Queen Anne: Television royalty

Anne Robinson has been a tabloid journalist, a consumer champion and a terrifying game show host. Even the Conservative Party tried to hire her. But now she's broken the ranks of youthful female BBC presenters to take on the fat cats in a new show. John Walsh meets a true one-off

So ..." comes the alarming monosyllable from behind me, rising and falling on a wave of contempt as I stand, paying off the taxi driver, outside Anne Robinson's house in Kensington. "Mr Waaaalsh ... " The note of scorn goes up like a raised eyebrow, as if its owner knows something terribly damning about you. It's the voice of the headmistress, the magistrate, the chief whip, the Spanish Inquisitor, someone who has damning information about you and will now torture you for a while before disclosing what you've done wrong (you worm, you bastard) and revealing your punishment (disembowelling, then something lingering, with pliers).

"You're early," she says, icily. Some interviewees might think it a mark of respect that you made an effort to be on time. Not Ms R. Under her pitiless gaze (she has to gaze upwards, actually, being five feet three in a sleeveless black jumper and slacks) you feel you've committed a shocking gaffe, like calling your girlfriend "mummy" or walking in on your hostess on the lavatory. You arrived early? Are you mad? At least (you tell yourself) you didn't commit the mortal sin of showing up 10 seconds late. Imagine the bollocking you'd have had then.

Her small, green eyes regard you. She's a handsome woman with a youthful new haircut and a £7,000 facelift, but her eyes are as cold as the Snow Queen's. They scrutinise your face, body language, clothes and briefcase, looking for something to criticise. Just as Cardinal Richelieu used to boast that, in 10 lines of any man's handwriting, he could find something to have him hanged, Anne Robinson can detect a damning – and useable – flaw in anyone, 10 seconds after meeting them.

She soon spots it. "You're chewing gum," she says, "and that is because ... ?"

Damn. Damn. I'd told myself to bin the Wrigley's Spearmint before I got to her house. "I missed lunch," I explained. "I was researching you."

"Are you hungry?" she says, with feline concern. "Would you like a sandwich?" she persists. She goes off to order some tea from the full-time housekeeper – and from then on, surprisingly, she's all sweetness and light: direct, forthright, confiding and funny. She's not uncensorious ("That's a very large tape-recorder for 2009. A lot of younger people use two small ones now ... ") but she reins in the bile and comes across as thoroughly likeable.

That voice has been her (£60m) fortune. First it was a journalistic voice, in the columns of the Daily Mirror. Then it was the spoken voice of Points of View, the BBC's viewers-fight-back programme she fronted from 1988. Her silken demolitions of smug programme-makers brought her many fans and smoothed her path to Watchdog, the consumer-retaliation show, in 1993. After eight years of exposing conmen and scammers, she was signed up to host The Weakest Link, exposing the ignorance (and personal idiocy) of quiz contestants, and went transatlantic. For nine years she has stood in front of nine members of the public, asking simple general-knowledge questions and marvelling visibly at the folly of the replies. She's become a national treasure for asking the overweight why they eat so much, the hideously ugly what is their secret of youthful loveliness, and several people called Andy (or Erica) why they want to see Janet (or John) booted off the show. She is also famous for her concluding, sign-off wink to camera – an affectation detested by some viewers as a pretence that she wouldn't hurt a fly.

From next week, she's returning to Watchdog to take up the consumer cudgels once more. How long did it take the producers to persuade her to return? "Just one phone call. It was the worst negotiating I've ever done. They haven't had to winkle me out, because I haven't stopped doing The Weakest Link." But you're a transatlantic brand, I said. You don't need to go back to your roots. She smiled sleekly. "They're making it an hour of prime time, in front of an audience, so there's a roar-of-the-greasepaint feel about it. And it's going to have a Top Gear-style setting, with gantries rather than offices. A bit of theatre too, because the audience will be able to confront the chairmen, and the guys in sharp suits with media training who come in to say that it's really not a problem."

You sound (I said) like an actress rather than an investigative reporter. "No, the journalism appeals to me too. I'm very proud of the fact that, when I did Watchdog before, I stopped it being a Protection of Stupid People programme." Originally its brief was to investigate consumer safety and warn about things that might endanger children. "I said, come on, let's have a look at car manufacturers, and British Telecom and holiday companies and the grievances people were really complaining about." It worked. When Watchdog poked its nose into the commercial mainstream, the ratings went up and up. "We were so successful that 10 major companies got together in London to try to have the programme banned."

It was in August 1998 that the captains of industry from Ford, BT, Dixons, the AA, Airtours, Thompson's Holidays and other firms met at Grosvenor House to discuss with the BBC top brass how Anne Robinson might be ... restrained. It's an index of her strength of character that the BBC held its nerve. "Of course," she says loyally, "the BBC's the only place where you can do decent consumer journalism, because everyone else is leg-ironed by advertisers."

Won't defaulting businessmen be too scared to come in front of her and a hostile TV studio audience? "If they don't come," she said firmly, "My idea is to put a cardboard cut-out of the chairman in the studio. So he's got to face his golf club on Saturday or Sunday." She has no qualms about confronting the grandees of the banking and hedge-fund world, and cutting through all the arcana of short selling and exchange-traded derivatives.

