QUEEN OF MEAN

Sex­ists, Brexit... and do­mes­tics. Event puts the ques­tions to Anne Robin­son

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW BY JIM WHITE

As she is on most is­sues, when it comes to the gath­er­ing tide of rev­e­la­tions about women be­ing sex­u­ally ha­rassed in the work­place, Anne Robin­son is un­equiv­o­cal. What she thinks is that, rather than ex­pect­ing some­one else to step in on their be­half, young women need to sharpen their el­bows, sharpen their toe­caps and above all sharpen their tongues.

‘Th­ese days we’ve got too many vic­tims,’ she says, as she sits in her el­e­gant Lon­don town­house, one of the many ma­te­rial re­wards of her own ra­zor-like ver­bal dex­ter­ity. ‘I’m not sug­gest­ing what th­ese Har­vey We­in­stein types do is ac­cept­able. Far from it. But what I say is: can’t you make the blokes do­ing this stuff look stupid? I’ve al­ways thought you’ve got to send th­ese id­iots up a bit.

‘What puz­zles me is how my gen­er­a­tion of women paved the way for much greater lev­els of equal­ity yet some­how we failed to pass on our fight­ing spirit. Women are ten times more frag­ile than I was at that age. Why?

‘There ought to be a sys­tem in place that se­nior women men­tor young­sters, so you have a safe place to dis­cuss what is go­ing on. I want to open a school of hard knocks. Hon­estly, if you can pass A-lev­els, or get a de­gree, it can’t be that hard to grasp a clever way to tell men how ridicu­lous they are, try­ing to grope you.’

‘Send­ing up id­iots’ is what Anne Robin­son has been do­ing from the mo­ment she em­barked on her ca­reer. She needed to be good at it, too. Be­cause when she first went to Fleet Street from her home town of Liver­pool in the late Six­ties, am­bi­tious to make her name as a jour­nal­ist, she was then a rare thing in news­pa­per-land: a woman. Though look­ing back, she can­not re­call be­ing com­pro­mised by her sex.

‘I never once was ha­rassed. I know it went on but we didn’t know to be up­set, no one had taught us this shouldn’t hap­pen. And I think bul­lies and preda­tors don’t take on any­thing that is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult. I al­ways had an air of ‘don’t mess with me’. Or maybe it’s be­cause I had fat an­kles and I’m re­ally ugly,’ she smiles.

It was her re­fusal to be messed with that en­abled her to be­come a hugely sought-af­ter news­pa­per colum­nist. Af­ter a de­scent into al­co­holism in her late 20s, it was this de­ter­mi­na­tion that helped her to rein­vent her­self and go on to pre­side for a decade over the most nerve-rack­ing of all TV quizzes, The Weak­est

Link. Now 73, she is still in the grip of an urge to keep striv­ing, to keep seek­ing chal­lenges. This is not some­one about to re­tire. Not when there is so much to dis­cover.

‘Ba­si­cally I’m nosy,’ she says. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had a cab ride when I haven’t found out more than I need to know about the poor cab­bie. Last night I had this bloke who told me he had a masters in hu­man re­sources but he’s driv­ing his cab be­cause the firm he worked for went bust. I didn’t need to hear that. But I can’t help my­self.’

It is her need to find out about oth­ers, she says, that is the rea­son she is back on our screens this au­tumn. She was seen re­cently fronting a BBC2 doc­u­men­tary about the stigma of abor­tion, 50 years af­ter the Abor­tion Act was passed. As she proved with her tell-all au­to­bi­og­ra­phy de­tail­ing her bat­tle with the bot­tle [ Mem­oirs Of An Un­fit

Mother, pub­lished in 2001], this is not some­one shy of self-rev­e­la­tion. And in the doc­u­men­tary, she in­vited a group of peo­ple with dis­parate views on abor­tion to her sump­tu­ous Glouces­ter­shire home for what she de­scribes as a ‘ mix be­tween Big Brother and

Panorama’. ’. Her first act was to re­veal her own interest in the sub­ject: in her chaotic drink­ing years she’d had a ter­mi­na­tion. If that seems a brave thing to ad­mit, Robin­son is hav­ing none of it.

‘They were the brave ones,’ she says. ‘They had to spend the week­end at my house!’

In­deed, as I know in the leadup to this in­ter­view, the thought of spend­ing time with Anne Robin­son is a nerve-rack­ing prospect. She is, af­ter all, the Queen of Mean, the woman who ter­ri­fied a gen­er­a­tion with her sharp-tongued put-downs on The Weak­est Link. Ex­cept what her house guests that week­end will have quickly dis­cov­ered is that the wink at the end of ev­ery episode gave a clue to her real in­tent. The most alarm­ing television pres­ence this side of David At­ten­bor­ough’s bird-eat­ing fish was al­ways a wil­ful ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Away from the screen, Robin­son is un­recog­nis­able from the ice maiden of quiz-land: funny, en­gag­ing, full of mis­chief, she is de­light­ful com­pany.

‘I can’t re­mem­ber a sin­gle episode when we didn’t have a laugh,’ is her sum­mary of her 11-year run at the helm of the quiz. ‘I loved the con­tes­tants: I thought it was re­mark­able they were coura­geous enough to come on. And their knowl­edge was fan­tas­tic.’

