‘You are the weakest link, goodbye!': What’s it like to face Anne Robinson on the cult quiz show?
When he was voted off the cult TV quiz show The Weakest Link nine years ago, Archie Bland thought he'd seen the last of Anne Robinson. Then he got invited back for its final broadcast...
Sometimes I just drop it into conversation casually. Oh yeah, I'll say, when another journalist's telling everyone in the pub about a really heroic piece of reporting , or a doctor is explaining how they performed a heart transplant last week; your inspiring story actually sort of reminds me, in an elliptical way, of the time I was on The Weakest Link. THE WEAKEST LINK, everyone screams, turning their backs on the previous, vanquished anecdotalist, buying me drinks, wondering if it's socially acceptable to ask for an autograph. YOU WERE ON THE WEAKEST LINK?!!?!? WHAT WAS SHE LIKE?
What was she like? She was mean. It was 2003, and I was 19, a television ingénue, as yet unseasoned by being mistaken for a woman by David Dimbleby in the audience on Question Time, which happened about a year later. It was a different, more innocent time. I didn't even realise I should be scared of her. I thought I would hold my own.
It all seems to go all right, at first. I survive the first round, which is the main thing: seven of the nine of us will eventually be voted off by our competitors, and the odds that I'll be among the two who get to the deciding question shoot-out are long indeed, but not being sent home right away at least makes me feel like the experience won't be a total humiliation. Then Anne gets her talons into my stupid name, and the penny drops. What's your full name, Archie, she asks. Archibald, I say, playing dumb. No, Archie, she says, a little more severely this time, consulting her notes; your full name. And so I have to say James Franklin Archibald, because that's what it bloody is, I'm afraid, and then, with the precision of a master butcher, Anne Robinson slices me up.
She gets me for my silly name. She gets me for being at Cambridge University. Having had a chat with another contestant who lives in a caravan, she gets me for my parents' big house. When I was preparing to write this article, I got the BBC to send me the episode, and watched the whole thing back. It is excruciating. Somehow I fumble my way to the last four, but then I have a full psychological breakdown. I give the answer "cup" when asked for the name of a flower, and suggest that the giant ground up Jack's thumbs, and pause for fully five seconds, perhaps reminded of the host's view of my own moniker, when asked which Christian name might be abbreviated to "Artie". The other contestants vote me off with unanimous enthusiasm.
Seeing those boards go up with your name on is not a good feeling. You've bonded with these people, slightly, as you've got rid of the others who were as useful as a catflap on a submarine, thicker than a chocolate omelette, and now they're consigning you to the same elaborately metaphorical dustbin. Julie, a 62-year-old word processing operator from Northumberland, has had it in for me from the start, I reckon. She has used her marker pen to make black stabs below each letter of my name in such frenzied style that she might as well have drawn a skull and crossbones. "As a student, he needs to go back to university and pick up his books and give them a read through," she spits.
I duly leave the stage, Anne's inescapable catchphrase ringing in my ears. I am a bit rude about Julie in the post-match interview. Later, Jeff, a 47-year-old lorry driver from Cornwall with terrible teeth and a flamboyant Hawaiian shirt, defeats her in the final, and I am quietly delighted. When it airs, my mother is defensive of her youngest child; everyone else pretty much says I deserved it. I love my mother, but unfortunately, she is wrong.
And that was it for me and The Weakest Link. At least, until October last year, when I got a call from a BBC researcher called Mark, who cheerily explained that the show was coming to an end, and for the 1,693rd and final edition, and after saying "Goodbye" more than 11,000 times, Anne had picked her nine favourite contestants. I was among them. Would I like to participate?
The FBI defines Stockholm Syndrome as a "paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein a positive bond between hostage and captor occurs that appears irrational in light of the frightening ordeal endured by the victim". Anyway, I immediately said yes.
Back in 2000, when The Weakest Link was first mooted, its potential for longstanding appeal – to contestants and viewers alike – was not immediately obvious to everyone who saw it. You have to remember quite how different a televisual era it was: The Generation Game was still on the air; the teatime competition was Bruce's Price is Right. The BBC still had a ban on cash prizes. "It was all-star vehicles," says David Young, a television producer who had been plucked from the independent sector to head the BBC's light entertainment department at the tender age of 32. "We came in arguing that the star should be the idea."
Young was supposed to find the BBC its own Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, which was bringing ITV enormous success. The other key telly touchstone of the moment was the rise of reality. From the start, Young says, he had wanted to commission a quiz show with something of the feel of the likes of Big Brother: what he calls "a psychological test transplanted to a studio". A small group had been tasked with sorting through the myriad ideas sent in by the general public, and one day, one of that unit approached him with a gem from the slush pile, the brainchild of Cathy Dunning, a comedian, and Fintan Coyle, a doctor, who have both since been richly rewarded for their flash of inspiration.
