Tom Stoppard

As ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ is revived at the National Theatre, Britain’s most infamous playwright talks politics, famous muses and the true meaning of ‘Stoppardian’.

The tall, hunched figure smoking on the roof terrace of the National Theatre has his back to me, but his Wildean mien, and indeed mane, makes him unmistakable.

As he smokes, he contemplates the inky clouds over the equally black Thames and, for a moment, I contemplate him. If only he had a silk scarf draped over his shoulder, this tableau vivant would be complete.

Sir Tom Stoppard’s face, when he turns, is still, at 72, as brooding and handsome as ever. In his youth he was compared with Mick Jagger, because of his pout, but a better comparison would be with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

That a playwright should be compared with a pop star at all is revealing. There was always something quite rock and roll about Sir Tom.

That, indeed, was the title of his most recent play, written in 2006, the one about the role of pop music in the emergence of democracy in Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

His new play, or rather the new National Theatre revival of his old play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1977), features music too, a full orchestra, with a score written by Andre Previn, and we shall come to that.

Few contemporary playwrights have a style so distinctive that their surname enters the language as an adjective. There’s Pinteresque and Stoppardian and, well, that’s about it.

Stoppardian seems to mean dealing with philosophical concepts in a witty, ironic and linguistically complex way, usually with multiple timelines and visual humour.

A good example is Arcadia (1993), a bittersweet country-house comedy that sweeps between Regency England and today, taking in discussions of romanticism, classicism and thermodynamics.

But what does he think it means? I imagine he is going to groan and say he hates the word, but he shrugs.

‘It doesn’t mean anything as bounded as other epithets made from surnames do. I don’t think Stoppardian has a precise definition.

‘For me, personally, it means something different to what others mean by it. To me it means another hapless, feckless, fatuous episode in my life, brought on by my own forgetfulness or incompetence.’

Example? He thinks. ‘Well, last month I found myself waiting for an electric train in Tokyo, unable to read any of the signs. I was standing on the platform with two cases and this bag,’ he lifts up a bulging, brown leather shoulder bag.

‘It had my passport in it, as well as my money, credit cards, everything. A train arrived early and, as they are incredibly punctual about everything there, I figured it couldn’t be mine. But to make sure, I got on the train to find a guard to show my ticket to.

‘Then I heard a hiss and a clunk behind me and the doors were closing and the train was moving off, with my bags still on the platform. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’m f—ed”.’

This being Japan he got off at the next station, phoned the agent he is with in Japan and his bags were duly collected and sent to meet him on the next train. ‘Anyway, the point of that story is that Stoppardian for me means the ability to cock things up.’

What do we know about Sir Tom Stoppard? He was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. His family moved to Singapore, where his father was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. His mother remarried a British Army major.

He went to an English public school in the North of England, Pocklington, and instead of going to university, went into journalism, working as a reporter and theatre critic for a Bristol newspaper. His first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was written in 1966 and proved a critical and box office success.

He married, had two children, got divorced, remarried and had two more children, one of whom, Ed, has become a successful actor.

During his second marriage, to the television presenter, agony aunt and anti-smoking campaigner Dr Miriam Stoppard, he had an affair with Felicity Kendall, the actress he considered his muse. He now lives alone in Chelsea Harbour.

He has written some fine Hollywood screenplays, including Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar, and some average ones such as K-19: The Widowmaker. And he has never stopped having hit plays, though they have become less absurdist and more political over the years.

Sir Tom is hard to place politically. He campaigns about human rights, which is usually a left-leaning cause, but he tells me his impression of David Cameron is that he is ‘an intelligent politician’.

Thatcher, meanwhile, took a shine to him and they met on a few occasions. ‘But I remember feeling out of my depth with her because I’m not a political animal and I shouldn’t have been there. I listened mostly.’

I ask him what he imagines the first line of his obituary will be. He thinks again. ‘Tom Stoppard, the father of the actor Ed Stoppard, has died.’

And when the obituary gives three examples of his plays, what does he suppose they will be? ‘Hmm. I wouldn’t deny you an answer, but I don’t have favourites. I would say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia and the one I am writing now, which I haven’t started.’

Sir Tom likes being sidetracked and he won’t be rushed. Having seen nearly all his plays and rarely been disappointed by them, I expect the rub to be that I will be disappointed by him in person. I am not.

His conversation, as he maunders through linguistics, Cold War politics and aesthetics, is as rich and multilayered as you would hope. ‘I could go on chattering in this garrulous way for hours,’ he says at one point.

Curiously, he seems to swing from insouciance to vague insecurity, from self-deprecation to recognition of the regard in which others hold him.

He also has a love of cheap gags.‘The days of the digital watch are numbered.’ Or: ‘If Beethoven had been killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, it would have changed the history of music and of aviation.’

There is a typical example in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. A doctor says of a psychiatric patient: ‘Yes, he has an identity problem. I forget his name.’

