Anne Robinson peers over the top of her glasses and fixes me with an icy glare: “Come on, Graham, give me the answer. You can’t, can you? Call yourself a journalist!”
We’re both trying to remember the name of a recently sacked politician. Fortunately, the feisty 73-year-old presenter is merely teasing me. Curled up on a huge striped sofa in her elegant Kensington townhouse, she is in fact surprisingly warm, playful and engaging company.
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We’re here to discuss her BBC documentary The Trouble with Women, in which she explores provocative issues around equality including the recent sexual harassment controversies.
“I’m still not sure that younger women have worked out what they want,” she sighs. “I thought my generation had broken the glass ceiling on the journey to equality. But having passed on the warrior baton that enabled women to become prime ministers and heads of city institutions, it transpires they we’re still having to put up with inappropriate behaviour from men while not doing anything about it. I’m starting to feel like it’s going to take another 100 years to get true equality.
“It angers me why this behaviour has been allowed to go on for so long,” she continues. “I was also really shocked that women further up the pole weren’t doing more to curtail it. But workplaces are politically and sexually treacherous and I’m afraid women do have to accept that. You have a choice. Do I get off the train and spend my life complaining and making a fuss or do I stay on the train and make sure it never happens to me again? I always chose the latter but maybe I’m just a different sort of warrior.”
Robinson began her career in journalism as the only female trainee reporter in the Daily Mail newsroom in the late 60s and later joined The Sunday Times. “I never actually clouted a man if he tried to pat my bum because I never attached that much importance to it,” she laughs. “I just used to sigh and curtly say, ‘Look, I’m very busy, please don’t waste my time.’ I certainly didn’t run crying to the loo. I just thought the quicker I got to the top, the sooner I wouldn’t have to put up with this nonsense.”
Having learnt to fight her corner in a male-dominated environment, she became assistant editor of the Daily Mirror in the 80s, the first woman regularly to edit a national newspaper. “I was the only one who was never scared of [notorious Daily Mirror owner] Robert Maxwell. Bullies understand the word ‘no’ quicker than most. They go for weakness and that’s why it’s important for women to show their strength and make it clear they’re not going to put up with this rubbish.”
Robinson attributes her no-nonsense steeliness to her mother who inherited a market stall selling poultry and turned it into a lucrative business. “She was an outspoken and serious breadwinner, so I had no experience other than a woman telling men where to get off. I don’t mean this in a sarcastic way but I simply didn’t have any experience of men being important. Ours was a feisty Irish/Liverpudlian household where you achieved things by being quick-witted. It didn’t occur to me you couldn’t cope with sexual harassment in the same way.”
As a young reporter, Robinson found sexual harassment to be rife at political conferences. “I’d have trade union leaders chasing me up the stairs of Brighton’s Grand Hotel,” she laughs. “It sounds ghastly but I just thought it terribly funny. The same powerful guys who could call the country to a halt were the ones pathetically trying to get into my hotel bedroom. Tory and Labour conferences were exactly the same. MPs would drink too much at parties and lose all their inhibitions. Fortunately, I was far too quick for any of them!”
Fifty years later she’s still as quick on her feet and displays the same verbal dexterity. But she’s also full of surprises. “When it comes to music, I’ve always loved Dolly Parton. She’s got so much energy and sass. Smart, funny, super-talented and successful – who needs Kim Kardashian when young women have got a fabulous role model like Dolly.” Or indeed, like Anne.
The Trouble with Women with Anne Robinson is on Thursday 14th June at 9pm on BBC1