has joined Dignitas, and may yet end her days in Switzerland, if she feels she has reached the point where she does not want to continue.

‘I feel enormously heartened by the fact that both potential prime ministers have now pledged to make time in the next Parliament for a proper debate on a reform of the assisted dying laws, so that we terminally ill patients will have the choice to end our lives if they become unendurable, and our families no longer will have to be investigated by the police. Although, of course, there must be proper precautions built into any new law.

‘Other countries have proved that reforms can work extremely well. I hope it’s in the King’s Speech, and the debate is arranged as soon as possible… although it’s probably not going be in time for me.’

Of course daily life has been impacted greatly. She has, she concedes, slowed down.

‘I’m not doing television at the moment, and not a lot of radio, and I can’t attend events which is a great loss because I still get fabulous invitations which I have to decline. But I do write from time to time because you can pace yourself writing, do it a little and often, and I enjoy it.

‘My children agree that I’m living life at a very different pace from my frenzied prime, and they sometimes get concerned that I’ve turned into a hermit, but they know how much pleasure I get from wandering around my garden, nurturing the neighbour’s cat which has adopted us, and getting annoyed by the squirrels stealing the peanuts we put out for the woodpeckers.’

There is some discussion here about that ‘frenzied prime’ of hers, when she was the highest-paid woman on television, and one of the most influential. Esther Rantzen was never a mere presenter.

She was once offered the job of Controller of BBC1. She turned it down, and still isn’t entirely sure that was the right decision.

She also reveals that in 2009, she turned down the chance to stand as a Labour MP in a safe seat, which is rather startling given that we now seem on the cusp of a Labour government. How the course of history could have been altered if Esther had been catapulted into government!

‘I hope Gordon Brown won’t mind me admitting – I admire him greatly and wouldn’t want to offend him – but when he was Prime Minister he did ring me to suggest I could become the official Labour candidate for Luton South. I told him I thought the voters would not like it if he parachuted me in, so I thanked him but declined.

‘Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision. I do think I might have been helpful to Luton South, but I wasn’t a fan of the local council. And being Jewish I’m not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn either… so no regrets.’

Dame Esther was once the highest-paid woman in television, and one of the most influential

Dame Esther was once the highest-paid woman in television, and one of the most influential

Instead she stood as an independent candidate in the 2010 General Election. It was a disaster, really (she was trounced and lost her deposit) but, even here, she can find positives.

‘My memories are very happy, which is lucky because it was extremely expensive without a political party to pick up the bill for all the leaflets and so on. But I loved being at the count on election night, and I was fascinated by the ground troops loyal to the various political parties. And I also enjoyed the fact that when people asked for my help, I was able to do something positive for them, which gave me a real respect for the constituency work done by MPs.’

Conversation with Esther always leads back to her garden, a ‘very special place’ she says. She and Desi used to ‘sneak weekends’ in their cottage here, before ‘rushing back up the motorway to London’ to their busy broadcasting lives.

‘We’d run hand in hand around the lawn and flower beds, trying to memorise each bud and stem to tide us over until the next visit.’

Once the children had grown, she indulged a fantasy involving rose arches, and digging new streams and a pond. The garden designer she brought in to help was none other than Charlie Dimmock, who went on to have her own TV career.

Esther laughs as she recalls: ‘When we first met, Ground Force hadn’t yet started, and I remember Charlie telling me that she’d been photographed for Radio Times and she was so embarrassed she had gone round every newsagent trying to buy all the copies. When I bought one I saw she was on a bed of rose petals, not wearing much. And looking, of course, glorious.’

When her mother died in 2005, Esther wrote a thoughtful piece for the Mail about the process of clearing out a loved-one’s possessions. Then in rude health, she allowed herself to look forward, observing: ‘And when, after my death, my children’s children open the albums and laugh at my red leather trousers or pick up with contempt a sequined parrot or a ceramic horse and consign them to a dustbin, somewhere I’ll be watching them, and whispering: ‘Take care what you throw away. You may be throwing away my life.’

Has she made that progress easier for them, now? She reveals that the ‘great clear out’ has, indeed, started.

‘One of my daughters is a hoarder, like me, the other is a minimalist. Oddly, it’s the hoarder who is now helping me declutter. The minimaliser emptied all my drawers so effectively she terrified me, but I know in my heart that she was right. I can visualise the skips arriving when I’ve gone, and I’m glad I won’t be there to seize things back.

‘And my declutterer daughter is keeping all the letters I’ve sent and received that make her laugh. Maybe my grandchildren will chuckle over them in years to come.’

There’s a collection of knick-knacks, however, that she won’t let go, for no other reason than they make her smile.

‘Cyril Fletcher, the wonderful comedian who appeared on That’s Life! and became a dear friend, once advised me that whenever I had a lovely day out, I should buy something, however small, to put on a window sill, because it would remind me of that happy day. So I did, and they do.’

And it will be her smile – bright, beaming, unforgettable – that will be the last thing to go.