Sir Tom is cerebral and autodidactic but not, he protests, academic even though his plays are studied in universities.

Has his lifelong intellectual energy and curiosity been a compensation for leaving school at 17?

‘Depends whether you mean compensating for it consciously or unconsciously. Certainly, I didn’t even think of it as a deprivation. I was delighted to not go to university. I couldn’t wait to be out of education. I wanted to be a reporter and I had a wonderful time doing it.

‘It was years and years before I felt a sense that I had missed out on something. I began to have certain kinds of regret about it, but that was partly to do with not having had time to read the stuff that everyone assumed I must have read because everyone has, and partly because those friends of mine who had got to know each other at university I felt were part of some stimulating, linked group and that was enviable. I didn’t feel part of that.’

Perhaps he was liberated by not having gone?

‘I think if I had it would have affected my work. I can imagine that I would not have become a writer at all, or if I had, a different type of writer.

‘I don’t, by the way, look back in poignancy about all that, I don’t worry about it. You deal with what you’ve got. And there are probably aspects to the autodidact life that compensate. They take me into areas where I wouldn’t have had time to go at all.

‘As a playwright, you can cover a lot of waterfront without being able to hold your own against an expert in any of those areas. I have no illusions about that.’

I ask what is it like having experts and academics analyse his work. ‘The thing that happens remarkably often is that the people who are writing a dissertation believe they need to speak to me in order to do their dissertation. They need to interview me,’ Sir Tom says.

‘I have a stock reply which is that “the examiner wants to know what you think, not what I think”. I write polite little notes, which say: “Honestly, you do not need me, you think you do but I am irrelevant to what you are doing.” Obviously, the yes or no factual questions I can answer, but the interpretations…’

He shakes his head. ‘The whole thing derives from a misapprehension about creative writing, which is that the writer is working from a set of principles or a thesis and the play is the end product of that predisposition, but, actually, the idea turns out to be the end product of the play, and the less I know about this play I am trying to write, the better.

‘The more doors there are for you to open, the better the play. Take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, if the metaphor had been specific, the play would not have had the freedom to go where it wanted. Some students don’t see it as a metaphor but a puzzle to which I have the answer, and if only I would impart it they would get an alpha.’

He pushes the door ajar and, without rising from the sofa, lights up a cigarette and blows the smoke out.

‘A friend of a reporter I knew from the Daily Sketch came to the first night and he said it was about “two reporters on a story that doesn’t stand up”, which was about right.’

We talk about Degas’s tendency to rework his completed works, taking them off the walls and then destroying them by reworking.

‘I would be the other kind of painter, taking paint off rather than adding. I’m not a theoretician about playwriting but I have a strong sense that plays have to be pitched, the scene, the line, the word, at the exact point where the audience has just the right amount of information. It’s like Occam’s razor.’

Of course it is. And as I wrack my brains to think of what Occam’s razor is (something about the simplest explanation being the best one?) I am reminded of something a friend said when I told him I was interviewing Sir Tom: that he always comes out of his plays with a headache. The friend also spoke of Sir Tom’s plays being ‘emotionally cold’.

I don’t see this myself, but it is revealing how divisive a playwright Sir Tom can be. I find his plays warm, but then that warmth may be to do with their humour rather than their emotional texture.

Sir Tom reckons you can ‘miss the laugh’ in two polar ways. ‘You can miss it by giving the audience too much information, so they have no work to do, or you can miss it by not giving them enough.

‘This applies to every line, so it is not a generality about how oblique, or opaque, or transparent the play ought to be. It is a moment-to-moment decision you are making when you are writing the play, rehearsing it and acting it. The perfect play is when the audience has to reach to pick it up.’

He taps a support holding up the shelf behind him. ‘If you take this as the line, with the audience on one side and the author on the other, you have a dead moment if you only get this far.’ He taps the wall on one side of the support. ‘Or if you overshoot to here.’ He taps the other side.

One of the best lines in The Real Thing is spoken by a writer. He is comparing a good script to a cricket bat that is ‘sprung, like a dance floor’. If you hit the ball properly with it it will ‘travel 200 yards in four seconds’ and make a noise ‘like a trout taking a fly’.

If you write a bad script, or hit a ball with an ordinary plank of wood, it will travel about 10ft and you’ll drop the bat and dance about ‘with your hands stuck into your armpits’.

It’s a lovely metaphor and it seems to be about the music of language. Sir Tom lights up another cigarette, nudges the terrace door open a little wider.

‘An actor asked me this morning: “What does this word mean?” and I couldn’t really answer, because the character was in a riff. His words have their value in their sound and their imagery; it didn’t have any logical place in the sentence he was speaking.

‘It’s probably an aspect of the cricket bat speech. The information itself isn’t enough, which is why I am half in terror of being translated because they miss the sound. I think that is the writer’s metaphorical signature you were asking about.’