Two other production companies had already turned the idea down, and initially, Young wasn't any more impressed – at that point, the show followed a family quiz team over five days as their group was gradually whittled down, and those who were left took the prize. In one iteration, each round took 20 minutes. "But," Young says, "I did think it was a psychologically devastating title. It's just horrible. It's the worst thing you can be called: you've let everyone down. I was hooked on that idea."
Happily for Young, the BBC's head of daytime, Jane Lush, was similarly enthused. "I immediately thought 'Wow'," she says. "It was so obviously unlike any other daytime show. It looked different, it got away from the usual daytime style, and our audience was crying out for a good quiz."
Considering how completely she now defines the show in the national consciousness, it's peculiar to think that Robinson's berth as presenter was by no means guaranteed. While the ferocity was in-built from the off, there were also two male candidates for the gig: Jeremies Clarkson and Paxman, neither reputed for his bedside manner. Later on, Michael Buerk was nearly parachuted in.
But in the end, thank goodness, Robinson prevailed. "There were 82 complaints at launch, and at that point I knew we had a hit," Lush says. She ordered enough episodes to run from August to Christmas; two weeks later, as the audience grew, she ordered another hundred. It was a winner with the public long before the press caught on. By the time Tony Blair referred to William Hague as "the weakest link" at Prime Minister's Questions in December, its future was already assured. At one point, it was averaging five million viewers in its BBC2 daytime slot – almost unheard of. It's been licensed in more than 70 countries. And somehow, wherever it goes out, and whatever language the contestants are speaking, their magisterial interlocutor almost always seems to be short, and female, and ginger.
My main ambition for my return to the bearpit is survival. When I arrive at the studio, it swiftly becomes clear that not all of my fellow contestants have taken the same conservative approach. Mandy Gap, a veteran of the 2010 'drag queens special', is sporting a pair of vertiginous neon-blue heels and a sequinned dress with a Tube sign on the front. Phil Green, a sturdily-built 19-year-old student who has also dabbled in the world of costumed wrestling as 'The Future Phil Fatale', is agitating to wear his alter ego's Lycra onesie.
The production team aren't having any of it, although they do permit Phil to wear the get-up under his civvies; if the opportunity arises, he intends to throw his trousers at Anne. I fear the layering will make him too hot, but he doesn't seem to mind. Glistening male flesh is everywhere on display, anyhow: the Green Room is heaving with muscle-men brought in for a 'hunks special' being recorded on the same day. A warm soprano voice resonates from next door; Emma, an opera singer who has flown back to the UK from Macau at her own expense for the privilege of a place in the last-ever edition, is warming up in the toilets. There's a rumour going round that Mandy Gap has a song prepared, and Asjad, whose Twitter biography describes him as 'the most prolific South Asian showbiz journalist in the world', has his own plans. "She fancies me!" he says. "She definitely fancies me. That's why she's got me back I reckon. I'm going to give her a kiss. She'll love it!" I start to get a bit anxious. I feel like I'm lacking a USP.
After a few last-minute reminders on the rules – which the team attends to with all the focus that seasoned travellers give to the pre-flight safety briefing – we file on to the set. Anne comes out to say hello. She never normally does this! A frisson of pleasure goes round the team. We are special. We are her favourites. We even get a group photo. And then, finally, the waiting is over. The title music sounds. And the nameless sense of horror that I've buried for the past nine years suddenly comes flooding back.
A lot of people attribute The Weakest Link's success to Robinson's ability to instil that dread. "Casting Anne, and having her play a character, rather than just being herself – that could have really gone wrong," says Nick Mather, Head of Entertainment at Endemol UK, and one of the brains behind Pointless, which looks the likeliest candidate to succeed The Weakest Link as a BBC teatime stalwart. "But actually her presence is what makes it really stand out beyond any other game show."
There's a more prosaic view, too: the show made a star of Robinson, and her shtick gave the press something to latch on to, but really the show's longevity is thanks to its near-flawless mechanics. "It's an absolute Rolls-Royce of a format," says Richard Osman, Alexander Armstrong's foil on Pointless, Creative Director at Endemol, and a veteran of game show creation himself. "I was instantly envious of it. It may look as if Robinson is the key, but that's just because it's actually quite difficult to understand why one show works and another doesn't. Some shows rely on all sorts of complex things – luck and risk and strategy; some are just an excuse for 120 questions. This is more the latter. And there's never a day where it isn't going to work. It's such a neat idea. Injustices, underdogs, and lots and lots of questions."