"I joined the Daily Mail in 1966," she said, "and if I haven't by now got my head round how to simplify things ... If I had Sir Fred Goodwin on the programme, I'd ask about his bonus. I'm not sure my Auntie Betty in Birkdale wants to know the ins and outs of Sir Fred's banking prowess, as much as she wants to know why he thinks he deserves that money, and why he paid only some of it back." Was Aunt Betty her target audience then? "It's for my daughter Emma Wilson in Hyde Park. And it's for your kids, whose Nike trainers smell as if they've got wee in them."

The Weakest Link was, I think, the first "entertainment" show in which guests could expect to be teased or insulted to their faces. Did she think it odd that so much current British television is about people being humiliated or ticked off? The X Factor, Strictly Come Dancing, Ladette to Lady, Hell's Kitchen, Britain's Got Talent ... Had we become a nation of scornful wannabe-Annes?

"I don't think hosting a serious consumer programme is the same as establishing whether John Sergeant knows his left foot from his right, or Anthea Turner can fry chips." You mean there's a moral component to Watchdog? "I think it's about somebody who buys a holiday which doesn't supply what it promised to. I'm quite happy to show companies that have got it right, or can explain to me why, when my phone goes wrong, I have to talk to somebody in Mumbai to whom I'm not culturally attached in any way, and who has to pretend his name is Ian."

Since she's so keen on truth and justice (I said) had she ever considered going into politics, as Esther Rantzen – another woman journalist with a high TV profile – is about to do? "Well, I'm an un-aligned radical, so I don't think it would suit me. And I'm convinced I can make more of a difference, whatever difference that is, with an audience of 8m people than I can sitting in Luton." [Where Rantzen is standing]. She was almost put forward for political office, she says, on two occasions.

"I don't think I've ever revealed this, but, before the Tories asked Boris to be their candidate for Mayor of London, they asked me if I'd stand." Who asked her? "Steve Hilton and I were walking on holiday in Switzerland and he asked if I'd consider it. I wasn't interested. At the time, there was no candidate and they were obviously casting around. After me, they probably moved on to Clarkson." And the other occasion? "I was asked to lunch with Alan Clark. I was then married, and my husband Penrose said 'He'll just want to get in your knickers.' I said, 'Don't be silly, I've known him for ages.' We got to the main course at the Savoy Grill, and he said, 'Annie, have you ever thought of going into politics?' I said, No Alan. He said, 'We'd fast-track you into a safe seat and then make you Minister for the Arts.' I thought it was a fabulously clever chat-up line. It was no use saying to me, 'You're fabulously beautiful, come to bed.' But if you could appeal to my vanity and my having a brain ... "

What did she reply? "I said no. Though in hindsight, I'd quite have liked the House of Lords."

And did Alan Clark try it on? "No, no. Although he was my sort of man, funny and clever and quick and outrageous."

She sighed, girlishly. It's easy to warm to Anne Robinson, once you realise you're not going to be withered by her scorn. She's surprisingly sweet and chatty and laughs a lot, not always at the folly of men.

But then her persona on The Weakest Link – the dominatrix in the long black coat, the crushing inquisitor with the arsenal of drawling insults and toxic putdowns – has shifted over her eight years on the podium. Remember the moment, on a celebrity version of the show last year, when she invited the wine-taster Olly Smith (who called her "a smooth full-bodied, expensive red") to feel her breasts? And the look of real respect on her face when a contestant answers back?

"There are many misconceptions about The Weakest Link," she says sadly. "First, all the people who come on it are well above average at general knowledge. But, understandably, when you're on, your brain leaves your body. Second, the contestants love it. They're usually much more cross with each other than with me. And it would disappoint them if I didn't say, 'Did you wear that shirt for a bet?' or 'Why are you so fat?' They like that."

What was her favourite put-down? "I think it was when Jenni Murray [the long-time presenter of Radio 4's Woman's Hour] said she was 50 and – it's such an easy trick – I asked her what year she was born. She just floundered ... "

Did she get similar types of people on the show? "There are some interestingly recurring things. If there's a seriously ugly, middle-aged bloke on Podium 1, I have never once said, 'Have you always been so devastatingly handsome?' without him saying, 'Thank you.' Seriously.

"And there's a generic figure, the man who comes on and says, 'MY NAME IS NORMAN I'M 66 AND I'M RETIRED.' He's always got a fabulous CV, Eton and Oxford and, if he's not an ambassador, he's been in the Foreign Office. There's nothing he doesn't know. Except he's pissed off everyone in the Green Room, and he can't retrieve the answers as quickly as the cleaning lady from Essex, and he always goes out in the first round."

Since Link is broadcast at teatime, it's become a favourite with school-age children. How much had she influenced a generation of schoolkids to think of other people as weak losers and shamed underachievers, deserving humiliation? She regards me as if she's discovered something nasty on her shoe. "I think there are worse things for children to be doing. They're not sniffing glue. They're not shoplifting or ram-raiding or pulling guns. They're watching The Weakest Link, where you have to be quite quick and competitive and you learn some general knowledge."