Sir Tom has translated Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, among other plays, and a few months ago he visited Chekhov’s house near Moscow for the first time and sat in the chair where he wrote The Seagull. ‘It got to me. The chair, the table, the inkpots. I’m susceptible to that kind of romanticism.’

Is there a desk in his own study that he imagines people will one day want to sit at and hold his pen? ‘This is a lose-lose question, because I’m not proud of self-deprecation, even when it is sincere. I cannot think of myself as that sort of person in literary history, and I don’t, actually…’

At this point I interrupt, filling the pause, and he loses his train of thought.

A grin. ‘Perhaps that was God telling me to shut up. For a long time I managed to think two things simultaneously, that I am actually a good playwright, and that the next time I write a play I will be revealed as someone who is no good at all.

‘Part of me wants to avoid revivals because I think people will realise they have been fooled. The scales will fall from their eyes. So, in other words, I don’t have this centre of gravity at all about how good I am or how long I will last and it is better to be circumspect about that.’

While Pinter seemed austere and serious in his black polonecks, Sir Tom always seemed to cut a more romantic, amused, bohemian figure: the windswept hair, the scarves, the muse.

We are on the subject of Felicity Kendall. ‘Yes, she was my muse, in a sense. It’s a funny word. I’m not sure it’s the same as having an actual muse. But wanting to write for particular actors, such as her, goes back to the first time I worked with actors.

‘I wrote Jumpers for John Wood. I loved him as an actor and wanted to write for him. I don’t think the muse was a personification. She was more the spirit of inspiration and I could do with one now. I was thinking the other day, how did I begin last time? I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t think how I did it.’

For the first time, Sir Tom seems suddenly maudlin. I suggest the way to get around his block might be to write a memoir. Does he keep a diary?

‘No. And here’s a piece of self-analysis for you, I think I am mostly, unconsciously, trying not to co-operate with posterity. I am trying to destroy my papers.’

He sighs. ‘I keep some letters. I have a couple from Laurence Olivier and one from John Steinbeck. But the rest of my life I destroy as I go along.’

With this, he slowly lights up another cigarette and, as if sighing, blows the smoke out into the dark, London air.


Kirsty Young

What makes her so qualified to present a series on the British family? As it turns out, plenty.

On a darkening winter’s afternoon, in a gently lit studio apartment in west London,KirstyYoung sits forward on a sofa looking composed and groomed.The presenter of Desert Island Discs is 41, and today, dressed as she is in black trousers and top, with black varnish on her nails and ash blonde highlights in her shoulderlength hair, she looks like a deftly poured glass of Guinness. In her low and rolling Scottish voice, she is talking about sexual intercourse, for reasons I will explain in a minute.

‘My first boyfriend’s parents had a copy of The Joy of Sex on their shelves,’ she says.’I did look at it, but not properly. I was probably too young to deal with it, even though I thought I was pretty sophisticated. My parents certainly didn’t have a copy.’ By parents she means her mother and the stepfather she has always thought of as her father.They married when she was three. Her biological father, a policeman, walked out on the family when Kirsty was three weeks old. She was born in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, and raised from the age of eight in Stirling, where she attended a coeducational state school.When I ask if she was precocious there, she says:’Yes.Yes I was.’And how old was she when she first had a boyfriend? ‘I suppose my first boyfriend was the one who took me skating, and who walked me home from school. I was 12. I had my first kiss when I was 13. On my parents’ driveway. It was a moment of great magic,actually.’And when she first had sex? How old then? ‘Oh much older. I was a good Protestant girl. I was living in Scotland.Too cold there.You don’t take your vest off until you are 21.’

So she was 21? She laughs.’I’m not telling you how old I was when I lost my virginity!’ So, why are we talking about sex? Well, it is one of the central themes of KirstyYoung’s thought-provoking new four-part documentary series, about to be screened on BBC Two. Called The British Family, it explores the changing nature of the family from the Second World War to the present day, taking in the institution of marriage, the Women’s Liberation Front, contraception, money, divorce, modern parenting and sex.

‘Every generation thinks they invented sex,’ she says.’Yet during the war people were even more promiscuous than they are today. War is very reductive.The prospect of death brings out the most primitive instincts.We look quite puritanical today by comparison.You only need look at the Tiger Woods story to see how puritanical we are.’

The British family is a good subject forYoung because she speaks as a mother (to an eight year-old and a three year-old), a stepmother (to teenage children, 14 and 16) and a daughter of divorce. Did she talk to her mother about what went wrong in her parents’ marriage? ‘When I was very young, my mother told me she had been married before and she must have also told me I was the daughter of that marriage, and so was my sister. She told me again when I was five or six and she said:”Do you remember I told you?” but I didn’t. So she talked about it in a glancing way.We didn’t really talk about it properly until I was in my mid to late teens, but at that age you are only focused on yourself.To her credit, my mother wore her divorce very lightly. It was not her identity. It is not a painful subject for her.’

