JAN MOIR interviews Anne Robinson

JAN MOIR interviews Anne Robinson

06/11/2021

Up close and personal in lioness Anne Robinson’s den! JAN MOIR dares to spy on the deep-pile luxury of the Queen of Mean’s bedroom in a hilarious at-home encounter with the new Countdown host

Anne Robinson lives in a converted threshing barn, tucked into a luscious Cotswolds valley far from the tourist track.

From the golden stone walls and immaculate grounds without to the lime-washed oak beams within, everything is high-spec, luxurious, perfect. There are polished stone floors downstairs, thick cream carpets upstairs, windows that gaze upon expensively trimmed yew and bay trees.

Oh, this is lovely, I think, prowling around the ground-floor guest wing, complete with its own mini‑kitchen, which Anne has dubbed the I Hate My Husband Suite.

Anne Robinson lives in a converted threshing barn, tucked into a luscious Cotswolds valley far from the tourist track

Oh, I adore this, I think, surveying the fine pictures and lamps in what is possibly the Main Entertaining Area? The Great Hall? I must remember to ask.

All the walls are painted in hushed neutrals, even in a room upstairs containing little more than her pop‑up spray-tanning tent, which seems to be — how can I put this — permanently erect.

From there, the hallway leads to Anne’s bedroom which . . . suddenly my rustic reverie is broken by a familiar, commanding voice.

‘What are you doing up there?’ cries Robinson, the erstwhile television star of Points Of View, Watchdog and The Weakest Link. ‘You’d better not be snooping.’

What? Ha, not at all, I say, scuttling back down the stairs and into the light-filled, double-height dining room, where my hostess awaits, hands on hips, tiny feet tapping in Gucci sneakers.

She is expensively trimmed herself, sporting a precision-cut bob, a fresh manicure and Pilates-honed limbs, courtesy of a trainer and regular games of tennis played on her own court.

Quite how all this has been achieved during lockdown, I don’t want to ask, but I imagine everyone in Anne’s glam squad is just too terrified to say no to her demands.

Indeed, I have an early moment of terror myself, fishing my phone out of a pocket while we chat, but only to check it is turned off.

‘Why are you on your phone when I am talking to you?’ she shouts, ignoring my squeaks of protest.

At the age of 76, Anne looks exceptionally well and moves with the agility of a woman half her age. She is holding back the years with ferocious discipline and the best aids money can buy, from Viktor & Rolf dresses and surgical procedures to the cosmetics she addictively buys online from John Lewis. And it has worked. It works.

‘I am the only woman my age on television who is not judging cakes,’ says Anne, who has a crater-making gift for the howitzer one-liner.

Of course, she is always getting stick about her facelifts — two to date. Or is it three? But who’s counting? My view is that as a female presenter of a certain age, what are her options?

More from Jan Moir for the Daily Mail…

She understands that while it may be completely unfair, the truth is that women on television are themselves judged like cakes; and unlike male cakes, they are not allowed to crumble.

‘Indeed,’ says Anne. ‘If Huw Edwards had an identical twin sister, I don’t think she’d be reading the news on his day off, do you?’

In the kitchen, her cook is grilling steaks for our lunch, laying out platters of salad and uncorking premier cru wines.

For someone who doesn’t drink and eats like a bird (a small slice of steak and three chips, I counted), Anne is a very kind and generous host. Actually, she is a very kind and generous person full stop, despite her Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie vibe and her infamous on‑screen persona.

‘What persona?’ she says, rather sharply.

Well, you know. The Queen of Mean. The dominatrix. All those things you used to say on The Weakest Link. ‘Whose mind is too small to be let out on its own?’ ‘There is no end to what you don’t know, is there?’ ‘You are the Weakest Link, goodbye.’ That persona.

‘I wasn’t exactly drowning kittens,’ she counters, arguing that the quiz show contestants were a confident and assured lot, and had also been carefully vetted.

‘But I would never get away with all that now. Times have changed so much that I don’t think we could even make The Weakest Link today.’

Why not?

‘I don’t think half the things I said then I could say now. Like: “Are you really that stupid?” Or: “Why are you so fat?” That would be off limits. Everyone would be too worried about the poor contestants’ mental health. Everyone would be too worried about sending them home with . . .’ she wrinkles her face, ‘issues.’

