WHEN questioned as to whether she had the experience necessary to clean up British politics, Esther Rantzen paused for a split second before unleashing the most famous set of teeth on television.
"Sweetheart," she beamed. "I have been incarcerated underground, showered with creepy crawlies and kept in the dark, so what's new?"
The veteran consumer champion clearly believes her privations on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here are the ideal preparation for squashing the avaricious Witchetty Grubs of Westminster. And the voters of Luton appear to agree. When Rantzen staged a walkabout through the town's slightly down-at-heel High Street last week, crowds of shoppers surged forward to pump the 68-year-old's hand and slap her on the back. Some chanted "Go on, Esther!"
This doughty campaigner is "80 per cent sure" she will stand as an independent anti-sleaze candidate against Labour incumbent Margaret Moran, who is embroiled in controversy over her expenses (she claimed 22,500 to treat dry rot in her home in Southampton, 100 miles from the constituency).
Visibly revelling in her Indian summer return to the public spotlight, and looking stylish in a power hairdo, red coat and matching shoes, Rantzen appears to be a woman reborn. Less than a decade ago the broadcaster who spent decades campaigning for victims faced – and overcame – her own personal tragedy. In 2000, shortly after her flagship TV ventures sank without trace, Rantzen lost the love of her life when her husband Desmond Wilcox, the celebrated film-maker, died. Throwing herself into politics is just the latest manifestation of how she has rebuilt her life after that low point and refused to be herded towards retirement.
Esther Louise Rantzen was born in June 1940 into a family of liberal Jews in North London. Her father Harry was a BBC sound engineer; her mother Katherine sat on the board of a day nursery in the city's East End. Rantzen's childhood was a happy one, so much so that she only left home shortly before her 30th birthday and long after she graduated with a degree in English literature from Somerville College, Oxford.
Joining the BBC, she worked as a researcher for the award-winning documentary series Man Alive, where she met Wilcox. The pair fell in love and their affair led to the dissolution of his 20-year marriage to Patsy Wilcox. The break-up destroyed Rantzen's previous close relationship with Patsy, who accused her of "stealing her husband" and referred to her as "Esther Rancid". The TV presenter hit back in her 1999 memoirs in which she described her former friend as a "bat" who "gloried in her bitterness" and trapped Wilcox in a loveless marriage.
Rantzen's onscreen career blossomed when in 1973 she landed the role as chief presenter of That's Life!, a hybrid magazine programme which fused hard-hitting investigative journalism with comedy songs and light entertainment.
The seemingly incongruous format proved to be a massive hit and the show become the most popular programme on British TV, dislodging soap juggernaut Coronation Street from the top of the ratings. The image of Rantzen perched on a stool, failing to suppress a toothy smirk while clutching a phallic-shaped root vegetable has become one of the most memorable images of the modern TV era.
The show made stars of everyday people years before Britain's Got Talent: Ian Harold Brown who could play the theme tune to Hawaii Five-O on his boot laces; wisecracking great-granny Annie Mizen; Prince the talking dog; show-jumping rabbits and the like.
But it was the show's campaigning edge that Rantzen was most proud of. During its run, which lasted until 1994, the programme moved from exposing faulty washing machines and over-zealous "jobsworth" officials to calling for more organ donors, prompting law changes on seatbelts and exposing paedophiles in residential schools.
It was this concern for abused children which prompted Rantzen to set up Childline, the world's first national helpline for youngsters, in 1986. The presenter retains ties with the service, but last year made the controversial claim that she was partially responsible for the politically correct "hysteria" surrounding child protection in 21st-century Britain.
Despite her success Rantzen has always been a mixture of great self-belief and insecurity, describing herself as "the plainest, oldest woman in TV" after collecting a Bafta in 1988. Her confidence took a further battering following the cancellation of her shows Hearts Of Gold and That's Esther, which failed to repeat the massive success of That's Life!
Following Wilcox's death she confessed to picking up his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) habits, which leave her unable to "pass a bin lid without closing it, or a cushion without plumping it". Eventually, encouraged by her grown-up children, TV reporter Rebecca, charity worker Emma and medical student Joshua, she decided to temper her grief by throwing herself back into the spotlight.
Rantzen stopped dyeing her hair for the first time in 40 years, declaring "enough already", treated herself to Botox – "you get a lovely serene forehead" – and even speed-dated on the BBC show Would Like To Meet. Her feisty attitude and Mother Hen persona won her a new generation of admirers during stints on Strictly Come Dancing and I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! And Rantzen's guide to growing old disgracefully, which was published last year, grabbed headlines because of its assertion that passing retirement age created an ideal opportunity to enjoy more sex. "Turning 60 concentrates the mind wonderfully," she purred.
Now she is setting her sights on derailing the gravy train and heading for parliament.
"The people are shocked and are right to be shocked," she said. "They want someone they can trust." The fatally wounded Speaker Michael Martin has already realised that "Jaws" still has a formidable bite. She said of his tenure: "He belongs to an out-of-date era of tribalism and saw his job as protecting the interests of the MPs as if they were members of his union. The Commons could have cleaned up their act far earlier if he had just shown them the way, but he didn't."
If Rantzen were to form an electoral alliance with the equally feisty Joanna Lumley, Joan Bakewell and Anna Ford it would cause sleepless nights for both Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Forget girl power, perhaps what the mother of all parliaments really needs is a bloodless bluestocking revolution. There is no doubt that the woman who introduced the British public to a dog who could say "sausages" could make mincemeat of greedy MPs.