Even so, there was still a stigma attached to divorce by society at the time. Her mother remembers someone saying ‘and you with those two young girls as well’, as if it was a stain on her character.And if her mother wore her divorce lightly, it may have been for her daughter’s benefit, because, for all her precociousness, the teenage Kirsty did have, as they say nowadays,’issues’.

She suffered from bulimia for a while.Also,you suspect she doesn’t have as much closure on the subject of her parents’ divorce as she claims. ‘Without wishing to sound glib about it, it did happen at a good time for me because I had no memory of it. I never called my dad my stepdad. He feels like my dad. He’s been married to my mother for 37 years. This is the man who walked me up the aisle.The time when it did strike me forcibly was when…’ For a moment she loses her composure. There is a catch in her voice and a wet film appears on her eyes.’When my first daughter was born and she was three weeks old. It seemed a very significant moment, because that was the age I was when my parents split up. I was sitting in the bath wondering how I would feel if my marriage was imploding, when I had this tiny baby in the cot. I felt immensely vulnerable. I thought: “Good God.”‘ She swallows.’The emotional force of it hit me like a ton of bricks.’

One consequence of those formative years is thatYoung now feels she is not judgmental about other people’s circumstances.’People’s lives are full of grey areas. My mother never demonised my biological father, but divorce is full of pain and hurt. It’s traumatic.’ For a father to leave a baby that is just three weeks old, I press, something pretty dramatic must have happened.’I know. My husband was divorced and I am stepmother to his kids and the idea that he would have a life without his older two children is inconceivable.To watch him as a father…’ She trails off. She has said that she has not had ‘a relationship’ with her biological father since he walked out, but inevitably she must have been curious to know what sort of a person he was. Out of loyalty to her stepfather, did she block that curiosity out? ‘Well I did feel that as a teenager. I felt it would be disloyal. But I wasn’t quelling some well of hurt, because I had two parents who loved me.They were very present. I didn’t feel a gaping emotional hole. There were curiosities of course, there reasonably still are. But there weren’t dark moments when I thought I wanted to follow it. I think it is not in my nature to be nostalgic.’ In the documentary,Young has another interesting perspective, that of the self-assured career woman. She explores what she calls ‘the cult of the housewife’ in the Fifties when women were encouraged to think that their main function in life was to do the housework, prepare meals and make babies.As one of her contributors recalled, it left her feeling ‘bored, bored, bored’.

For her own part,Young abandoned her Highers and left school because she felt restless:’As if life was happening elsewhere.’ She sidestepped university and decided to work as an au pair in Spain and Switzerland, before joining STV as a presenter on Scotland Today in 1992.

Five years later she moved south to join the news team on Channel Five, becoming the first British newsreader to perch on her desk. She soon proved herself cool under pressure; reporting the death of Diana, Princess of Wales at 5am, and later, in an epic five-hour live broadcast, covering the events of September 11 for ITV News. She became the first woman to anchor on her own, rather than being alongside a man.

When researching her new documentary, she was intrigued by the advice given by the Marriage Guidance Council in the Fifties.They wanted to promote the idea of a ‘companionable marriage’ and it gave her a new perspective on her own marriage.’Around that time your wife became someone you socialised with.Went for walks in the park with. Before that, men would just go off to the boozer with their mates. It had a big impact. Some 10,000 pubs shut down in the Fifties when men started to stay at home with their wives. My grandparents were married for 60 years and their marriage only ended when my grandfather died. He didn’t drink the money away. He didn’t beat her up. In working-class Glasgow that made him a good husband. Such low expectations.A matter of two generations later what I expect from this same institution – marriage – is almost entirely unrecognisable.’ Her husband is Nick Jones, the multimillionaire businessman who founded Soho House, the private club in London favoured by media types, and Babington House, its country equivalent in Somerset. He went to a boys’ boarding school.’As a consequence,’Young says,’he was about 18 before he worked up the confidence to have a conversation with a girl, which I find charming.’

The world in which they grew up was pretty sexist by today’s standards. One of the most popular programmes on television in the early Seventies was MissWorld.’Can you believe the way they got the contestants to turn around so as they could see their backsides?’Young says. ‘So excruciating. But it was a big event in our house. In fact, we would go next door to watch it because they had a colour television. It was family viewing. I suppose you could say that at least the objectification of woman was all out in the open then. We are not as explicit about it these days.’We are in sensitive territory here, I suspect.Young is a skilful interviewer, but in the past her critics have suggested that, well, her being easy on the eye has not exactly hurt her career.’That’s a hard one for me to judge,’ she says when I ask about this.’I’m perfectly reasonable looking, but I don’t think I am arm candy. It’s certainly not the case that I was such a stratospherically good-looking person that I think they could only have chosen me for my looks. I think I look presentable. But whatever I say on this subject I am only going to end up sounding stupid.’ I ask if she has encountered sexism in her career. ‘Yes, but not badly enough to make me want to throw in the towel. I don’t think it hindered my progress. There were one or two glancing blows perhaps.And there was one occasion when it did bother me and I didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t deal with it particularly well, but I was very young.The flip side is I also gained from being a woman and Scottish. Because I came along at a time when networks were wanting to diversify.Thirty-five years ago, there wouldn’t have been Scottish newsreaders.And you certainly wouldn’t have had a young, female Scottish newsreader. So I think probably I would be kidding myself if I thought my being Scottish and my being a woman hasn’t helped me, if I’m being honest.’ She tells me a story about Michael Heseltine at the 1996 Tory party conference. She was trying to persuade him to appear on Channel Five.’He said:”I’m not going to have some little smartarse in a short skirt get the better of me.” And I thought, how interesting.That made quite an impression on me.

