This article originally appeared in Radio Times magazine.


I vividly remember the moment the scrapbook chronicling Nicholas Winton's incredible work, saving 669 children from the Holocaust, arrived in the That's Life! production office.

He had kept very quiet about his extraordinary rescue operation – bringing children on trains from Prague to Britain on the brink of the Second World War – for almost 50 years, not even discussing it with his beloved wife until they found the scrapbook while decluttering their loft.

She realised how crucial the documents would be to those children, so they contacted That's Life! to help trace them.

Turning the pages of the album, seeing photographs of the children Nicky (as I came to call him) had saved and their names – including, alas, the children who didn’t survive because they had been taken off the last train when war was declared in 1939 – was incredibly poignant.

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Nicky had seen the terrible living conditions of the refugees, most of them Jewish, while on holiday in Prague. Realising it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, he organised – with a tiny team including his mother – British families to foster children and trains to carry them to safety.

Our first step was to ring Nicky himself, but when I congratulated him on his extraordinary achievement, he just said, bleakly, "Not enough."

I was devastated that he felt he had failed. I wanted to prove to this extraordinary man that every life he had saved was precious. And, of course, he had saved many, many precious lives.

It has been estimated that now 6,000 people owe their very existence to Nicholas Winton. The Jewish children Nicky rescued were almost the only ones in Czechoslovakia to survive the Holocaust.

Television presenter Esther Rantzen on the set of the BBC show That's Life! in a black and white still
Esther Rantzen on the set of the BBC show That's Life!. Don Smith/Radio Times/Getty Images

Katinka Blackford, one of our researchers, began investigating. She found three of the children, now adults, who had no idea how they had been rescued. When we invited Nicky to our studio, we didn't tell him that Vera and Milena would sit either side of him in the audience.

It was almost unbearably moving as they turned to him to thank him for their lives. That was the only time in my career when I had to stop recording to wipe away my tears. Afterwards, we were contacted by dozens of viewers who realised for the first time who had saved them from certain death.

In our next episode, I asked all those who owed their lives to him to stand, and Nicky, whom we had seated on the front row, turned to see the whole ground floor of the Television Theatre on their feet.

The first episode aired 36 years ago this month, and these moments have been seen millions of times since online. I've watched them many times myself, and each time find myself deeply moved. So many of those children grew up to achieve so much. Their courage, and the courage of their parents in sending them away to an unknown future, is extraordinary.

I created both programmes to surprise Nicky, hoping that would convince him that he hadn’t failed. And meeting "Winton's Children", as those he saved called themselves, gave Nicky enormous pleasure for the rest of his life.

He and I stayed in touch, having lunch regularly. He always said he wished humanity would learn the lessons of history. As true today as ever.

On his 90th birthday – he died aged 106 in 2015 – he told me he'd made a resolution never to turn down an invitation to try something new. So when he turned 100, one of "Winton's Grandchildren" – the pilot daughter of a boy he had saved – took Nicky up in her microlite. He said the wind was very draughty up his trouser legs.

Sir Nicholas Winton wearing a suit and glasses. He is sat on a sofa
Sir Nicholas Winton. Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard via Getty Images

I had learnt about the full horror of the Holocaust when I was in my teens, and survivors from the concentration camps began to tell their stories. So I know how immensely lucky I am, as a Jew born in England in 1940.

Looking back, I can’t remember being affected by anti-Semitism during my career. Although I do remember in the 1980s attending a charity event, and being given a lift by a member of the House of Lords and his wife in their stretch limo.

As I sat down, she said to me, "What do you think of our Jew Canoe?" I was speechless, so she repeated it. I still couldn’t think of an answer. As it happens, I don’t know any Jew who travels in a stretch limo. But then I don’t know anyone who owns a canoe, either.

Although I owe a great deal to my Jewish background, I’m an agnostic now and I envy those with faith. However, it does worry me that when a Jewish word is used on the BBC it's often mispronounced.

For instance, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish Holy Day, was pronounced wrongly recently. There aren't enough Jews in production teams, perhaps, or in the Pronunciation Unit. If there still is a BBC Pronunciation Unit.*

Everything changes, and the broadcasting landscape has changed immensely since I started out in the industry. My earliest appearance on TV was in a debate on whether women can read the news. I was for it. Where would the news be today without the brilliant women newsreaders?

However, even today, older women are still invisible on television. And it’s not just men who dump them. Women themselves are just as much to blame for discriminating against wrinkles. Just look at all the Botox and fillers women on screen have to invest in.

If she’s over 60 and presents a show, which is rare enough, what woman on TV these days is allowed to look her age? Only Professor Dame Mary Beard?

I blame myself, too. Once upon a time, I was on the cover of Radio Times (actually more than once, pardon my boasting). And there I was, back in 1988, dressed in a white satin suit, looking absolutely beautiful. Not because of what nature had given me, but because of the glorious retouching.

Some kind person enlarged my eyes, shrank my teeth, smoothed my skin; you name it, they’d improved it. Unfortunately, years later, when I was giving a Ted Talk and put that picture on the screen, it was greeted with hoots of laughter. So rude!

