For today’s younger generation of TV viewers the idea of any show getting 20 million viewers a week is unthinkable.


If you were to tell them that such a show regularly featured skateboarding dogs, dogs that said "sausages" (yes, dogs were popular with the production team) and vegetables shaped like male genitalia then they would probably laugh in your face.

But That’s Life!, the BBC’s Sunday night show (which later moved to Saturdays), was a ratings and cultural phenomenon that aired for 21 years between 1973 and 1994. In fact it was probably one of the most popular shows ever made by the BBC.

In many ways, it did for the pre-internet age what YouTube and social media do now – combining high seriousness with slapstick and silliness and allowing its army of fans a sense of belonging and oneness.

It had a range as broad as the toothsome smile of its permanent host, the numero uno Esther Rantzen who helmed it throughout its run. Often mocked, she was also admired and respected by millions of Britons and one cannot underestimate the extent of her fame when the show was at its height.

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Who knows, if the talks she says she is having with the BBC come to fruition and the show returns 24 years after its last episode aired, she may yet return to the nation’s bosom.

Despite the dogs and veg, the editorial backbone of That's Life! was serious and informative. In fact, it started out as a consumer affairs show, and one of Rantzen’s proudest achievements was the founding of children's welfare charity ChildLine which emerged from the work she did on the show.

That’s Life! also examined other issues around child welfare, pushing the importance of children wearing seatbelts to the top of the political agenda (most people credit the show with the eventual change in the law which made wearing rear seatbelts for children mandatory in 1989) and drawing public attention to the issue of organ donation for children.

But it made these strides while also being entertaining.

Some critics baulked at the mix of seriousness and silliness but when it worked it really worked.

The show drew attention to the unevenness of pavements with an unforgettable (for me, anyway) sequence in which the famously buxom Cleo Rocos was sent down the road in a wheelbarrow holding two wobbly jellies. If you don't believe me, here it is...

There was a seaside postcard innocence to a lot of its humour – silly vox pops, all those funny dogs and a long period of the show when the contributors would disguise themselves in public places like supermarkets and suddenly launch into song.

It was very pioneering – modern stunt TV masters such as Ant and Dec and forbears like Jeremy Beadle owe a huge debt to That’s Life!

And if you ever use the term "jobsworth" it's worth remembering that the term was coined by the show which awarded a commissionaire’s hat trophy for the person deemed most officious that week.

But it was the sheer variety that was so unusual and impressive. Alumni include Adam Curtis, the hyper serious producer/director behind The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self and other landmark documentaries, who started out as a producer/ researcher on the show. It also gave a platform to comic turns like Pam Ayres and Mollie Sugden and comedy titan Victoria Wood. And regular presenters ranged from Chris Serle to Kieran Prendeville and Adrian Mills.

And there is no doubt it hit home. This mickey take of the show by the Not the Nine O’clock News satire programme shows quite how much it resonated with the nation.


And That's Life! was a show that was big enough to take the joke.