‘So after that I decided to wear trouser suits and speak their language. I made sure I wasn’t projecting a leggy lovely image. I became more conscious of what the clothes I was wearing communicated.’ She reckons that what people remember from the news is the weather, the sport and what she was wearing.’You are lucky if they can tell you the top three stories. It’s what you expect. It’s a visual medium. I’m working in radio now where none of that matters. As long as the voice doesn’t go. I was thrown out of the choir at school for having too deep a voice.They called me old man river.’

As well as Desert Island Discs and her documentaries, Young also has a nice little sideline as one of the regular hosts on Have I Got News ForYou. She comes across as sardonic and knowing, delivering her scripted lines with a poker face and great comic timing.’I get a real buzz from doing that. I realised early on that it is Ian and Paul’s job to be funny and anything else the host does, any ad libs, are a bonus.’ In person she has a dry sense of humour and a gift for impersonation. Her Celia Johnson is spot on and when we talk about the film Anchorman she even captures Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy:'”Go f—yourself, San Diego [pause] One of the best yet.”When I was watching it with my brother and my husband I had tears rolling down my cheeks.They were looking at me and saying,”It’s quite funny, but not that funny.”‘ She could also relate to Broadcast News, even the moment where the anchor gets the sweats. ‘Yes. It’s a fish in water thing; there are people in a studio who just belong there.They are made better by a studio and I think I’m one of them. And there are people who just shouldn’t be there, who get the sweats and, for different reasons, it is a pleasure to watch both. I was nervous the first time I read the news in Scotland. So nervous I got big spots in front of my eyes and I thought I was going to pass out. But I learnt to love it and I don’t understand why people who are perpetually nervous continue to do it.

‘You have to ride the wave of live television and be enough of a perverse creature to enjoy it, because the opportunity to come a cropper is there.The great thing about news is that you never have to watch yourself.You do it and it’s gone. Watching yourself is rarely a pleasure.’

Is there anything about her own appearance she dislikes? ‘Yes, but women look at themselves so much they no longer see themselves. Most women spend time every day doing their hair and make-up and they just don’t see themselves any more. I can only see the faults when I look at my face. I think I look like I’ve got capped teeth and I don’t. I hate that. Don’t like that.’They are certainly very white.’I know.And I’ve never had them bleached.Yet when I see pictures of myself I think:”Ah, the woman with the fake teeth.” I don’t think it’s why I’m employed. People do refer to you as “blonde”, but all I ever tried to do in my job was look polished and presentable. I don’t think my editors chose me for the job because I was blonde.They chose me because I was a good live performer. I could keep my cool.’ She thinks part of the reason she has composure is that she has perspective.

‘All that can go wrong in a studio is that you make a prize a—of yourself. It’s not like you are doing surgery where other people’s lives are affected.As I get older I’m more happy to admit to gaps in my knowledge, because I regard myself as a reasonably well-informed individual. I think when you are 22 and you are trying to prove yourself, it’s different. I’m more relaxed now. A prime example was Morrissey the other day.On Desert Island Discs he read something out in German, Der Nussbaum, and I translated it asThe Walnut Tree and he said:”You read that!”And I said I didn’t. I happened to know it.Twenty years ago I would have been wrong footed.’

There is no denyingYoung’s powers of empathy as an interviewer, or her ability to inspire candour.The comedian DavidWalliams admitted to her that he had questioned his sexuality and battled with depression. Yoko Ono revealed that she had allowed John Lennon to decide whether or not to abort their son Sean.And David Cameron spoke movingly about his severely disabled son, Ivan.

She is into her fourth season of the show now, having been given a rough ride by the critics in the first few months.’I took it quite personally,’ she says.’But now I feel I can do Desert Island Discs without worrying about what people think. I feel I’m doing it justice.And broadcasting on the radio means you don’t have to watch yourself.You are judged only on the strength of your words, the tone of your voice, the sharpness of your mind.’There was another film we could have discussed, To Die For. In that, the ambitious weathergirl played by Nicole Kidman says:’You aren’t really anyone unless you are on TV.’ KirstyYoung became someone by being ‘on TV’, but she now seems to prefer being ‘on radio’. Perhaps ‘on radio’ she feels she is not only doing justice to Desert Island Discs, but also to herself.