Later this month, Anne is back on our screens as the new host of Countdown (Channel 4), replacing the outgoing Nick Hewer on the popular teatime show.

She’s been offered everything, from I’m A Celebrity to Strictly Come Dancing, but generally isn’t interested. She’s already got millions in the bank, she doesn’t crave the fame, so why bother?

Family bond: Anne spent lockdown with daughter Emma, son-in-law Liam Kan, and grandsons Hudson and Parker

‘Shows like that are for people who haven’t got anything else on; who want to bolster their popularity,’ she says. ‘I don’t need that.’

So why Countdown?

‘I was really intrigued. It has been on for 40 years and it is more cerebral than any other game show. Doing Countdown just tickled my fancy. I think it’s a great fit, actually,’ she says.

A keen crossword puzzler and Countdown fan herself, she even appeared on the show as a guest in 1987. ‘I looked like one of The Bay City Rollers,’ she wails.

The new series will have Robinson appearing alongside lexicographer Susie Dent and fellow presenter Rachel Riley.

‘And I liked the idea of three girls together, too,’ she says.

At the height of her TV powers, Anne was earning £4 million from the BBC and flying across the Atlantic to make shows in the U.S. One imagines things will be very different on Countdown.

‘The first thing they do is tell you how little money they’ve got,’ she says. She is appalled by the wardrobe budget (‘I think it extends to two dresses’) and will be supplying her own clothes and accessories.

After lunch — delicious! — we go back upstairs to inspect some of the clothes she has selected as potential Countdown outfits.

She rifles through a rail of beautiful pieces, all from top designers such as Issey Miyake, Prada, Valentino, Michael Kors, Donna Karan, more Gucci, Yves St Laurent, you name it.

Good God, Anne, I say, fondling a Dolce & Gabbana jacket, don’t you ever shop in the High Street?

‘What is the High Street?’ she ask, in her best dowager duchess of Countdown Abbey voice.

She is ‘absolutely terrified’ of estimating how much she has spent on clothes in her lifetime. ‘I daren’t go there, don’t make me.’

She pulls out a favourite Victoria Beckham sheath dress. ‘Look at this. Victoria does well-cut and sleeveless, which I like. But her clothes are so tiny you have to go a size up. If you are a size ten, you have to take a 12, and I find that very distressing.’

There are also trays of earrings and spectacles laid out, in styles ranging from Cruella to Cinderella, which makes me wonder what her new Countdown persona is going to be. The Bitch is Back? The Anagram Madam? The Vowel Vixen?

‘People keep asking me this. Look, I’m just an old hack who judges every situation as it comes. I don’t know what I will do; I’ll just see how it goes.

‘I am a little bit anxious, to be honest, but it is important not to be afraid of failing. Because in the end, it is not really ambition that gets you on, it is taking a risk and not worrying about falling flat on your face. Women in particular should not have self‑imposed limits.’

She has always regarded the sexist and ageist claims of other female presenters with a raised eyebrow. In 2008, Selina Scott, who’s now 70, won £250,000 in an age discrimination case against Channel 5. Anne is older than Scott, and still working. ‘If you start off on television screens as the pretty young thing and if you take advantage of that, good for you. But you’ve got to accept the downturn at the other end,’ she says.

As one of the highest paid women on television, the BBC equal pay gap did not apply to Robinson because if it did, all the men would have been bitterly complaining.

She surfed the sexism rows partly because ‘I was never hired because of the shape of my breasts. I was hired because I was a journalist, I had an identity.’

Recently, her eyebrows were raised again over presenter Samira Ahmed’s argument.

Anne will be replacing Nick Hewer, centre, as host of Countdown. He is pictured with Rachel Riley and Susie Dent

Last year Ahmed won an equal pay case she brought against the BBC, arguing that she had been underpaid by £700,000 for hosting audience feedback show Newswatch, compared with Jeremy Vine’s salary for the similar Points Of View.

‘If I were cast in a film, would I be cross if I was going to get paid less than Meryl Streep? It would not seem unfair to me if I didn’t get as much money,’ says Robinson, who hosted Points Of View herself for ten years.

‘I think something has gone wrong when it is down to lawyers and an employment tribunal to decide who goes on television and who does not. It doesn’t work like that.’

Her boldness has characterised a working career that began on her mother’s chicken stall in a Liverpool market and took her to Fleet Street, where she became one of the first female executives on the Daily Mirror.

