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