Esther Rantzen

Critics may have sent up her ‘sanctimonious and sentimental’ style of presenting. But Esther Rantzen, prospective MP, still isn’t afraid to hug her would-be constituents. Will her touchy-feely tactics work in Luton?

It is 11am on a flat and sunless winter morning and Esther Rantzen is holding a surgery with her constituents in Luton South. To point out that these are not actually her constituents yet, that she is still only the prospective parliamentary candidate rather than the sitting MP, would not only seem churlish and impolite but brave.

For beneath the high camp and flirty bonhomie – she calls everyone she meets ‘m’dear’, ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’ – lies a thin layer of icy determination and single-mindedness. As someone who worked with her once said: ‘Esther’s charm is like a light bulb being switched on and off. There is no natural sunlight.’

Her campaign headquarters, a small, two-room office, is in the town’s shopping centre and was donated to her by a local businessman. (‘Obviously,’ she jokes, ‘I’ll declare it in the register of members’ interests.’) When she opened it, both ITN and the BBC showed up to cover the event, a level of media coverage about which her rivals can only fantasise.

There are posters of Esther in the window advertising her website, esther4luton.com, and these remind you that she is one of the few people in public life, Boris and Nigella being others, who has no need of a surname.

She holds these ‘surgeries’ three mornings a week. The idea is that she opens her doors to the public to listen to their concerns, but what actually happens is that she becomes a magnet for the dispossessed, disillusioned and conspiratorial.

Because of the way she throws herself into ‘the people’s problems’, you could be on the set of That’s Life! circa 1981, a time when she was the third most famous blonde in the country, after Margaret Thatcher and Lady Diana Spencer.

She is a vision of calculated empathy. The widened eyes, the fluttering lashes, the head that nods as the mouth purses to denote seriousness, or opens generously into that toothy smile.

Esther Rantzen certainly knows how to talk to people, put them at ease, listen. She even hugs one man. He has been driven to despair by the Child Support Agency (CSA), which is forcing him to sell his house so that he can pay the £7,700 he owes.

When he starts sobbing she tells him to stand up. She then marches over and gives him a hug. And why not? Esther was doing hugs before Cheryl Cole was born. ‘You know what you should do?’ she says to him, looking up into his eyes (she is much shorter than you expect – ‘everyone assumes I am 6ft tall,’ she says). ‘When things look most grim you should find room in your life for something fun. Have you seen the film Up?’ The man shakes his head. Sniffs. ‘You should go and see it with your son. It will take your mind off the CSA, if only for a couple of hours. It will help restore some balance into your life.’ It’s good advice.

There is a lovely moment of confusion when the next Lutonian sits down for a chat. He is in his late thirties, I would say, and wearing a tracksuit and a beanie hat. ‘I like your hat,’ Esther says. ‘Made in Luton?’ ‘Yeah, I was born here.’ When the man has said his bit – about MPs’ expenses, quantitative easing and Agenda 21 – Esther asks him to come back in a month’s time and give her an update. Sensing she is humouring him, he says: ‘You think I’m a nutter.’ The blink. The serious face. ‘Not at all.’

When he leaves, she turns to her computer, which has an esther4luton screensaver logo bouncing around it, and taps in some notes, talking over her shoulder to me. One of the recurring themes of these meet-the-people-of-Luton sessions, she says, is that there are no leisure facilities for either the young or the old. Other concerns include parking, housing, street crime and unemployment.

As she is talking, a man in a cloth cap wanders in and asks for her autograph. ‘Would you rather have “with love” or “best wishes”?’ she asks him, without missing a beat. In many years of watching politicians on the campaign trail, I don’t think I have ever seen one asked for an autograph.

An elderly lady, who is pretty much deaf and says she has to put her glasses on to hear, comes in with ‘evidence’ she has gathered of corruption, but she can’t give any of the details away because it is ‘political dynamite’. It soon becomes apparent that she is what psychologists call a copper-bottomed loon. It ought to be embarrassing, what with me being there taking notes for a national newspaper, but somehow it isn’t.

Esther is unembarrassable. She just smiles that frozen smile of hers, shifting seamlessly from the serious to the frivolous, as she did all those years ago on television.

This is the second occasion I’ve seen her in action. The first begins with an early start at her seven-bedroom Georgian town house in Hampstead. The poster on the fridge here shows all the prime ministers of England. This is not her cramming for the job, but evidence of this being a family home.

She has three children and one or two of them still live here, on and off. The only other hint that this might be the home of a future politician is a photograph of her with Jesse Jackson. Most of the other photographs are of Desmond Wilcox – Dessie, as she called him – her husband who died in 2000.

We head up to Luton with her in the driving seat, behind the wheel of her hybrid car. She tells me not to worry because she is an advanced driver, a course that was given to her as a present. As she drives she tells me about her plans and I am impressed by her ability to multi-task, fielding my questions, pointing out The X Factor house, listening to instructions from her satnav, taking calls from her PA on her hands free.