‘I loved working on newspapers. I loved the crash, bang, wallop of it all,’ she says.

When she wasn’t browbeating her boss, the late, disgraced Robert Maxwell, for more money, a nicer car and bigger perks, she was dodging his requests to take his beloved daughter, Ghislaine, under her wing.

‘Maxwell asked me to look after her,’ Anne recalls, ‘but I didn’t think that having Ghislaine as my next big project would be a good idea.

‘She had a horrendous childhood, she lacked goals. I think she just went from one strong-minded man to another.

‘She became a ferocious networker in New York, so I’m not surprised she ended up with very rich men. I don’t excuse anything, but nothing that happened to her in her young life was normal. They were all a bit broken, the Maxwell children.’

Robinson has married twice, both times to journalists. First to former Times editor Charlie Wilson, with whom she had daughter Emma, now 49. Later she married John Penrose, whom she divorced in 2007 and who lives nearby.

Anne has remained friends with both men. ‘Why not? They are both nice people.’

All this is chronicled in her excellent 2002 autobiography, Memoirs Of An Unfit Mother.

In unflinching detail, she lays it all bare — her raging alcoholism, her shame that she lost custody of her daughter following her first divorce, her fightback to sobriety and success.

It is ironic, in a way, that her first marriage ended because of her drinking and her second because of her success.

‘Look, no mother puts her son on her knee and teaches him what to do when he grows up and marries someone who earns more money and might even be smarter than him.

‘There are few happy husbands under those circumstances, and I am astonished that Penrose and I got as far as we did.’

She remains hugely fond of Penrose, a regular Sunday lunch guest. ‘But, in the end, there wasn’t enough glue to keep us together,’ she says. ‘He is a bon viveur: he loves drinking and eating. And it is quite hard to live with a heavy drinker if you don’t drink. We should have parted long before we did.’

So for many years she has lived here alone, where she adored spending lockdown with Emma, Emma’s ad-man husband Liam Kan, and their sons, Hudson, 11, and Parker, ten.

Emma is very much the Saffy to Anne’s Edina, the low-maintenance daughter who buys her clothes in supermarkets. ‘She dresses like a refugee,’ is how her mother puts it.

So here Anne is, in this fine home she renovated herself, with money she earned herself, surrounded by lovely things — a butler’s pantry! — and staff. And every rose upon the shelf, is one that I’ve supplied myself, as Liza Minnelli once sang.

But is there a special someone to share all this, I wonder?

Her ideal man, she says, would be someone who is ‘funny, clever, has integrity, will pick up a restaurant tab and not talk about himself all the time’. And has she met one of those recently? ‘No, but I am happy and content,’ is all she will say on that matter, adding: ‘But I do want to spend some time alone with Matt Hancock.’

Anne, for God’s sake!

‘To straighten him out! To tell him to talk properly. To look at the camera, straighten his tie and smarten up,’ she says. ‘He drives me mad.’

She’s got an edge; of course she does. And you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of it.

At one point in the interview she insists I relax and put my feet up. But so deep are her sofas that I end up practically horizontal, a disembodied voice bellowing from behind the huge cushions: “Anne, JUST TELL ME IF YOU ARE DATING!”

Later she says: ‘I wish I’d taken a photo of you laid out like that, to send to your editor.’

And you think: “Oh!”

But I sort of love Anne Robinson, finding her fearlessness an inspiration, along with the fact that she is still taking chances in life and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about her.

‘When I had a facelift in 2004, people wrote: “Her face doesn’t move.” So what? I don’t care what my enemies say about me. I have never read my Wikipedia entry. I don’t do Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I never look at anything online because what does it matter? It doesn’t.’

She’s incredible, really. She hasn’t made a bed since she was at boarding school, she once told the Duchess of Cornwall to get a proper bra fitting and always believed Bridget Jones should stop moaning, go on a diet and get a facial.

She is not one to skimp on anything — from home truths to home comforts.

‘Listen Jan, I have worked really hard during my life. And if I want to have facials, if I want to splurge on clothes, buy a new boy-racer car or employ a live-in housekeeper, then that is exactly what I am going to do,’ she says.

‘In the beginning of my career, all I needed was curiosity and a notebook. Now I need earrings.’

n Anne Robinson will become the new host of Countdown later this month, when she will present the programme every weekday at 2.10pm on Channel 4.

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