A lot of Anne Robinson's unsinkable self-confidence can be traced to her mother, Anne Josephine, the kind of mother who, when Anne left Liverpool to become a London journalist, gave her two going-away presents: a sports car and a mink coat, so she wouldn't get cold hanging around on doorsteps. She was a third-generation Liverpool-Irish woman who ran a market stall of chickens and parlayed it into a successful business.

"But she always kept the stall, so we used to spend half the holidays working in St John's market place. She was very good at dealing with customers. I remember a surgeon's wife, Mrs Tracy-Foster, who used to have fancy dinner parties. One day she said, 'We'll need six roasting chickens for a special dinner party, because my son's going off to boarding school. You won't have heard of it,' she told my mother. 'It's a very grand place called Ampleforth.' Mother said, 'That's very nice, I'll get your chickens,' without mentioning that my brother was in his last year at Ampleforth."

Both her parents, it seems, were quick-witted and funny. My father was a teacher who played the saxophone and ukulele. He wired up a radio from one room to another so we could pretend we were broadcasters." Her mother, though, was the greater influence. "She was very good at telling you every day that you were terrific. So I suppose she gave me the wherewithal to go out and be fearless. And not to be embarrassed about money; I've always been famous for doing good deals. By the time I was 18, I knew I could discuss money and ask for more. People could always say no. And she always thought guys were a bit of a joke, so going to Fleet Street didn't seem very intimidating to me."

She hit the Street of Shame in 1966 by getting a notable scoop. "It was August Bank Holiday, I was doing a shift for the Daily Mail, to try and get a job. They said, 'Brian Epstein [manager of The Beatles] has died. Go and stand outside his house, because we don't know how he died.' The whole press pack were there, camping on the doorstep, and they all went to the pub at lunchtime. Rex Makin, the family's solicitor, came out of the house but couldn't find a cab to drive him to Euston. So I said, 'Jump in my car and I'll take you.' And on the way there, he told me it was suicide. So I had my first splash headline. I was always good at getting ahead of people."

From this starry beginning, Robinson established herself in Fleet Street's news desks and bars. She met Charlie Wilson, a Glaswegian news-hound on the Mail whom she married in 1968. The paper's policy forbade spouses from working together so she had to leave and went to The Sunday Times in the glory days of Harry Evans. There she had her first brush with corporate irresponsibility when she joined the Insight consumer unit, in the days "when people went off on package holidays and found the hotel wasn't built." She and Wilson had a baby, Emma, in 1970, but split up two years later.

Anne's drinking hit alarming levels. In her autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother, she describes "ending up with my knickers round my neck in a bedroom I did not recognise, surrounded by vomit." She stopped drinking in December 1978 after picking up her daughter from school and driving straight to a petrol station to buy a bottle of vodka.

Was it the culture of Fleet Street that made her drink? "No," she said firmly. "I inherited the gene. But John, I know people who've spilt more than I've drunk. I think guys go on drinking and bits fall off and then they die, whereas women, when they drink fast and furious, it takes just a few years for ... for the litmus paper to soak completely. I haven't had a drink for 31 years, but there's plenty of alcohol in my house and around my table. I like people who smoke and drink. They're never picky people, are they?"

When she sobered up, Robinson returned to Fleet Street as a columnist on the Daily Mirror, establishing a tone of rasping disdain and bitchy ad feminam comment: the Glenda Slagg approach. Was it she or Lynda Lee-Potter who started the Bitch-of-Fleet-Street tradition? "Oh, that was Jean Rook. One of the few witty things Princess Diana ever said was to call Jean and Lynda and me 'the Wednesday Witches.'"

Did she look at the Daily Mail sometimes and think their attitude to women is a bit too censorious? "I think it's hilarious. My PR man sent me an email saying, the Daily Mail are launching a charity and they'd like you to be the figurehead for the event, because you're 'totally respected in every way'. I wrote back and said, 'Is this the Daily Mail that pours shit all over me once a month?' and he said, 'Yes, but it's a different department.'"

Now that Arlene Phillips (aged 66) has been dropped from Strictly Come Dancing, Anne Robinson has become the Oldest Woman On Television. How did she feel about that? "Well, I've never been chosen for my beauty or my youth. I've never been part of any youth or age statement. With my particular history, what doesn't kill you makes you slightly contemptuous of other people's minor problems such as being turfed off the TV at 55. I think perhaps there are more terrible tragedies in the world. I thought Arlene was terrific and I don't think it was the greatest move by the BBC. But it's what the customer wants. Television is all about being beautiful. No female on TV is average ... "

No indeed. Anne Robinson isn't at all average. She's exceptional at disdain. She's a connoisseur of double-think, hypocrisy and the higher bullshit of the tabloids, and she loves them just as she loves watching people trying to lie their way out of trouble on Watchdog. Her relish for puncturing the world's nonsense is infectious. No wonder we love her (guardedly) and tune in to watch her eviscerate yet another mendacious wide-boy from Saw You Coming plc. She might give the wink a bit of a rethink though.

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