Although she has two PAs who job share – as well as a team of five volunteers in Luton – she has a tendency to micro-manage her own life. You get the impression that this is a woman who could organise D-Day before breakfast. And she has nothing to prove as a campaigner.

In founding Childline, the 24-hour counselling service for abused children, she produced something of lasting value – it still receives two million calls a year. She even trained as a child counsellor and still does a lot of work for the charity. But you also suspect she is not a good delegator. ‘Domineering’ and ‘controlling’ are words that often crop up in connection with Esther Rantzen.

Her day today begins with a meeting at easyJet, one of the biggest employers in Luton. From here we go to a school and then to a hostel for battered women. It is exhausting just watching her.

There is no doubting her stamina, but you do have to wonder what her real motivation is, to be embarking upon a new, demanding career at the age of 69. Is it about craving an audience? Attention?

This would be understandable – after all, for 21 years she presented and produced one of the most popular shows on British television. An odd mix of consumer campaigning and misshapen vegetables, That’s Life! clocked up audiences of 22 million viewers at its peak.

But semi-retirement and the death of her husband seemed to leave her in an emotional void. She tried to fill it with appearances on Strictly Come Dancing and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! but it yawned ever bigger. It is clear she uses activity as a way of staving off not only ageing but ennui.

When she appeared on In The Psychiatrist’s Chair more than a decade ago she discussed her postnatal depression, her fear of loneliness and her lack of introspection. Dr Anthony Clare noted that: ‘Ours is a narcissistic and voyeuristic world in which for some it can be difficult to be entirely sure one privately exists without some validation from the public world.’ Is that what her desire to become an MP is really about? We shall see.

Luton South was a safe Labour seat until Margaret Moran became one of the most high-profile MPs involved in the expenses scandal, claiming £20,000 in dry rot expenses for a second home in Southampton used by her partner.

It was this that made Esther angry. ‘I’ve got a cottage in the New Forest 10 minutes away from Southampton and so I know that journey. I know how far it is from Luton and know there is no way it can be justified as an expense. I thought, what an insult. I wrote in to a paper saying it was enough to make you want to stand against her. When someone from ITN rang and asked if I would be interested in visiting Luton to look into this, I thought, why not?’

She decided to stand against Moran as an independent. Then Moran announced she would be standing down at the next election.

Esther conferred with Martin Bell. ‘He made it clear his was a protest vote against the sitting Tory MP, and that was why Labour and Lib Dem didn’t stand against him. He said I should have waited to see who was the most notorious king or queen of expenses still standing and stand against them.’

Why didn’t she heed his advice? One reason, she admits, is that Luton is only half an hour from where she lives. ‘Had it been Glasgow East it would have been impossible for me. But more importantly, I fell in love with Luton. People in the street greeted me so warmly. I was touched and impressed. They kept telling me they didn’t feel listened to and that Moran was invisible.The more I saw Luton, the more I loved it. I love its history and its warmth and its ethnic diversity.’

History? ‘Famous for its hats.’ Luton is about two thirds Asian, with one of the highest Muslim populations in Britain. How does her being Jewish go down? ‘I went to a mosque and sat with a group of imams. I said: “Look I’m a 69-year-old Jewish woman, can I represent you?” And they said: “Of course you can, we’re British. All we want is for people to talk things through with us.” I think people are pretty practical. They just want someone to do the job.’

What about the Muslims in Luton who heckled the parading soldiers? ‘But it wasn’t the community in Luton doing that, it was a few people who were militant in their beliefs. I’ve had lots of Lutonians say: “That does not reflect what our community thinks.”’

A number of voters I spoke to said they thought she might be a good person to have as an MP because she is famous. She would get the town noticed in Westminster. When I tell her this she nods. ‘What I’ve been doing for the past 40 years is accessible. That will stand against me in terms of people who won’t like what I have done. On the other hand, they may be outweighed by those who like my record on child protection, or whatever.’

Either way, she will have some tricky opponents, including a new Labour candidate, Gavin Shuker, Nigel Huddleston for the Tories and a Lib Dem Luton councillor, Qurban Hussain. When we pull into a petrol station, she tells me she has to keep a record of all her expenses. ‘There are regulatory limits on how much you can spend in a campaign.

I can’t claim expenses but obviously you have to find the money from somewhere and people assume I am a rich television cat, but actually I’m an ex-rich television cat who doesn’t have the kind of spare money needed to run a campaign. I am working with volunteers, but they can’t afford to be volunteers indefinitely. I have to find a model, to see whether people who approve of the idea of an independent fighting a seat are prepared to pay to have someone with new skills and useful life experiences fight their corner. I am hoping people will offer small donations. I’m not new to fundraising.’

As to the specific policies she will be fighting on, she is keeping her powder dry. ‘The major parties haven’t brought out their manifestos yet so there is no point me rushing out with one. There is no point me making statements now that may soon become out of date. But in terms of national issues, obviously I am interested in child protection. And the expenses process – that needs to be transparent.’

