That's Life!

This article is about the BBC television series. For other uses, see That's Life (disambiguation).
That's Life!
Genre Current affairs
Consumer protection
Light entertainment
Directed by Bob Marsland
Stuart McDonald
Robin Bextor
Presented by Esther Rantzen
Composer(s) Tony Kinsey
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of seasons 21
No. of episodes 442
Executive producer(s) Peter Chafer
Producer(s) Henry Murray
John Lloyd
Norma Shepherd
Esther Rantzen
Shaun Woodward
Editor(s) Brian Freemantle
John Morrell
Running time 60 minutes
Original network BBC 1
Picture format 4:3
Original release 26 May 1973 (1973-05-26) – 19 June 1994 (1994-06-19)

That's Life! was a magazine-style television series on BBC1 between 26 May 1973 and 19 June 1994, presented by Esther Rantzen throughout the entire run, with various changes of co-presenters. The show was notable for presenting hard-hitting investigations alongside satire and occasional light entertainment. The show was generally recorded about an hour prior to transmission, which was originally on Saturday nights for many years and then on Sunday nights. In its latter days, in an attempt to win back falling ratings, it was moved back to Saturday nights.


The original purpose of the programme was consumer protection, particularly safety issues. The importance of wearing seat belts, for example, was illustrated before attitudes supporting their use became widespread. Britain's telephone helpline for children, ChildLine, was developed by Rantzen following items on the programme. Awareness for the need for child organ transplants was increased through the 1985 death of Ben Hardwick, a toddler whose liver disease was followed by the show. In tribute, Marti Webb released a version of the Michael Jackson song "Ben".

The programme also featured less serious items, which over time grew in number. These included the 'Jobsworth,' exposing companies and authorities who had implemented obscure regulations and policies causing more grievances than they aimed to correct. In another feature, 'Heap of the Week', viewers would write in regarding annoying unreliable domestic appliances and other failed items, which would then be disposed of in destructive ways to the delight of their owners. A regular feature as the final item of each show, particularly in the 1980s and '90s, was various members of the team disguised as various people or things in locations such as supermarkets and garden centres, suddenly breaking into song and grabbing passers by and getting them to join in. Some of the more light-hearted features tapped into the British seaside postcard-style humour, being cheeky and suggestive but never out-and-out rude.

The co-presenters added extra personality to the show and other presenters contributed humour by reading cuttings sent in by viewers or by singing. The first of these contributors was the songwriter and lyricist Richard Stilgoe; for the show he wrote comic songs satirising various domestic issues, such as a song to celebrate the date 25 years into the future when he would have at last paid off the mortgage to his house. The co-hosts of the show were always men, though several women were featured as the 'humour' contributors, including actresses Joanna Monro and Mollie Sugden. In later shows the co-hosts would dramatise cases by each reading the dialogue of a 'character'. This resulted in hilarity during less-serious cases when they attempted to imitate foreign accents; Adrian Mills was unable to perform in a Spanish accent in an undercover item looking at a crooked money-making scam.

The show also showcased unusually-shaped vegetables, humorous poems, comical newspaper and advertisement typographical errors, performing pets such as a dog able to say 'sausages' and 'Esther', and street interviews with members of the public, including an eager old lady called Annie Mizen who became a regular on the show after she was discovered at a street market.

An early regular contributor was poet Pam Ayres. Later there were also musical interludes from performers such as Jake Thackray, Victoria Wood, Doc Cox, and occasionally Grant Baynham, who had buckets of water thrown over him in several live programmes after Rantzen had apparently objected to him smoking, much to his considerable chagrin; on his final show, he got his own back by doing the same to Rantzen.

Presenters often left the confines of the studio for various stunts; Rantzen was arrested during one vox pop for apparently obstructing the pavement. The incident was broadcast in its entirety, along with Rantzen being driven away in a police van and the crowd cheering her arrest.

In 1993, taxi driver Tom Morton, who knew over 16,000 telephone numbers in Lancashire, beat the British Olympia Telephone Exchange computer with his recall. The interviewer, Adrian Mills, said he had never seen anything like it.[1]

A cartoon strip, drawn by Rod Jordon, featuring items from that edition accompanied the closing credits.

The award-winning documentary film maker Adam Curtis, who went on to make The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self, started his career on the show. According to The Observer he "found dogs that could sing and researched investigative segments. Along the way he learned a lot about comic timing and the ways an audience might be engaged by issues. 'The best lesson that Esther taught me was that people who think they are funny rarely are'".[2]

The show was a staple of the post-watershed Sunday night BBC 1 schedules for many years (having originally been broadcast on Saturday nights) and, despite its criticisms (see below section), pulled in very high viewing figures, becoming somewhat of a minor national institution in its heyday. However, by the 1990s, times had changed. There were by now other, more hard-hitting consumer investigation programmes being broadcast (such as ITV's The Cook Report and BBC1's own Watchdog, and several others), and the always slightly uneasy mix of hard-hitting and comical articles of the show was by now seen by many as very awkward and somewhat dated. In 1992, to try and win back straying viewers, the show was moved from its traditional haunt of Sunday nights, back to Saturdays. There was also a radical revamp of the set (bringing the co-presenters out from behind their desk, and several other tweaks to both the appearance and format of the show), but the move did not fully rejuvenate the programme as was hoped. The show was generally felt to have run its course, belonging to an era which had now passed. It was finally dropped in 1994, but was given a decent send-off.

The very last edition was named That's Life All Over, and was predominantly a highlight show. Rantzen had been deliberately given a false finish time, and when she expected the programme to close, she was surprised that a whole extra section of the programme was introduced looking at the work she had done over the years.