Perhaps that set-up has begun to wear a little thin. These days, the show is only averaging 340,000 viewers. Still, any show that lasts for more than a decade, that translates so effectively around the world, that inflicts such a memorable catchphrase upon us, has a claim on the hall of fame. "In terms of formats, I think it's between The Weakest Link and Millionaire for the greatest of the past 25 years," says Osman. "I would side with The Weakest Link. It's come to an end, but everything does. It's had an extraordinary life. It's almost perfect."
I've got a DVD of the last-ever episode of The Weakest Link we recorded that day. Someone has written EMBARGOED on it in capital letters, so I'm afraid I can't tell you all that much about it. Still, there are a few things. For one, I can note, should you be interested, that I seem to have subconsciously chiselled the posher edges off my voice in the years since my first appearance; I fear Robinson's hilarity at my expense was the cause.
"You get the contestants' biographies in advance," she says, when I accost her about my ignominy after the more recent edition. "You can see who you might be able to have fun with. And with you, the name, and the university, and the house... I'm afraid sitting duck and you were in the bath together." She says this so gently, and with such seeming warmth, that I want to give her a hug. Then I wonder if I should start seeing an analyst.
After all, this episode wasn't without its own tribulations, Anne's favourites or not. For one thing, she keeps referring to me as "Little Archie". For another, she dares query The Independent's wisdom in appointing me as its Foreign Editor. She also surmises that the stripy T-shirt I'm wearing has been borrowed from my mother.
Other than my own personal journey, there's a great, final candidate for 'Dumb Britain', the Private Eye compendium of quiz clangers whose own life has been tethered to Robinson's teatime tenure. "Which term for a roadside place to stay is a contraction of the words 'motor' and 'hotel'?" Robinson asks. The contestant, the poor bastard, is absolutely flummoxed. Then inspiration strikes, and he cries: "Travelodge!" ("I have typed the words 'Anne Robinson' so many times," muses Marcus Berkmann, the man behind 'Dumb Britain', when I tell him this story over the phone. "So many, many times. People give amazingly fatuous answers on a daily basis.")
For all that end-of-term hilarity, though, the final episode of The Weakest Link still boils down to what it always does: the questions. The votes. The walk of shame. When the first question is asked – it comes, by alphabetical misfortune, to me – the tension is as palpable as it ever was. "Start the clock," the Queen of Mean demands, her game face on, and as the lights go down, I feel my stomach rushing into my throat, my mouth going dry, my palms getting hot. "Archie!" she barks. I cannot be the first one off. I cannot. I cannot. I cannot. Here it comes. "In TV, the journalist-turned-presenter who has hosted every episode of The Weakest Link since it began in 2000 is Anne who?"
Whether or not I'll be able to get the answer out is unclear. Still, it could have been worse. I know this one, I think. We all do.
The final edition of 'The Weakest Link' is broadcast on BBC1 next Saturday
Moment of Weakest: The questions Anne asked Archie in his first appearance
1. When the alphabet is recited backwards, which letter's spoken first?
2. Old Trafford is the home ground of which premier league team?
3. The US dime is worth how many cents?
4. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with producing the first printed version of which religious book?
5. If a girl is 3ft tall and her brother is 1 m tall, who is taller, the boy or the girl?
6. The last words attributed to Lawrence Oates are 'I am just going outside and may be...' what, 'quite cold' or 'some time'?
7. In gallantry decorations, the letter V in the abbreviation VC stands for what?
8. In 1981, Arthur Scargill became president of the national union of what?
9. In December 2002, who began a UK tour with a concert in Cardiff and sang a song dedicated to his two new front teeth?
10. Wing commander is a rank of which of the UK armed forces?
11. Which three-letter term denotes a female adult pig?
12. Which three-letter term follows 'big' to give the name of a large tent at the circus?
13. The printed advice that appears on small cartons of juice is pierce hole with what?
14. Which word meaning self-satisfied is 'gums' spelt backwards?
15. The rhyme that records the fates of Henry VIII's wives is: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, what?
16. In the traditional rhyme that starts 'Fee-fi-fo-fum', which parts of an Englishman are ground to make bread?
17. The boy's names Art and Artie are contractions of which longer English name?
18. The rhyming term for a type of stitch that includes the name of a flower is lazy what?
The answers (and Archie's mistakes)
2. Manchester United.
3. 10 (I said five).
4. The Bible.
5. The boy.
6. Some time.
8. Mineworkers (I said miners, but it's accepted).
9. Liam Gallagher (I said Tom Jones).
10. The Air Force.
15. Survived (I said died).
16. Bones (I said thumbs).
18. Daisy (I said cup, for some reason).
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