Mention alcopops and you are guaranteed to inflame TV presenter and Childline founder Esther Rantzen.

Just mention them and she is at her passionate, hard-hitting best.

"There is a lot of peer pressure and personally I would ban alcopops," she said firmly.

"I don't know how the companies who churn out these sweet alcoholic drinks to seduce children are getting away with it.

"I really do not know how they can sleep at night. If I had my way alcopops would be taken off the supermarket shelves and banned for good."

Esther, who celebrated the 20th anniversary of her free-phone counselling service for children last year, added: "We have a lot of calls linked to alcohol abuse.

"It has an effect on the likelihood of unwanted pregnancy and sex they were not ready for.

"Young people ring us up and say they really do not have any memory of what happened."

It was in the spring of 1986 that the BBC TV consumer programme That's Life!, presented by Esther, appealed to viewers for their help in conducting a survey on child abuse.

The BBC also ran a telephone helpline for 24 hours after the programme for adults and children.

The result was staggering.

Lines were jammed with children who insisted on remaining anonymous, but confided details of terrible cruelty and sexual abuse.

Three thousand adults (of whom 90 per cent were women) completed a BBC questionnaire, in which 90 per cent of them recounted, mostly for the first time, the experience of sexual abuse in their childhood.

As a result, a special Childwatch team was set up to read the questionnaires and make a programme on child abuse.

They found that children were still suffering as they had in the past.

The team met child care professionals from both the statutory and voluntary sectors - including the NSPCC, Kidscape, Great Ormond Street Hospital and social services departments - to discuss how to establish a permanent free telephone helpline, which would provide a way of comforting and advising those who could not be reached in any other way.

ChildLine was launched in October 1986 with a simple, memorable telephone number - 0800 1111.

On the night of the launch, 50,000 children tried to ring the helpline and since then it has counselled more than one million youngsters.

Demand continues at a very high level - approximately 4,000 children call ChildLine every day.

Esther recalls her own childhood was very happy o Continued on page 18 From page xx and has fond memories of visiting her cousin's house in the New Forest, in the same area near Lyndhurst where she now lives.

It made the stories that emerged of abuse even more shocking to her.

Problems involving alcohol have been a recurring theme.

ChildLine has reported that teens feel under pressure to drink to impress and to have sex at an early age.

Children as young as 12 are turning to alcohol to cope with the embarrassment of first sexual experiences, while underage drinking can also cause youngsters to commit crime.

It puts girls in danger of being assaulted and can cause severe long-term health problems.

Esther also notes how alcohol abuse by parents makes for an upsetting home life.

"One 11-year-old girl who phoned up recently had a mother who is an alcoholic and a father who is an alcoholic and a drug addict.

"She was really worried that if she went to someone for help that something would happen to her mum."

Esther says she now realises that there needs to be a call centre in the Hampshire and Dorset area.

She said: "I am looking into the building of a centre in maybe Southampton, Bournemouth or Portsmouth.

"There was a terrible case in Winchester in which a boy who tried to get through 15 times then attempted suicide.

"Luckily he survived, but the desperation of his case haunts me to this day. It is my ambition to open up a centre in this area so that never happens again."

Esther stressed that she needs public support and generosity to achieve her goal.

She pledged: "My present to children before I retire will be to build a centre in Wessex."

Not that retirement is uppermost in her mind yet.

At 66 she is still full of ambition and optimism for 2007.

There remain many children who are facing a new year of abuse and isolation, for whom a sympathetic ear on the other end of the phone would be a godsend.

ChildLine recently merged with the NSPCC because it was too under-financed to continue on its own and was threatened with closure.

While ChildLine received a £10m a year pledge from CHancellor Gordon Brown, the charity still needs to raise another £10m a year to support the 1,000 children a day who are presently unable to get through.

Recalling the events that led to the birth of ChildLine 20 years ago, Esther said: "ome callers had kept the secret of child abuse for ten to 15 years because they felt like they had no one to turn to.

"These days half the calls we take are within the first month that the abuse starts."

Today the most common problems are physical and sexual abuse, school bullying, family tensions, friends' welfare and teenage pregnancy.

Esther said she is still stunned by the atrocious revelations of abuse but also by children's courage.

"The children are the ones who are abused and suffering but they still feel it is their duty to protect their parents," she said.

"One little girl who called said her father was taking pornographic pictures of her and her six -year old sister.

"We told her that she must go to the police but she said she had a lovely daddy and sometimes a monster daddy but she didn't want to lose the lovely daddy.

"It is heartbreaking how loyal children are to their parents and how brave they can be too.

"One girl from the south-west had met Princess Diana who asked if she was happy now that she had escaped from abuse and she replied: No because it was my job to suffer.' "She said this because when her father was sent to prison, it had destroyed the family life she had."

But Esther, who is still in contact with the girl, said there is a happy ending to the story.

Now the girl has grown up, she realised he needed to be punished, has settled down with a boyfriend and looking forward to her future.

The helpline is 0800 1111. To make a donation visit