The BBC conceived the programme as a replacement for the remarkably similar Braden's Week, hosted by Bernard Braden between 1968 and 1972.[3] Rantzen was a reporter on this show, while her future husband, Desmond Wilcox, was an editor. Braden was dismissed when he appeared in an advert on ITV, breaking his contract terms, leading to the introduction of That's Life! a year later.

However, although Braden himself was publicly circumspect about the decision, his wife Barbara Kelly (also a TV presenter) was forthright in condemning it and was plainly hostile towards Rantzen.[4]

Almost thirty years later Kelly told Alice Pitman of The Oldie that she was "very bitter at the time, very, very bitter" and recalled that Braden's producer, Desmond Wilcox, who subsequently married Rantzen, had brought together Kelly, Rantzen and newsreader Angela Rippon for a pilot of an afternoon show, although, in Kelly's view, "it was just a front - he wanted Esther, and Angela and I were sort of left dangling."[5] At the turn of the 21st century Kelly weighed into a spat in the press between Rantzen and her stepdaughter Cassandra Wilcox, as a result of which she received a large number of supportive letters from members of the public who recalled her husband's usurpation by Rantzen. Kelly placed these in a folder marked "Hate Rancid File".[5]

The ITV sketch show End of Part One in 1979, scripted by Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, created a spoof of That's Life! entitled "That's Bernard Braden's Show Really".

Rantzen appeared on BBC1 on 8 March 2016, on the show The TV That Made Me and named Braden as one her biggest influences and referred to him as a 'hero' of her TV history.[6]

In 1980, a spin-off show Junior That's Life! ran for one season on BBC1, on early Saturday evenings. Hosted by Rantzen with Paul Heiney and Chris Serle, the items were aimed at children, with two boys – one of whom was future BBC journalist Shaun Ley – reading out the humorous items in place of Cyril Fletcher.


Throughout the show's life, there was criticism of the format of the typical edition moving abruptly from a deeply serious issue to a comical one (such as the rudely shaped vegetables) and back again. This was always defended by Rantzen and the crew, who said that the aim was to represent the full spectrum of life, from the sad to the funny, and always tried to end editions on an uplifting, light-hearted or humorous item.

Over time the programme increasingly concentrated on sentimental, light and humorous items - particularly after being taken to court by a doctor it tried to discredit and landing the BBC with huge litigation costs (estimated at £1.2 million in a Guardian article ) - and featured and appealed to senior citizens. The public hence became increasingly polarised between those who loved the programme, and those who loathed both it and its presenter Esther Rantzen. The latter camp included Victor Lewis-Smith, who in addition to sketches and spoof songs featured on his Radio 1 show, made some hoax phone calls to the programme, sometimes referring to Rantzen as 'Teeth' after her most prominent feature.


Humour contributors

Musical guests

In the first three years the show started and finished with the That's Life! theme sung by a resident singer - Cheryl Kennedy, Stephanie de Sykes, Judith Bruce or Lois Lane. They were accompanied by Tony Kinsey's band. However, the singers were dropped from the title sequence, and instead there was a topical song in the same manner as Millicent Martin on That Was the Week That Was. Eventually the topical song was dropped from the show. The theme tune was played by the Hanwell Band.[7]


Original series

Series Start date End date Episodes
1 26 May 1973 18 August 1973 13
2 16 March 1974 17 August 1974 19
3 29 March 1975 23 August 1975 19
4 4 January 1976 23 May 1976 20
5 2 January 1977 28 May 1977 19
6 7 May 1978 23 July 1978 12
7 7 January 1979 17 June 1979 21
8 4 January 1981 12 July 1981 26
9 5 September 1982 12 December 1982 14
10 10 April 1983 26 June 1983 12
11 8 January 1984 15 July 1984 24
12 6 January 1985 7 July 1985 24
13 19 January 1986 6 July 1986 22
14 11 January 1987 5 July 1987 22
15 17 January 1988 3 July 1988 22
16 22 January 1989 25 June 1989 19
17 14 January 1990 1 July 1990 23
18 20 January 1991 30 June 1991 20
19 11 January 1992 11 July 1992 22
20 23 January 1993 3 July 1993 20
21 15 January 1994 11 June 1994 19


Series Start date End date Episodes
Junior That's Life 1 September 1979 5 October 1979 6
That's Life Report 22 May 1980 26 June 1980 6
That's Family Life 16 November 1984 20 November 1984 6


Entitle Air Date
That's Life 1974 28 December 1974
That's Life Superpets 24 December 1977
Best of That's Life 5 August 1981
That's Life: Having a Baby 2 editions: 18 March 1982
Best of That's Life 23 August 1983
Summer 1984 Compilation 28 August 1984
Best of That's Life 1985 30 August 1985
Holiday Edition Compilation 1986 24 August 1986
Best of 1987 9 August 1987
The Gift of Life 10 January 1988
Best of 1988 28 August 1988
Britain's Most Talented Pets 2 January 1989
Best of 1989 28 August 1989
Talented Pets 1 January 1990
Holiday Special Compilation 27 August 1990
Talented Pets 3 31 December 1990
The Scandal of Crookham Court 13 January 1991
Summer Special Compilation 26 August 1991
Talented Pets 4 31 December 1991
Summer Special Compilation 20 August 1992
Summer Special Compilation 29 August 1993
Fire! Special Report 8 January 1994
It's All Over: Final edition 19 June 1994


  1. "Memory man left pi and dry". BBC News. 8 March 1998.
  2. Adams, Tim (24 October 2004). "The Exorcist". London: The Observer. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  3. Evans, Jeff (1995). The Guinness Television Encyclopaedia. Guinness. ISBN 0-85112-744-4.
  4. "Barbara Kelly Obituary". London: The Times. 17 January 2007. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  5. 1 2 The Oldie

External links

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