I've said that if I had embarked on my career a few generations later, I might not have been successful because I wasn't nearly pretty enough.

Today, the expectation to look a certain way – tall, skinny, streaky blonde – is improving. The fact that Alison Hammond is flavour of the month proves that talent and personality can prevail. And Claudia Winkleman's fringe does its bit for emancipation, too.

Looking back, I have had moments of regret – for instance, turning down the opportunity to become the BBC’s first woman channel controller in the 1980s. But when it was offered, I had a very long conversation with my late husband, Desmond Wilcox, and he thought what I really found most rewarding was getting involved with the stories we told on That’s Life!, and following them through.

Being a controller would mean delegating that to other people – commissioning programmes, but not making them. And, of course, I was working very hard for Childline, too, which I might have had to give up.

So, I went to see Bill Cotton, managing director of BBC Television, who had suggested me for the job, with two letters in my handbag – one accepting the job, one thanking him but declining it. Until the moment came, I had no idea which letter I would pull out to give him.

In the end I chose thanks, but no thanks. Since then I have sometimes felt like an awful wimp. But in the next series of That’s Life! we investigated a boarding school owned by a paedophile who employed paedophile staff, and because of our report the teachers were arrested, convicted and sent to prison and the school was closed down. So good did come out of my wimpiness.

That’s Life!, which aired on the BBC for 21 years from 1973 to 1994, showed just how powerful television can be. Among our campaigns, we launched Childline, transformed children’s playgrounds and told the story of Ben Hardwick, who became the first British child to receive a life-saving liver transplant after we reported that, without it, he had only a couple of weeks to live.

As one of the few wives and mothers who were also producers, I often found myself dealing with subjects involving children. But there’s still much to be done.

It's 37 years since we launched Childline (my daughter, Rebecca Wilcox, is training to be a volunteer Childline counsellor and finding it incredibly rewarding), but from the problems today's children tell Childline about, I’m still hugely concerned about their welfare.

There is an epidemic of eating disorders, of self-harm, of mental health issues afflicting our young people. Why are British children so much more unhappy, less healthy, than children in other countries? For the sake of our future, things need to change.

Social media giants need to take much more responsibility for the content young people can access. Parents need far more support than they get. Bring back Sure Start centres for pre-school children. Don’t assume children evolved to spend eight hours a day sitting facing forward at little desks having their heads stuffed with facts – give them the play and adventure they need to grow and learn.

If That’s Life! were on the air at the moment, our viewers would demand that we campaign on their children’s behalf.

Why were we so influential in our time? We had two amazing weapons. One was the trust the public placed in us (I hope we lived up to it); the other was our enormous audience, 15 to 20 million viewers at our peak, which meant the decision-makers, including prime ministers, watched us because they knew everyone else did.

It's much harder to have the same influence when audiences are fragmented and so much smaller, although the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office shows it can still be done.

The revealing Channel 4 series To Catch a Copper, in which the brave chief constable in Avon and Somerset has given a film crew access to the unit that investigates possible police misconduct, is another series that I hope creates change.

Toby Jones as Alan Bates and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne in Mr Bates vs the Post Office sitting on a wooden bench
Toby Jones as Alan Bates and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne in Mr Bates vs The Post Office. ITV Studios/ITV

Good journalism is as crucial as ever. Today we live in a world of fake news, vitriolic social media, malevolent conspiracy theorists and bigotry. The BBC is often criticised because it has a responsibility to the public who pay for it. Somehow, through a jungle of misreporting, the BBC needs to tread a careful, objective path.

We viewers need it desperately, but I'm not confident about the BBC's future. How do we fund the BBC going forward, to ensure it's available to everyone, and free of government interference? And stays confident enough to fend off the attacks by competitors in the media who are jealous of its place in the public’s hearts and minds? Those are vital questions.

Having been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, I'm now, at the age of 83, dedicated to a new campaign close to my heart – to change the law on assisted dying. I’m optimistic about the prospect of that being legalised within 10 years because there is now a huge majority of the public in favour of change.

The law at the moment just doesn’t work. Anyone supporting change should please, please, write to their MP. I've signed up to Dignitas – and going to Zurich is still an option I’m considering if my life gets unendurable.

However, if I ask my children to come with me, so I can say goodbye surrounded by my nearest and dearest, when they return they still risk being charged with conspiring to murder me. When in fact, although they support my right to choose, it is entirely my decision.

People often ask people like me who are staggering towards the finishing post how, and if, I would like to be remembered? My answer is, with love and laughter, that would be wonderful.

And to the follow-up question, is there anything I'm proud of? That's more difficult, because in everything I've done and worked for, I've had an amazing team to support and inspire me, so I really can’t claim the credit. But I admit I am very proud of my scrambled eggs.

Rod Stewart and Jools Holland on the cover of Radio Times magazine.
Rod Stewart and Jools Holland on the cover of Radio Times magazine.

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