Interview with Anne Robinson: Has the Queen of Mean mellowed?

Anne Robinson (c) BBC Pictures

Anne Robinson (c) BBC Pictures - Credit: BBC

Journalist, author and TV presenter Anne Robinson is heading back to our TV screens. Marianne Sweet visited her Costwold home to find out more - and to hear about her support for local libraries

Anne Robinson (c) Antony Thompson / TWM

Anne Robinson (c) Antony Thompson / TWM - Credit: © Thousand Word Media

Forget about climate change melting the polar ice caps. There is an even greater thawing here in the Cotswolds with our own Queen of Mean.

And the reason for Anne Robinson’s mellowing? Two little lads called Hudson and Parker - her grandsons. Their paintings take pride of place, surrounded by a stunning collection of art, in her spacious and welcoming Cotswold barn conversion.

Anne admits she is in possession of many more pieces by these yet-to-be-discovered artists, aged seven and five. “My bedroom is full of their pictures. I’ve had them all framed. They were with me all summer, either here or in France I couldn’t get rid of them,” she says with a hint of a smile.

On a shelf near the door of her home, where she moved just over a decade ago following the divorce of her second husband, is a large handbell, reminiscent of the ones you find in school.

Its purpose is practical. “The children are always outside, miles away. This is six acres around here. I got the bell quite recently because they don’t come to the whistle like the dogs and I can’t shout and ruin my voice.”

Her grandsons offer those simple pleasures of family life which Anne didn’t completely have with her daughter Emma. In 1973 a judge ruled that “he did not find her unfit mother” but decided her “undoubted ambition” - not to mention Anne’s alcoholism at the time – meant that Emma’s dad was awarded full custody. Though Anne had access rights, that separation, when Emma was just two and a half, left a deep impression. “The drinking and the career that helped me lose my daughter have never made up for the pain and shame of that loss,” Anne movingly wrote in her autobiography Memoirs of an Unfit Mother.

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Anne dominated our TV screens until 2011 with The Weakest Link. She enjoyed “creating the character” and working as a part of a team to devise what became one of the BBC’s biggest hits of the early 21st century, running for over 1,500 episodes. In total Anne has done more than 10,000 hours of TV.

It was certainly her highest-profile - and most lucrative - job in an impressive journalistic career which spans half a century. In 1967 she began as the first female trainee in the Daily Mail newsroom. Her arrival in Fleet Street came with her soft-top MG, a mane of red hair, her beloved dog, and in due course thanks to her mum, a full length mink coat. She has worked for the Sunday Times and was assistant editor of the Daily Mirror, becoming the first woman to regularly edit a national newspaper in Fleet Street.

Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link (c) BBC Pictures

Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link (c) BBC Pictures - Credit: BBC

Her drinking almost destroyed her career and her health. At one point she wrote that she could not climb stairs without support due to the tremors in her legs. She hasn’t had a drink since 1978 and is keen to point out that she has a regular four-mile circuit she runs around the village. Does she do it every day? “No. Twice a week if I am lucky.”

In 1982 Anne moved into TV, becoming in due course the regular presenter of Points of View and, in 1993, fronting the consumer affairs programme Watchdog.

After a break from our screens Anne has been quietly returning to TV, focusing on documentaries. “One day you are the youngest person in the newsroom and then the next day you are the oldest woman on TV not baking cakes. With the programmes that I am now doing I am going back to my journalistic roots.”

This month she will present a documentary on BBC2 marking the 50th anniversary of the partial legislation of abortion. The programme asks if this legislation reflects the views of modern Britain. Do recent advances in medicine mean the law is out of date? For her it is again a very personal subject and she has written movingly about her own abortion in her book.

The programme was recorded at Anne’s Cotswolds home. “It’s a mixture of Panorama and Big Brother,” she explains. “We had nine people here for three days - eight women and one man. All, apart from the guy, had had more than one abortion. People from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, different ages and very different reactions to the rest of their lives.

“People don’t realise what it was like then. The pill came out in 1962 in this country but you couldn’t get it as an unmarried woman until 1967.”

Anne is working on three more documentaries during the autumn. The catchphrase, “You are the weakest link - goodbye” will also be heard again in November when Anne hosts a Weakest Link celebrity special for Children in Need.

There is talk of a celebrity version of the show being revived and Anne has been asked if she will return to the role. She is non-committal, a theme that carries on when it comes to questions she’d rather not answer. She may be known as the Queen of Mean but she can brush aside a question with the most delicate of manners.

Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link (c) BBC Pictures / Richard Kendal

Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link (c) BBC Pictures / Richard Kendal - Credit: BBC

“We call shows like Weakest Link ‘shiny floor TV’ and I am not sure if I want to do any more of them. I’m between a rock and a hard place. I think I will see how it goes with the Children in Need version before I make up my mind. I still enjoy the work enormously but I am trying to slow down.”

Anne is also pondering writing another book. What topics is she considering and would it follow on from her autobiography published in 2001? She demurs. “It is much easier to do television than to write a book. Writing a book you need to sit down and be structured.”

Books have always been important to Anne. She is a a voracious reader, preferring non-fiction. “I read all the time. My biggest fear is being somewhere without something to read.”

She has recently been involved with the David Vaisey Prize, a new competition for libraries in Gloucestershire which recognises and awards outstanding initiatives to encourage more people to read. The Vaisey Prize was the brainchild of Gloucestershire-based Jonathan Taylor CBE, who is president of the Booker Prize Foundation.

“I met Jonathan at one of the Booker dinners. I thought we were agreeing that I lived in Gloucestershire but I found that I had agreed to be the chair for the judges,” she said.

So how did the librarians and volunteers cope with the Queen of Mean arriving unannounced at their local library, accompanied by other Vaisey judges?

“Not only did they not seem terrified that I was there as one of the judges but they didn’t even seem thrown by the fact that we just turned up.

“It was all fantastic. I haven’t used a library for 55 years and I hadn’t realised what a welcoming space they are and how they double up as a day care centre, a place for lonely people, for mothers and babies to meet, whatever is needed.

Anne Robinson (c) IAN BURT

Anne Robinson (c) IAN BURT - Credit: IAN BURT

“At one library we visited the local nurse was using the space for her post-natal check-ups.

I was knocked out by the dedication by all of those working in the libraries. In many of the libraries we visited it was a vital service that went well beyond reading books.”

Anne is trying to take things slower these days but admits she still enjoys her work and is always on the look-out for new projects. If she could start her career all over again would she still go into journalism? Yes, she says, but she would make certain that she went beyond print.

“My mother had a saying “Nnever let anyone have the deeds to your plantation” meaning be independent. I’ve always tried as early as I could to do more than one job. I would still write and perform but I would be more aware from the beginning that I need to spread it across.”

That art of negotiation was a skill Anne learned from her very successful mother who was a businesswoman in Crosby - she sold poultry from the market. Anne has never been coy about money. She is the woman who negotiated with Robert Maxwell to double her salary and convinced an editor to give her a company Mercedes with a phone.

Her personal wealth has been quoted from £30 million to £50 million. She loves to shop, a trait she inherited from her mother and has passed on to her daughter Emma. Her greatest weakness after books are clothes and pictures. It was her mother who instilled in Anne the importance of a career, of having your own money. Her adage was “have a facial once a month and get plenty of help in the house”.

The advice seems to have worked well for Anne who recently marked her 73rd birthday but looks decades younger.

Anne has lived in the Cotswolds since the late 80s and considers it very much her home. She raves about her hairdresser (James Stuart of Stuart Wilson Hairdressing in Cirencester) and enjoys Made by Bob in Cirencester, Barnsley House and Calcot Manor. But her greatest love is her home and the time spent there.

She has spent years converting the Cotswold barn which she now shares with her faithful spaniel Ellie. “I’ve never been without a dog,” she explains. She has not long also acquired a new puppy which has added a level of chaos to the household. “Ellie is just beginning to forgive me.”

She loves the tranquility and divides her great collection of books between here and her house in London. On her coffee table is an eclectic collection from The Descent of Man to The Happy Hack and Ed Balls’ Speaking Out: Lessons in Life.

She has never shied from a fight and in 2002 sparked controversy when she hosted a fundraising event for the Vale of White Horse Hunt, which she still supports.

“I always thought the antis, first of all, didn’t know anything about the countryside and their attitude to the hunt was the equivalent of pouring paint on rich people’s cars.”

Recently Anne was in the national media spotlight for using Tinder, a dating app. Was it true that the Queen of Mean was surfing the web for love?

“I was filming a documentary about relationships and the producer asked if I had heard of Tinder and I said no. They asked if they could film me looking at it and I said yes. The documentary was made last year and I hadn’t seen it. After it was broadcast there were headlines everywhere that I was on Tinder.

“I’m afraid I am not on Tinder. I wouldn’t even know how to get on to it.”

So what would she do if the right man came along?

“Who says he hasn’t,” she says with a hint of a smile. “Mind your business. I used to think you need two bathrooms but now I think you need two houses.”