Contestants on Channel 4’s Countdown might be forgiven for reaching for their tin hats this summer. After all, when the new host, Anne Robinson, was approached to present BBC quiz show The Weakest Link back in 2000, the producers seemed convinced they knew what they were signing up for. ‘I think the letter they sent me is in my study,’ Anne recalls. ‘They said, “You look as if you’ll know the answers to the questions, and you can be nice to the contestants.”’
We both chuckle, because only someone marooned on a different planet for the past two decades doesn’t know what happened when she took on the job. Her acerbic put-downs, combined with her dismissive sign off when contestants failed – ‘You are the weakest link, goodbye’ – saw her labelled the ‘rudest woman on television’ and the ‘Queen of Mean’.
Despite this, or more likely because of it, the show was a rip-roaring success and a ratings juggernaut, its format sold across the globe. But is the easygoing, mellow world of Countdown, hosted by the softly spoken Nick Hewer for the past ten years, really ready for Ms Robinson? I can’t help asking if she plans to shake up the format and terrorise the contestants. ‘You take each jump as you come to it don’t you?’ she says. ‘If you hire me, you’ve got a fair idea of what I’m like, and I will be very different from Nick Hewer. But you must never frighten the readers or the viewers into something completely different.’
Her arrival is a milestone in itself: she is the first woman at the helm in the show’s 39-year history. And, thanks to maths whizz Rachel Riley and dictionary expert Susie Dent, the trio will make the show’s presentation team an all-woman affair for the first time. ‘So, it’s “Three girls do Countdown”, which is rather fabulous isn’t it?’ says Anne. ‘Even if two of them are cleverer, younger and thinner than me.’
I’d suggest only two of those things are true: at 76, Anne remains as sharp as a tack, as well as trim, toned and altogether rather terrific looking. It doesn’t come easy. ‘I do weights and Pilates and training and running, and I worry and diet, eat and diet,’ she admits. ‘I long to be Victoria Beckham who says, “God, I’m hungry, I’ll have a piece of lettuce.” If only.’ She is also one of the few women in the public eye who speaks openly about using Botox and having cosmetic surgery: she had a facelift in 2004, plus work on her chin, brow and eyes over the years.
In a world where most female celebrities attribute their age-defying sculpted cheekbones to good genes and a fabulous nutrition plan, Anne’s openness is refreshing. ‘There are so many women on television who used to be older than me and are now younger than me. All of that is so exhausting to keep up,’ she says. ‘Much easier to be honest.’ She expresses the same exasperation with those who judge her for having surgery in the first place. ‘Women who get prissy about facelifts, I think two things: have they got pierced ears? And, secondly, if they’re frightfully left wing, did they march to be able to tell other women what to do?’
Anne clearly isn’t afraid to say what she thinks. As she says herself, after ‘nearly killing myself with alcohol’, many things pale into relative insignificance. It was her drink problem, along with her ‘undoubted ambition’, as pointed out by the judge in her 1973 divorce, that meant her husband Charles Wilson was awarded full custody of their two-year-old daughter Emma. It would take Anne another five years to get herself straight, a period she writes about in her best-selling 2001 autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother. She admits today that there will always be lingering guilt for her shaky start to motherhood, but in the years since, she and Emma, now 49, have become steadfastly close.
Their relationship was cemented even further by Emma’s decision to spend much of the last year hunkered down at Anne’s home with husband Liam and their children Hudson, 12, and 11-year-old Parker. Pictures of her grandsons and their framed artwork line the walls of Anne’s house and she admits she cherished their time as an extended family. ‘My walled garden was a badminton court, cricket nets, football pitch – all of that,’ she laughs. ‘It was wonderful.’
Even so, it wasn’t all plain sailing to start with. ‘Emma’s very bossy. She immediately labelled all the bins for recycling, and I said, “What if I’d come to your house and done that?” So, we had to settle in. I do think it’s interesting when your daughter has children – they begin to appreciate you more.’ She has an amiable relationship with Charles, as well as her second ex-husband, the journalist John Penrose – they were married between 1980 and 2007 – both of whom she now calls ‘great friends’ despite the initial turbulence of the separations. ‘No one ever dumped me, which I think is helpful,’ she smiles.
However, she’s not that keen to acquire husband number three, calling herself a ‘committee of one’, but she hasn’t ruled out finding love again: ‘I don’t want to live with anyone though.’ Any future partner might find that while the redoubtable Anne may not have mellowed with age, she has relaxed a little. ‘I’ve actually got quite sanguine,’ she insists. The Countdown contestants about to face her must surely hope so.
A longer version of this article appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Saga Magazine. To read the full article, and many more great interviews besides; subscribe to the magazine today at just £15 for 12 issues..
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