Countdown host Anne Robinson: 'There were times I'd go too hard on The Weakest Link contestants'
New Countdown host Anne Robinson speaks to Kate Battersby in The Big RT Interview.
By: Kate Battersby
Anne Robinson is full of surprises. Almost a decade after the last series of Weakest Link, she is still defined by the 12 years she spent pummelling contestants with scathing barbs – a towering Queen of Mean, satanically swathed in black. Is that who I would meet? Moreover, her frankness about previous face-lifts and ongoing devotion to fillers led me to fear that, face-to-face, she would be one of those celebs who looks neither young nor old, but rather as if they have been in a fire.
Instead, she turns out to be extraordinarily delicate-looking, her porcelain skin bearing none of the weird hallmarks signposting overuse of Botox. Moreover, far from being fearsomely statuesque, she is rather tiny, enhanced by a fierce discipline for keeping in shape via Pilates, weights and diet.
The surprises don’t stop there. Previous interviews have suggested she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about her, and has no fear of failing in her new role as host of Countdown – not so, apparently. This time the supposed Queen of Mean announces herself as “a terrible worrier”, confesses she was “very nervous” when she started recording at the start of June, and admits that she very much wants to be liked by the show’s audience.
“Of course I do,” she says. “I don’t want people saying, ‘Why have you ruined the show I’ve watched for 25 years?’ You want to do your best. You don’t want to fail. That would be horrifying.”
I’m barely through the door of the penthouse apartment Robinson has just moved into before she starts apologising. First it’s how she looks (as if rangy elegance requires an apology – on a hot summer’s day we’re both in white jeans and a T-shirt, but mine will have cost less than a tenth of her exquisite designer clobber), and then for “the state” of the gorgeous flat – a two-bed, two-bath apartment with a terrace, just a couple of streets from the vast Georgian house that had become too big for her. Assorted members of the royal family live in this achingly smart area of west London, with another gaggle near her Cotswolds “real home”, a converted barn in several acres.
Moments later, though, she starts firing questions at me – on weight, love life, hair, the importance of a reliable dog sitter – which continue randomly throughout the interview. When I haul the chat back to her, she murmurs at the public relations rep perched nearby: “She’s quite tough, isn’t she?” But the Queen of Mean is positively twinkling. It’s obvious Anne Robinson is a hoot.
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Weakest Link, along with astute investment in property, made Robinson very rich indeed – £50 million, so it’s said. She was already in her mid-50s when the quiz show started, although by then Watchdog and Points of View had made her a household name following a rampantly successful career in newspapers. Now, at 76, she is succeeding Nick Hewer at the helm of a national institution – Countdown was the first programme ever broadcast on Channel 4 in November 1982, with over 7,500 episodes since.
“I was already a devotee because it’s a clever show that has remained authentic,” she says, “but I didn’t know I wanted the job until it was offered. You get offers all the time. I was meant to do something about the kings and queens of England for Channel 5, but in the first week of lockdown that was cancelled. Then Channel 4 suddenly said, ‘Would you consider Countdown?’ I thought it was brilliant, and I consulted a trusted friend in television who said: ‘It’s like strawberries and cream’ – the perfect marriage.”
She laughs dryly when asked if she had to audition. “No. And no, the money isn’t like the Weakest Link – nothing is – but the deal is pretty good.”
When Channel 4 offered the job, they mentioned that Robinson will be the first female presenter. “I thought, ‘Surely we’re past all that?’” she says, rolling her eyes. But she rather likes that it means the show is fronted entirely by women, with Susie Dent in Dictionary Corner and Rachel Riley spearheading the maths wizardry. “They’re both fantastic, although COVID constraints have been so limiting that we haven’t been able to get together off-screen yet. I admire them both – they are the gravitas that stops Countdown being just a game show.”
Having done over a decade on Weakest Link, can Robinson imagine herself doing 10 years of Countdown, by which time she would be 86? She doesn’t laugh at the idea, or reel in horror.
“I don’t know,” she replies, before adding pointedly: “How old is Mary Berry?” The answer is 86. Touché.
Does it bring her out in a cold sweat, the thought that 86 is a mere 10 years away?
“What a rude question,” she says, clearly enjoying it. “No. It feels like only yesterday that I was the youngest reporter in The Sunday Times newsroom, and the only female.”
But that was 53 years ago, and the Countdown shooting schedule is demanding. By the time we meet, she has already recorded 30 shows, shot in two blocks of five a day, working three days back-to-back.
“Countdown is obviously different to the Weakest Link in lots of ways, not least that I try to get a couple of minutes with the contestants before we begin because I don’t want them to think I’m going to make them cry. On the Weakest Link I made a point of not meeting them, and even if they said ‘hi’ I wouldn’t answer, including the celebrities.
“I won’t be telling any of the Countdown contestants that they’re stupid. I created that character for the Weakest Link. I don’t know if I’m shedding it once and for all, but I hope I can play up and down the scale. Originally on Weakest Link I was told, ‘You look as if you know the answers to the questions and you can help ease the disappointment for contestants who are voted off.’”
Mmmm… that last part… not so much, by the time the show reached the air! “There were times when I’d go a bit too hard and I’d say to the producers, ‘Don’t use that.’ But the contestants would almost all have been bitterly disappointed if I hadn’t been the Queen of Mean.”
So that was just a character? Asked to describe “the real you”, she says she can’t – which is uncharacteristically feeble from a lifelong wordsmith. “Oh. Well, I hope I’m quick-witted, a bit funny, I hope I have some compassion, and can entertain.”
She agrees that Weakest Link could not be made now, for fear of the effect on contestants’ mental health. She declares herself “absolutely not” on board with such matters. “It’s censorship and unnecessary. Yes, there are too many snowflakes today. In the 1970s it was the tougher women who adapted to a male world. Now, thankfully, clever women of all shapes and sizes are in the workplace, but it means they don’t have steel armour and are more easily upset. I wish there was a course they had to do, instead of useless Masters degrees, that teaches them the game of office life, and how to win at it.”
Just then her daughter Emma bowls into the apartment, all oversize sunglasses and glorious Titian curls, at 49 looking 35. To say Robinson lights up is an understatement. Her bond with her only child (from her first marriage to newspaper editor Charles Wilson) is such that Emma, husband Liam and their sons Hudson, 12, and Parker, 11, spent much of lockdown with Robinson at her Cotswolds barn.
“It was noisy, irritating and fantastic,” states Robinson, and it’s plain that they are her heartbeat. Her downtime is devoted to them, along with reading, theatre and happily indulging her shopping habit. Her second marriage, to journalist John Penrose, foundered 14 years ago. Asked if she has a partner, she replies: “That would be none of your business.” But she’s twinkling again, and anyway, from the chat she has shared between questions, it is already evident she is single.
“I’m pretty good on my own, although for a couple of years after I separated from Penrose I was really struggling. You’re dying to get out of something because it’s not working and making you both unhappy, but what you don’t give enough thought to is that you’re not going to move to something that’s fantastic. I miss having a playmate, but I’m not prepared to have someone around every day. Two nights of the week would be good.
“I’ve loads of regrets from the past 50 years, but at 76 I’m sitting here with a new show and no one in my family hates me.”
Is there anything Robinson still wants to achieve? She looks thoughtful, as if contemplating a profound truth. Then the twinkle reappears.
“Well,” she says, “I’d like to be a proper size 8.”
Queen of Mean? Nah. She’s a honey, that Anne Robinson. I won’t tell if you don’t.
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