Anne Robinson: The real Mrs Terrible

She found celebrity as the tough quizmistress on The Weakest Link, so why has she chosen now to reveal her past weaknesses in her memoirs?
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The Independent Online

There's an irony, of course, about coming out of an interview with Anne Robinson, wanting a stiff drink. The journalist- turned-quiz show hostess very nearly lost it all through her addiction to alcohol. But today, the woman who is now worth between £20m and £30m, is icily sober as she treats me with the contempt that she shows to her contestants on The Weakest Link.

She has let me into her dressing room at the Weakest Link studio at Pinewood, in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, to discuss her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, which charts her spectacular comeback since the dark days of "ending up with my knickers round my neck in a bed I didn't recognise, surrounded by vomit and having not the faintest idea where I was".

While she has always been candid about her history as a spectacular drunk, she has spent the past 28 years lying about one aspect of her life that shamed her even more. In 1973, at the age of 28, Robinson lost her only child, Emma Wilson, then aged two, in a custody battle. She would tell those who subsequently inquired – journalists included – she had been granted joint custody with Emma's father, Charles Wilson, then a Daily Mail executive, who went on to edit The Times and The Independent. The truth is that Wilson was granted sole custody, care and control of Emma, who subsequently lived with her father until she left home at 16 for boarding school.

Robinson is sitting back on a sofa, ankles together, wearing voluminous black Shirin Guild trousers and shirt. She looks good for her 57 years, her "Camilla crevices" – as she calls the two vertical lines that cut down either side of her mouth (named in honour of Camilla Parker Bowles) – smoothed out with collagen. She has slipped off her black mules, and picks at her red-painted toenails as she talks about the most painful aspect of her life. She decided to come clean, she explains, because she wanted to get it off her chest, and she didn't want "somebody from the Daily Mail to come along to attempt it".

Robinson had been brought up by her "part-monster, part-magic" mother, an alcoholic who ran a hugely successful chicken stall in a Liverpool market, to believe that looking after a home and husband was akin to the devil's work. Her father, a teacher, never stood up to his tyrannical wife. Robinson says that she has felt comfortable in the company of bullies, monsters and madness ever since.

Wilson, on the other hand, had been brought up by a mother who waited on him hand and foot. As their marriage deteriorated, they drank heavily, and at times their verbal battles became physical. By the time they went to court, Wilson's legal team lined up a string of former nannies, friends and colleagues who testified that Robinson was unfit to look after her daughter. Robinson was asked whether it was true that she once told her husband she would rather cover the Vietnam War than Hoover the sitting-room. It was, she said. While the judge did not actually deem her unfit, he allowed her access of no more than every other weekend, and two afternoons a week on alternate weeks.

"I don't believe that the case was properly heard. I don't know why he was given sole custody. I think the judge took a fantastically huge dislike to me. In fact, I know he did," says Robinson. "It was all based on ambition, and no one thought that any of the drinking behaviour that was outlined in court was of any significance." Yet she had, I point out, told the court that she would give up work (as a Sunday Times reporter) to look after her daughter. "He didn't believe me. I think he thought that I was absolutely driven," she says, now picking at a heel. Did she think she was an unfit mother? "I was certainly heading that way... I certainly needed help."

She decided not to appeal in order to spare her daughter. "By the time I was standing up straight, it was impossible to drag Emma through the courts. I was sober by the time she was nine; within another 18 months, I was a newspaper columnist who could have worked from home. So there was absolutely every reason to suppose that I would have won. But she was just horrified by the thought of it, and I couldn't do it to her."

So you talked to her about it? I ask.

"Have you not read the book?" she asks, with sudden venom. (The reference takes up four lines of a 285-page book.) From that moment on, she speaks mostly in a tight-lipped monotone. Her schoolmarm act on Weakest Link is, of course, pantomime. But she can be truly vile in person. Not for nothing did Robinson earn her Fleet Street nickname of "Mrs Terrible".

