Anne Robinson: ‘I come from a long line of wild, Irish alcoholic wolves’

Countdown’s new presenter on sobriety, ageism in TV and being the Queen of Mean

Anne Robinson: ‘When Countdown told me I was the first female host, I groaned. You may as well say I’m the first host with a cocker spaniel.’ Photograph: Rachel Joseph/Channel 4

Anne Robinson: ‘When Countdown told me I was the first female host, I groaned. You may as well say I’m the first host with a cocker spaniel.’ Photograph: Rachel Joseph/Channel 4

 

Anne Robinson was born in Crosby, north of Liverpool, to Irish parents. She started out as the first woman trainee on the Daily Mail, and developed her trademark caustic style while writing the Daily Mirror’s Wednesday Witch column. She began appearing on TV during the 1980s, becoming presenter of Points of View and Watchdog. Robinson is best known for the BBC game show The Weakest Link, and on Monday the 76-year-old takes over as the new host of Countdown, which airs at 2.10pm every weekday on Channel 4.

How does it feel to be returning to the world of quiz shows?

I stopped doing The Weakest Link a decade ago when it moved up to Glasgow – my grandchildren had just been born and I didn’t want to be that far away – but I adored every single episode I did. When Countdown came along, it felt like a brilliant fit. It didn’t take me any time at all to say yes.

Were you a Countdown fan already?

I was. I like its light and shade. You have the cerebral bit – Susie Dent discussing the origin of words; Rachel Riley being a mathematical genius; contestants who are whizzes at what they do – but then you have fun, chatty interludes too. I’ve been quite insistent about the guests I want in Dictionary Corner. We’ve got people like the Rev Richard Coles and Julian Clary, who keep the conversation flowing.

You were known as “the Queen of Mean” on The Weakest Link. Did you relish that nickname, or did it become a millstone around your neck?

It was never a millstone. It wasn’t my original intention to be horrid – I just didn’t want to be a cheesy game show host. Then I met the contestants, who were incredibly competitive and quite happy to be rude about each other, so I thought: “Oh good, I can be myself.” If viewers at home were saying “Why is she so fat?”, I might as well say it too. It was wonderful to never let a thought go unsaid.

Do you regret any of the sharper things you said?

I wouldn’t get away with a lot of it now. We’re very woke these days. But if I ever thought I’d gone too far, I’d tell them to edit it out. That doesn’t mean I haven’t met contestants’ mothers in the street who’ve told me they’ll never forgive me.

Will we see a warmer side to you on Countdown?

Probably, yes. The difference is that we have a chat before the show starts, to help them relax. On The Weakest Link, I made a point of never meeting the contestants, not even on celebrity specials. Partly to keep up the atmosphere, but partly because I never know what to say to celebrities.

There are very few female quiz show hosts on TV. Why is that?

All I know is that I’ve broken every rule all the way through my career. When I was on the Mirror, I was the first woman to regularly edit a national newspaper. The guys must have been annoyed at the attention it got, because I had the same experience they did, I just happened to be female. It’s a bit bogus, all that stuff. When Countdown told me I was the first female host, I groaned. You may as well say I’m the first host with a cocker spaniel.

Anne Robinson joins Rachel Riley and Susie Dent in the new Countdown line-up. Photograph: Rachel Joseph/Channel 4
Anne Robinson joins Rachel Riley and Susie Dent in the new Countdown line-up. Photograph: Rachel Joseph/Channel 4

Is it pleasing to buck the ageism trend? Not many women get TV jobs in their 70s…

They’re not getting jobs in their 50s either. I’m the oldest woman on TV who’s not judging cakes. I didn’t conform at school and never have since. It’s come in handy to be a weirdo.

How did your Merseyside upbringing contribute to your character?

It wasn’t conventional. I come from a long line of wild, Irish alcoholic wolves. Liverpudlians, like Glaswegians, tend to be quick-witted. My family certainly were, so us children had to keep up.

Your mother was a formidable figure who turned a market stall into a huge wholesale business. What did you learn from her?

Not to be afraid of anything. And that men were mostly rather comical. When Germaine Greer came along, I wondered why she was so cross. I wasn’t brought up thinking women got a rough deal, because they didn’t in my house.

Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

No, because I’m keen that women become more feisty about negotiating and don’t see themselves as victims. In that sense I’m very pro-women. My generation broke down a lot of barriers, but now women somehow feel more persecuted than we did.

Do you look back fondly on your Fleet Street career?

I was very lucky. All the things I missed from my education, I learned at newspapers. If I’ve had any success in TV, it’s directly because of my journalism training. Looking back, though, it was very sexist. The chief sub would deliberately drop your typed copy on the floor so you’d bend down to pick it up and the men could see your knickers. I never thought: “How dare they?”; I thought: “It won’t be long until I’m in charge of this lot.”

You landed some royal scoops in your newspaper days. Do you sympathise with Harry and Meghan?

Not a lot. Although ironically, I do think their complaint about someone within the royal family worrying about their baby’s skin colour – true or not – did actually bring about some change. It’s improved diversity and attitudes within the palace staff. I was once taken off the Mirror editing rota for running a story about Diana’s eating disorder. The palace doesn’t have that power over the press any more. The balance has shifted.

As a former Points of View presenter, do you think the BBC deserve the flak it gets?

No. I’m very fond of the BBC, but people at the top do make bad decisions – certainly over the Martin Bashir affair. It would be a great shame if we lost the BBC as we know it, especially the radio. Everything is too micromanaged. The head of daytime saw the pilot of The Weakest Link and ordered 62 episodes on the spot. That would never happen now. There’d be endless committees and worrying. The last documentary I made for the BBC, six different people got their hands on my script. I went: “I’m not saying that. It’s not even grammatical.”

You were the viewers’ champion in the face of authority on Watchdog. Do you still feel like an outsider?

Yes. People might ask me for selfies but I hope I’ve retained a sense of the absurd. I remember meeting Cherie Blair’s mother and thinking: “How stupid of me, I can’t be rude about Cherie’s outfits any more.” You must never befriend these people or become one of them.

How long have you been sober? Is it still difficult?

Forty-two years. I think it’s harder not to eat chocolate. I nearly killed myself. At my worst, I weighed less than six stone. The doctor gave me two months to live. But if you can stop drinking when you’ve got a problem, you can eventually regain the level of talent you had and get going again. I’m grateful that happened to me. It gave me a new lease of life.

Is more writing in the pipeline?

I should be writing another book now but haven’t started it. Every day I feel guilty that I’m doing television instead. I’m not usually a procrastinator, so I don’t know why I’m finding it hard. Unless you’re my shrink, I don’t think I can discuss it with you.

How was your lockdown?

Thirteen out of 16 months were spent with my daughter and grandchildren. The night before the first lockdown, they left London and came to my house in the Cotswolds. They pulled up in their estate car and things kept coming out of the back: dogs, children, laptops, footballs, tennis racquets ... it went on and on. To begin with, it was horrible. Irritating, noisy and disruptive. But when they settled in, we got into a pattern and it was lovely. I even took up recycling. My daughter arrived with a label-making machine – who packs that when you’re dashing to save your life? – and labelled my bins. We’ve been compared to Edina and Saffy from Ab Fab. I guess if you’ve got a nutty mother, you become the grown up. – Guardian