Which is why she is thrilled to be back in charge of the show again in

‘If you can pass A-lev­els, it can’t be that hard to grasp a clever way to tell men how ridicu­lous they are try­ing to grope you’

a celebrity edi­tion for BBC Chil­dren In Need. ‘I can’t wait,’ she says. ‘ The only thing I’m wor­ried about is I’m so out of touch I won’t know who the celebri­ties are. But maybe we can have some fun with that: “And you are who, ex­actly?”’

To see her in ac­tion again will give us all a re­minder that in the world of quizzes, Robin­son was a one-off. Hosts are nor­mally there to con­sole and sym­pa­thise, not ca­jole and snipe. And in truth The Weak­est Link was planned to be like other shows. Robin­son has, in a frame on her wall, the let­ter from the BBC of­fer­ing her the job. It talks about how she would act as a com­fort blan­ket, sym­pa­thet­i­cally help­ing the losers evicted from the for­mat’s com­pet­i­tive vot­ing sys­tem get over their hu­mil­i­a­tion. All that changed, al­most from the first.

‘We did a pi­lot and there was a con­tes­tant called Ray, and when I said: “Why are you vot­ing Lynn off?” he said: “Any­one who can’t name the Tele­tub­bies doesn’t de­serve to be here.” And it struck me: we don’t have to be cheesy. Th­ese guys are very com­pet­i­tive, they can hack it. So I started be­hav­ing like we did in the news­room when I was first a jour­nal­ist: just tak­ing the p***.’ At that mo­ment the Queen of Mean was born.

‘What made it so suc­cess­ful? I think in part it was the first time on television you had to check your­self and think: did she just ask some­one why they are so fat?’ Did she re­ally do that? ‘Prob­a­bly,’ she smiles. ‘But what you were look­ing for was some­one to play with. You’re not talk­ing about drown­ing kit­tens. You were look­ing for some­one who was up to it, some­one who might spar.’

It was her suc­cess on The Weak­est Link, at the rel­a­tively late age of 56, that changed her life. Within months of it be­ing screened she had been re­cruited to host the Amer­i­can ver­sion when the pro­duc­ers re­alised her quick­wit­ted in­ter­ven­tions were in­te­gral to its suc­cess. It made her renowned on both sides of the At­lantic.

‘I walked into Elaine’s in New York one night and ev­ery­one stood up and clapped,’ she re­calls. ‘But the thing was, I’d been around long enough to know they wouldn’t be do­ing that in three years’ time. Which was why I en­joyed it so much: be­cause it didn’t re­ally mat­ter if it ended to­mor­row.’

The Weak­est Link made her some­thing else too: rich. Her per­sonal for­tune of some £50 mil­lion stems from her renowned abil­ity to strike a deal. And the rules of en­gage­ment, she says, are sim­ple. ‘Never be em­bar­rassed about money. And when they say no, that’s just the start of ne­go­ti­a­tions.’

Which makes you think: what would Anne Robin­son do if she were put in charge of the most sig­nif­i­cant ne­go­ti­a­tion in mod­ern Bri­tish his­tory? How would she ex­tract the best pos­si­ble deal from Brexit?

‘To be in with a chance of a de­cent deal you need two buy­ers or the op­tion to walk away,’ she says. ‘ The prob­lem with Brexit is we’ve nei­ther. And even be­fore I ap­proached the ta­ble I would con­sider it handy to have ev­ery­one on my side agree­ing, don’t you think? Af­ter that, pray­ing for a mir­a­cle might be use­ful.’

Robin­son her­self doesn’t need mir­a­cles. She prefers cash. ‘I spend way too much,’ she ad­mits. ‘ Too many dresses, too many houses, too many hol­i­days, too many staff.’

Robin­son lives by a sim­ple maxim: never pick up a Hoover. She has a full-time house­keeper in Lon­don and an­other in Glouces­ter­shire. And she had no hand what­so­ever in her coun­try house’s lovely meadow of wild flow­ers, which we saw on her Abor­tion

On Trial doc­u­men­tary. That was the work of a pla­toon of gar­den­ers.

‘I don’t do any­thing,’ she says. ‘You’re bloody hon­oured I’ve made you a cup of tea.’

Plus we should not for­get the money she spends on bat­tling the age­ing process.

‘For God’s sake, you’ve taken your time to get round to ask­ing about facelifts,’ she laughs when asked about her renowned pen­chant for the sur­gi­cal pur­suit of youth. ‘I’m not do­ing it to pre­tend I’m younger than I am, other­wise I wouldn’t be telling you how old I was. No, I came from a home where look­ing good was im­por­tant. The truth is, if you want longevity as a woman on television you’ve got to be clever and you’ve got to be thin.’

Robin­son – who, 40 years af­ter giv­ing up al­co­hol, runs three miles ev­ery day and eats only sen­si­ble foods – is both. Which will serve her well should the mooted reg­u­lar re­turn of

The Weak­est Link come about. ‘It will only come back if I say yes,’ she says. ‘That gives me a rather strong po­si­tion in the ne­go­ti­a­tions.’

The mil­lions of us who thrilled to her turn as the Queen of Mean will hope she does re­turn. Though if it hap­pens, spare a thought for the poor per­son on the other side of the ta­ble when it comes to bar­gain­ing over her fee. Faced with the sharpest tongue around, they re­ally will be the weak­est link. ‘Weak­est Link Celebrity Spe­cial’ for BBC Chil­dren In Need is on Nov 17 at 10pm on BBC2

Anne Robin­son strikes a pose. Op­po­site, from top: Robin­son in 1979; with daugh­ter Emma at David Frost’s me­mo­rial ser­vice in 2014; on The Weak­est Link

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