Anne Robinson on being one of the oldest women in TV, forming an all-female team on Countdown and spending lockdown with her grandchildren
The goodbye wink, various biting insults, and an unflinching quizmaster approach; Anne Robinson’s role on The Weakest Link was iconic.
“I can’t think of a single show I did not totally and thoroughly enjoy,” recalls the Merseyside-born presenter and journalist. “It was fabulous. I was very fortunate that the BBC allowed me to be me.
“The letter asking me to do it said that they wanted me because I’d look as if I knew the answers to the questions, and I could sympathise with the contestants when they were voted off. But once we did some rehearsals with real contestants, I discovered how feisty and competitive they were, and it was much more fun to be me than some cheesy game-show host.”
However, it’s not a role the no-nonsense, quick-witted 76-year-old – who has one daughter, Emma, from her first marriage to Charles Wilson – would ever reprise. “You must never go back,” she says matter-of-factly.
If they did reboot the much-loved series, which aired on BBC Two for 12 years, she’d “probably suggest somebody completely different, with a different approach” as the host.
“I also think it’s worth mentioning that I finished in 2011, and ‘woke’ has happened since then – I imagine there are a great many things that I said that you couldn’t say now!”
Indeed, earlier this year, an old clip resurfaced of some controversial comments made by the TV personality during the filming of an episode of The Weakest Link, which lead to some Twitter users expressing their outrage. But it hasn’t stopped Robinson’s latest career move; this month sees her taking up the Countdown reins, replacing Nick Hewer.
She’s the first female host of the brainy game show, which is Channel 4’s longest-running series.
Asked what made her say yes, she muses: “I’d been lined up with Channel 5 to do The Kings And Queens Of England. It was their most costly commission and as soon as the pandemic started, they cancelled it. They just felt – quite rightly – they weren’t going to get the advertising to support the budget.
“I got several more offers that I didn’t fancy doing, and then Countdown came along.
“I’ve had all those years thinking on my feet, and it looked to me like an opportunity to interview contestants, to interview the guest, to be a bit waspish.
“I tend to do The Times crossword so I’m not completely hopeless at anagrams. I have been surprised how many of the contestants say, ‘I started doing this with my granny when I was five watching Countdown, that’s how I got so good at doing anagrams’ – and how clever if you’re now, say, in your 60s and your brain has been practising that. It’s brilliant.”
Another appeal of Countdown is that it isn’t “completely full-time”.
“I wasn’t crossing the Atlantic, I wasn’t standing in a studio three days a week for eight hours; it was completely perfect, presenting a show that I’ve always loved.”
Starring alongside her is mathematician Rachel Riley and lexicographer Susie Dent in Dictionary Corner, making it an all-female presenting line-up.
“They’re both terrifically clever, terrifically pretty, and much thinner than me – the last bit being quite annoying,” quips a deadpan Robinson.
Hewer did the job for 10 years but on whether she could see herself doing the same, she remarks: “Until I’m 86? I don’t know! I do know at the moment I’m the oldest woman on television not judging cakes.
“I’ve just always put one foot in front of the other and I’ve always thought that it helps if you don’t try to be like anybody else,” she continues. “Career-wise, if you want to hit high notes – and not everybody does, and nor should they – it’s about taking a risk.
“People always ask, ‘Is it ambition or talent?’ and I think you must add taking risks, and that’s doing things often that nobody else has done – so being rude to contestants on television was quite a good idea! And not accepting – or not bothering about – how old you are.
“There’s a lot of ageism, but I was never hired because I was a young, pretty face; from the beginning, I was always hired because I was a journalist.
“If you want longevity, two things help: to have plenty of tricks in your bag, and to be not too difficult in the studio, i.e. turn up on time.”
Before Countdown, Robinson – who lives in the Cotswolds – hadn’t done anything on television for more than a year, thanks to lockdown and the Channel 5 series being dropped.
“But it’s been lovely because I’ve had my grandchildren, my daughter and son-in-law here in the country,” says the star, who divorced her second husband, John Penrose, in 2007.
“It was terrific because I live in the middle of nowhere with quite a lot of acreage.
“My grandsons are 11 and 12, and they all arrived just before lockdown; two dogs, two grandchildren, cricket bats, cricket gear, football gear – everything.
“The weather was wonderful, and my walled garden became a badminton court. The rest of the lawn gardens became cricket nets and football pitches, and I’ve got a tennis court, so it was really lovely for them, and lovely for me – and totally unexpected.”
She confides there were “annoying times, irritating times, horrid times”. But you can also tell how much she enjoyed having her family around her.
“I expect there are lots of other grandparents who felt like I do, that it was quite a unique opportunity to bond together day by day,” she reflects.
“They cooked down in my stable block during the week and we all came together on a Friday. So it was a terrific bubble, and we loved it.”
Countdown airs on Channel 4 from Monday, June 28.