I'M NO WICKED STEPMOTHER; It Has Been the Most Spectacular Family Fallout Ever Seen. Now Esther Rantzen Has HER Say - and Explains How Her Husband Desmond Approved Every Word She Wrote about His Bitter Ex-Wife Patsy

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THE row between Esther Rantzen and her stepdaughter reached boiling point last week when The Mail on Sunday published the second part of her sensational autobiography.

In it, Esther claimed that Desmond Wilcox's first wife, Patsy, blamed her for the failure of that marriage and carried her bitterness to her grave in 1999, despite Esther's efforts to smooth things over. Patsy's daughter, Cassie, launched a fierce counterattack in the Daily Mail, accusing Esther of stealing Desmond from her mother and invading the marital home.

Here, in her first interview since the serialisation began, Esther talks of the emotional effect of the row and attempts to mend the relationship . . .

HERE, in a studio deep in the bowels of the BBC's London headquarters, Esther Rantzen is the undisputed-queen.

Dressed immaculately in a Ronit Zilkha silk shirt and skirt, spindly kitten heels and expensive costume jewellery she holds court - surrounded by guests and crew of her afternoon programme, Esther.

Only someone who had been on another planet for the past two weeks would be unaware of the bitter family row into which Esther has been catapulted following the serialisation of her autobiography in The Mail on Sunday. She has been vilified by her stepdaughter and pilloried by newspaper columnists - even journalists she regards as friends have questioned the wisdom of her revelations about Patsy Wilcox, her late husband Desmond's first wife and a former friend who took to her grave an implacable resentment of the woman she believed had 'stolen' her husband.

Yet to watch Esther on her afternoon TV show, you'd never know it.

Even today, when the surprise guest, yachtswoman Ellen Mac-Arthur, arrives at the last minute on the back of a motorbike and a bomb alert causes chaos outside, Esther's show flows without a hitch. And afterwards she rides calmly home in

her BBC taxi to the 18th Century Hampstead house she shared with Desmond for eight years until he died in September. Esther is in charge of Esther and always has been . . . yet her stepdaughter's contention is that the control extends ruthlessly into other people's lives.

She is in her dressing-room after the show, speaking in slow, measured tones. But underneath, her voice is shaking. She admits the row, which has erupted into an all-out battle since the book was serialised, has shaken her.

The thin, shapely legs are crossed and the slender fingers laced tightly together as though it is an effort to rein back those well-defended feelings.

'It's very distressing,' she admits.

'For all of us, I imagine. Certainly, for my children and me but I hope it will heal in time because what I've learned is that it's very counterproductive to keep one's anger going. Fury keeps you warm but you become consumed by it. Having seen the effects,' she pauses delicately, 'in the previous generation, in Cassie's mother, I've learned not to nurture anger. Patsy taught me that.' Her voice is whispery soft but the implication clear. Patsy would not forgive. Her hatred of Esther burned until the end. It affected not only Patsy's life but her children's - even now. As for Esther and Desmond, Esther would not go so far as to say it wrecked their peace of mind, but she knows how much it distressed Desmond and feels it was all a waste of energy, out of which no good has come.

'It's entirely negative,' she says.

THE legs uncross and she sits up. 'I don't know Cassie all that well, partly because she never lived with us. Her younger brother and sister, Adam and Claire, who did live with us, I have become very fond of. Desmond loved them all.

'The myth was that I stole Patsy's husband, home and family. But moving into their family home was not my decision and I wasn't happy with it. From choice, I'd have started again. Who wouldn't?' She tells me she and Desmond moved into Patsy and Desmond's marital home in Kew, when she was eight months' pregnant, only to provide continuity for his children - so while they were surviving the end of their parents' marriage they could at least sleep at night in their own bedrooms. …