Anne Robinson reveals her vulnerable side

Feisty, me Anne Robinson reveals her vulnerable side (but, don’t worry, she’s still got a nice line in put-downs!)
As Anne Robinson launches a new series of her book show, she reveals how the end of her second marriage knocked her for six – and why she’ll never be good wife material

A little while after meeting Anne Robinson we have both sunk into her creamy sofa opposite a crackling fire, drinking coffee from floral bone china in her tasteful but cosy London home.

I can’t help thinking the so-called Queen of Mean is more playful than malicious. Even rather sweet. /02/23/article-2104951-11DFF59C000005DC-655_634x755.jpg” width=”634″ height=”755″ alt=”Anne Robinson's new show My Life In Books is a ten-part series where guests including Pamela Stephenson, Tim Rice and Kate Silverton talk about pivotal moments in their life inspired by literature” class=”blkBorder” />

Anne Robinson's new show My Life In Books is a ten-part series where guests including Pamela Stephenson, Tim Rice and Kate Silverton talk about pivotal moments in their life inspired by literature

‘I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. Of course, I go to bed with make-up on sometimes, but I do look after myself, and it’s not just the facelifts.’ Up close, her face doesn’t look stretched or her skin too thin. ‘A facelift in LA makes you look as if you’re in a wind tunnel,’ she says. ‘And there’s the New York facelift that makes you simply look lifted. I had mine done here. You just look good.

‘I’ve asked my surgeon if I could have a third lift. I had my eyes done ages ago and I had work on my chin and brow five or six years ago. He said it depends who’d done them. I always wonder why interviewers ask, “Would you consider surgery”, when they actually mean, “When did you have your facelift” Why don’t people just say what they mean Do you know Lulu has never had a facelift, apparently’ She pauses for dramatic effect.

‘I think miracles have happened there. But really…’ I tell her I know Lulu. She’s just got good Celtic skin. No facelift, really. She gives me the deadpan look, her eyebrows rising.

When Anne is having a joke with you and you’re on her side it’s all conspiratorial giggles. On her new TV show, My Life In Books, she laughs with her guests, not at them. My Life In Books is a kind of Desert Island Discs for TV, a ten-part series where guests including Pamela Stephenson, Tim Rice and Kate Silverton talk about pivotal moments in their life inspired by literature.

Anne aged 23 at her wedding to Charlie Wilson, who she later split with because they were 'two very volatile, impatient people'

Anne aged 23 at her wedding to Charlie Wilson, who she later split with because they were 'two very volatile, impatient people'

She tells me Fiona Shaw, who played Harry Potter’s Aunt Petunia in five of the films, was fantastic. ‘And very funny when she talked about arriving at RADA from Cork wearing a tweed skirt and Aran sweater and everyone else was a punk.’

Anne has always been very funny on television. ‘I grew up in a house where everyone was funny,’ she explains. ‘It was our currency, you see. Words were weapons and that’s how you survived – by making a joke of it or having a better line than somebody else in the house. When I think of The Weakest Link, which I’ve now given up, words were my weapons of mass destruction.’

Hosting The Weakest Link, of course, earned her the title Queen of Mean as well as that of ‘The rudest woman on television’. She terrified the contestants by constantly belittling them and was sometimes hilarious, especially if they were Welsh or fat.

She was contracted for ten years and did a further two – without a wage cut, as was reported – and also hosted the US version of the show. It was a phenomenal success and she did very well on it, maintaining homes in London, Gloucestershire and New York. She says she has survived 16 BBC1 controllers and outlasted most women of her age on television.

At this stage of life, one is limited.
There is a disappointing amount of men with brown teeth and potbellies –
I can’t get past those two things.

‘The way you survive in television is by having plenty of tricks in your bag [Anne presented the BBC’s Points Of View before writing and presenting consumer affairs show Watchdog] and not doing things for too long. There’s a lot of moaning about women and ageism on television. We could have a “Why aren’t there more old, fat or ugly women on television” argument if you like… but why should there be My argument, for what it’s worth, is we are going to get to the stage where a film director such as Richard Eyre is up before an employment tribunal because he’s cast Keira Knightley instead of Jenny Seagrove.’

She concludes that women simply can’t be guaranteed ‘any longevity. Some people’s skills are limited. I’m limited in some skills, actually: needlework, housework, patience.’

She’s criticised herself many times in the past for her impatience. Impatience is the word she uses as a put-down for all manner of things. When her marriage to the former editor of The Times, Charlie Wilson, broke up he was awarded custody of their daughter Emma, now 41, rather preposterously on the grounds that her ‘undoubted ambition’ was in the way of her parenting duties.

‘You can take a view on this,’ she says. ‘Either I’m a vulgar opportunist or I’m just impatient. It doesn’t seem like ambition to me. It’s more like…’ she searches for the word. Drive ‘Yes. It’s a drive not to get bored whatever one does. Either boring oneself or other people.’

