Desmond Knew He Was Dying, So He Took off His Oxygen Mask, Gave Me a Passionate Kiss and said:'I Adore You'; Esther Rantzen's Testament to the Man Whose Talent Transformed Filmmaking and Whose Love Lit Up Her Life

Daily Mail (London), September 7, 2000 | Go to article overview

Desmond Knew He Was Dying, So He Took off His Oxygen Mask, Gave Me a Passionate Kiss and said:'I Adore You'; Esther Rantzen's Testament to the Man Whose Talent Transformed Filmmaking and Whose Love Lit Up Her Life


Byline: LYNDA LEE-POTTER

ACCLAIMED documentary maker Desmond Wilcox - husband of Esther Rantzen - has died at the age of 69.

Tributes were pouring in last night to the man who revolutionised television filmmaking in the Sixties with his BBC2 Man Alive series.

He put ordinary people on the screen for the first time and persuaded them to talk - often emotionally - about their lives and issues ranging from marriage to child molesting.

He also homed in on subjects other producers might have shrunk from.

Most famously, he told the story of David, a Peruvian baby abandoned after disease had eaten more than half his face away and whose features were rebuilt by a Scottish surgeon.

He made seven films about him which won five international awards.

Wilcox went to Cheltenham Grammar School, where he claimed he was regularly beaten to eradicate his stammer. It left him with an abiding sympathy for people suffering from disabilities. Numerous charities were set up as a result of his films.

At 18, he worked as a deckhand on a cargo ship, but went on to enter journalism on a weekly paper. He later became a reporter and foreign correspondent with the Daily Mirror.

He took the investigative techniques of Fleet Street to television in 1960, joining ITV's This Week. In 1965 he moved to the BBC, becoming head of features in 1972. Former BBC2 Controller Sir David Attenborough said: 'I think he rather shattered some of the staider people working in documentary and feature fields.' Wilcox was also famous for giving women a chance to work on TV as reporters. One was Miss Rantzen.

They met as his first marriage was falling apart and wed in 1977. He converted to Judaism, her faith. But their partnership caused jealousies in the department which finally led to him leaving the BBC in 1980 to set up as an independent filmmaker.

Last night, presenter Nick Rosssaid: 'We have lost a real gentleman.

Desmond was a big man, not in stature but in every other sense. A big presence, big-hearted, and a big way of forgetting slights and quarrying the best from everyone.' Wilcox, who fathered six children, died in St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, West London, on Tuesday.Yesterday, Miss Rantzen spoke to Lynda Lee-Potter about the man who she said had given her the 'best 32 years of my life'.

ESTHER and Desmond Wilcox would have been married for 23 years in December.

It was a passionate marriage built on love and friendship.

I've known Esther for a long time and giving in is anathema to her.

Whenever she cries in distress or exhaustion, she apologises. Her husband's death was so sudden that she is suffering not only from grief but from shock.

'He was having lunch at the Belvedere hotel in Holland Park with a friend,' she told me yesterday. 'It became obvious that he was in a great deal of pain.

'An ambulance was called and he was taken to St Mary's. I was coming up to London from our cottage in the New Forest, so I was able to divert straight to the hospital.

'What had happened didn't follow the pattern of his other two heart attacks.

It became clear we were dealing with something that doctors weren't able to mend.

'It was what is known as a dissection.

A complete artery had failed and doctors couldn't do a bypass or replace it.

All they could do was give him painkillers.

'Desmond had put up with so many procedures over the years and so much pain.

I didn't want him to go through any unnecessary treatment which wouldn't succeed. Our three children, Emily, Joshua and Rebecca, were with him and his eldest daughter Cassie by his first marriage.

'He knew he was dying. But, partly because he was such an organised man and partly because he was a warrior, he managed to say everything he wanted to say to each of us.

'He took off his oxygen mask and gave me such a passionate kiss he made the children blush. …

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