She says that she lied about having joint custody "because I didn't feel that I was in a position, or probably mentally strong enough, to tell the whole tale". She is astonished that nobody twigged, she says.

She missed out on much of the mummy stuff, such as putting Emma to bed at night and helping her with her homework. When Robinson collected her for weekend visits, she would wince at the clothes that her nanny had dressed her in. "I found it very hard to live 'in the day'. How can it be normal when it's weekend visits? It's very difficult to chastise a child that needs chastising because you don't want the tears. If your child's with you, you can put up with the tantrum and her looking at you with anger and hatred because you've told her to do something. But if you've only got 24 hours, it's awfully difficult. You're constantly aware of the deprivation. You're being deprived in every way, and no one knows about it, and no one has any sense of the feelings of loss you have."

After she lost Emma, Robinson's drinking escalated way beyond the norms of Fleet Street. She left The Sunday Times in 1977, and returned to her mother and got a job on the Liverpool Echo. She stopped drinking in December the following year, after returning to her car after popping into an off-licence and seeing tears in Emma's eyes. While she didn't consider suicide, she says she was "constantly of the belief that I'd had enough of life".

"There's no good regretting, really. I'm very sorry that I missed out on so much. It was very tough for a lot of years. People talk about a chip on your shoulder. This is a great big thing on your shoulder, that you very rarely forget about."

It was Alcoholics Anonymous that saved her. She still attends meetings today, and admits that she has been very lucky not to have been photographed going into a meeting, or to find what she has shared splashed over the papers.

Robinson says that her relationship with Emma, now 31 and a programme director for a Washington radio station, is "pretty good". It hasn't always been that way. In 1998, Robinson wrote in a column that she wanted her daughter to listen to her biological clock and make her a grandmother. Emma was furious and, to make amends, Robinson secured her a right of reply in the paper. Emma displayed an acid tongue similar to her mother's, brandishing her "a self-confessed elitist TV personality", and called her column "badly written, shabby and untrue".

Back in London, by 1980 Robinson was assistant editor of the Daily Mirror, and went on to work as a highly paid columnist on numerous papers. In 1988, she started presenting BBC's Points of View. She became the champion of consumers' rights on Watchdog, which she abandoned last year when Weakest Link became an instant hit in the United States.

Robinson presents the shows in both countries. She takes particular exception to journalists calling her a workaholic, and suddenly asks how many interviews I conduct a week. "You're not very driven, are you?" she sneers. It is difficult to believe that she was so sweet-natured as a child, her mother mockingly called her "Kind-Hearted Arthur". I ask her why she believes herself to be a role model for women. "Why do you think?" is her barely audible reply. Many women would bristle at certain comments in her book, such as: "If I'd been Bridget Jones's mother, I would have put her on a diet and told her to get a decent haircut and facial once a month."

She has been married to John Penrose, a former Daily Mirror journalist, and now her manager, for 21 years. The couple tried unsuccessfully to have children until Robinson was in her 40s. She admits that she has had to modify her behaviour to make the relationship work. "I've had to get a lot more considerate. I've had to learn to trust and to share. And that's quite difficult, coming from where I came from. I think it's very difficult for women generally to switch off at home, and let things be. I'm not saying surrender or be subservient. I just think it really helps if you turn the volume down a bit in every sense."

Journalists who interview Robinson in either of the couple's London or Gloucestershire homes, invariably describe Penrose as a harangued butler-type figure at Robinson's beck and call. "Johnny does nothing he doesn't want to do, never has," she says through barely moving lips.

When the interview is over, Robinson offers the photographer and I a lift back into London in her chauffeur-driven Mercedes. She sits in the back with me and chats with good humour about some of the idiot answers given on The Weakest Link. When the photographer gets out, she flops her freckled legs over the back of the front seat, and chummily discusses the paucity of decent single men. When we part company, she blows me a kiss and calls me "darling". Part-monster, part-magic is how Robinson describes her mother. It does, of course, apply equally to herself.

'Memoirs of an Unfit Mother', by Anne Robinson, is published by Little, Brown tomorrow, priced £16.99