Is she close to Emma now ‘Quite close. She has babies, so Mum is useful. We were close before that but the dynamic has changed. Charlie and I bought her an apartment when she was at NYU in New York and when the one next door came up for sale she didn’t want a noisy neighbour, so I bought it. We run along the Hudson River together, which is nice. She’s incredibly tidy. We’re alike in some ways, but not in other ways. She’s very parsimonious.’

Anne says she grew up in a house where everyone was funny, where 'words were weapons'

Anne says she grew up in a house where everyone was funny, where 'words were weapons'

Anne started off, without any particular training, in Fleet Street, first of all for a news agency then arriving at the Daily Mail in 1967. ‘The crusty old night editor would get someone out of the pub rather than get me to do the job.’ How did that affect her ‘It made me do the job better, and also there was the problem of nearly killing myself with drink.’

She gave up drinking in 1978. She doesn’t blame the Fleet Street culture. Rather, she has the attitude, ‘I’m a olunteer, not a victim. I don’t think we can blame anyone for my drinking.’ It was in her genes, though. ‘My mother was a drunk but she never let the day go by without saying, “You’re fantastic, you’ll be able to do anything.” We read a lot, shopped a lot and argued a lot. Do I still shop I can empty Bond Street in seconds.’

Ellie, the strawberry-blonde spaniel, rests her head on my lap. ‘She’s better in bed than most – cuddlier, and she doesn’t snore,’ says Anne. She had two spaniels. When she broke up with her second husband, former investigative reporter and then her manager, John Penrose, in 2008 after 27 years of marriage, they each took a dog. ‘I suggested he took Florence, the other one, who was needy and a bit annoying. Florence has now put on weight and she and Penrose waddle off in the same shape, whereas Ellie and I pathetically go running and are on a diet.’

Perhaps Penrose would have preferred a needy wife, too. Does she think she would have suited him better if she’d been more vulnerable ‘I just don’t think I’m wife material. Who wants to be married to someone who’s on telly and doesn’t do flower arranging I wouldn’t marry me.

Anne with ex-husband John Penrose, daughter Emma and dogs

Anne with ex-husband John Penrose, daughter Emma and dogs

‘I married Charlie when I was 23 because at the time that was the age when people got married. I split with him because we were two very volatile, impatient people. Far too similar.’ And then did you go for someone who was the opposite ‘Well, yes. Johnny is funny, charming, patient and I loved him to bits. It just stopped working, which was sad. But I’m much happier now.’

Was she afraid to be alone after being married for so long ‘It was a very tough couple of years,’ she says. ‘Not being on my own, but the recovery. It puzzled me. I didn’t want to go back on the decision, but I didn’t expect to feel so discombobulated. I felt like I was walking around wearing someone else’s reading glasses. Now is the best time of my life.’

Does she have a boyfriend ‘I’m so glad you didn’t say, “Are you dating anybody” because then I’d say, “I don’t date just anybody.” If you were the guy I was dating and you opened Weekend magazine to discover a description of yourself, I wonder how long you’d date me after that I’m not pulling the whole of Gloucestershire, but there are two or three. At this stage of life, one is limited. There is a disappointing amount of men with brown teeth and potbellies – I can’t get past those two things.’

There are lots of pretty oil paintings and smartly framed photographs of Anne and her daughter in the room, as well as a mantelpiece full of invitations, including one from Buckingham Palace for a Charles Dickens 200th anniversary celebration. ‘I wrote a column when the Queen Mother was 98 or so. Everyone says they loved the Queen Mother and I didn’t and said so. Why would I I’d never met her.

‘Former BBC deputy director general Will Wyatt wrote in his memoirs that he went to the palace and the Queen said to him, “Why is Anne Robinson so horrible about Mummy” So I’m in two minds about accepting this invitation. Perhaps I’m deluded that the party at the palace will include the Queen wafting over to talk about Mummy. I’ve been invited, really, because of My Life In Books and it being the Dickens anniversary.’ Will it be a good party ‘I’ve no idea. If Lulu isn’t there it might be OK.’

She’s often said her Weakest Link persona is herself but exaggerated. I’m not sure if that’s exactly the case. Her real-life persona is equally feisty but twice as fast, more witty than cruel and seemingly fearless. ‘I’m afraid of many things: birds, cyclists in the park, having a bad time.’ She also might be a little afraid of not being good enough. ‘In my next life I’d like to come back as Ellie. She’s a very superior being. I would like to be as contained as she is.’ Right now the only thing Anne Robinson is being needy about is a new handbag. So it’s off to Bond Street to empty it. n

My Life In Books, Monday-Friday, BBC2, 6.30pm.