Having reverted to her natural brunette hair colouring after an experiment with red and years of being blonde, and having made plain her approval of Botox, it is clear Esther cares about her appearance. Today she is wearing a leather jacket and pearls. ‘You do have to think about how you look. You want to be businesslike but not intimidating.

‘When I started in television, journalists would ask to do items about my clothes and I would say certainly not, because I want to be taken seriously. But now I have learnt that people take you at your own estimation and if you walk out looking like a pile of old washing they will think that is how you think of yourself. And that in turn is how they will think of you.’

At the school, the headmaster says something to me that makes me smile, for the wrong reasons. He says the trouble with the sitting MP is that she has no authority left since the expenses scandal. ‘She has no teeth.’

There is another poignant moment when Esther has to explain to a group of nine year-olds who she is, or was. ‘I made a programme which once featured a dog that could say “sausages”,’ she explains. This only makes them look more confused.

Afterwards, I say to Esther that realising these children had never heard of the dog who said sausages made me feel old. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘That is why I did I’m a Celebrity, I had realised that when I was talking about Childline to children, I no longer had the link I had had with previous generations, so I thought if I do a show like that, a new generation will know who I am. Quite a lot of them talk to me about the jungle.’

Esther Rantzen was born in June 1940 into a family of liberal Jews in north London. Her father was a BBC sound engineer; her mother was the governor of a day nursery. Educated at Somerville College, Oxford, Esther joined the BBC as a secretary in 1963 and soon became a researcher.

In 1967, Desmond Wilcox asked her to join Man Alive, where she became a trainee director. They embarked on an affair that lasted for about eight years. Wilcox’s wife found out and he moved in with Esther. They married in 1977, a month before the first of their children was born.

In 2001, when Esther published her autobiography, she became embroiled in a public spat with her stepdaughter, Cassandra Wilcox, who was unhappy with Esther’s scathing comments about her mother. Cassandra vented her contempt for Esther in a newspaper interview.

I ask how her relationships with her stepchildren are these days. ‘When I’m in Australia I try to see them. And the twins, I last saw them at a family wedding, which was nice. Cass, the oldest, I haven’t seen for a while. She was invited to Bec’s wedding [Esther’s daughter] but they were away.’ Does she regret opening that wound? ‘Yes, I wrote the autobiography at the time Dessie died and there were things that he wanted to say, things that had hurt him. Would I write it now? No.’

Before she had the affair with Wilcox she had one with Nicholas Fairbairn MP. What did she learn from him about the political world? ‘Nothing.’ Too young? ‘I think he was a barrister then. What I did learn about was the law. That a clever defence lawyer can run rings around the police. Nicholas was a dandy. He designed his own bowler hats.’

Ah. Hats again. And her preoccupation with them explained. Perhaps.

What would her husband have made of her becoming an MP? ‘Dessie tended to be the voice of sanity, but if he saw I was determined he’d support me. And it would be easier if he were alive because he was very practical and efficient. If there was a big decision to make we’d make it together.’

Esther appears to be someone who needs constant stimulation and deadlines to avoid the boredom of contemplation, of being with herself.

Is that what this is about, this need for a workload? She thinks about it, rolling her tongue against her teeth. ‘I do thrive on adrenalin. When I first said I was going to stand as an MP, Edwina Currie was quoted as saying that Esther doesn’t know about hard work. I thought, but then Edwina doesn’t know about presenting and producing a consumer show for 25 years.’

There is no love lost between the two women, another feud. Esther once said: ‘Fishnets are many things, but elegant they are not. I think they are quite sluttish. In the Eighties, I did go through an Edwina Currie stage of wearing them.’ Me-ow!

Esther will turn 70 within weeks of winning her seat in Luton, if she does indeed win it. Does that worry her? ‘Turning 70? I will be a mere laughing child. Do I think about that? Never.’

Esther Rantzen seems to be something of a Marmite figure, someone the public loves or, because of the mawkishness, self-promotion and sanctimoniousness they remember from her That’s Life! years, loathes.

I warmed to her. She may be a megalomaniac but she also has a pleasing line in self-deprecation and she certainly has fire in her belly. As to her motives, I suspect she thinks a late career as an MP would make for a pleasing coda to a colourful career.

But that’s not to say she wouldn’t be good at the job. A couple of weeks after we meet, she rings to say that the man who was being hounded by the CSA has had his case resolved happily. Esther had mobilised the local press, accompanied him to court and got them to back down on forcing him to sell his house. I imagine she would also put Luton on the map… if she survives that long.

She tells me she plans to walk the streets of the city centre at night to assess for herself how serious the problem of street violence is there. ‘I’m going with a kid who said he didn’t feel safe. I’ve asked the police and they have said it’s OK. I should be safe enough. There are plenty of CCTVs.’ Of course there are. And a camera is a camera.