Sunday 16 Mar 2014
Thursday 10 September BBC ONE
A lot has changed since Anne Robinson left Watchdog, the ground-breaking consumer rights series she presented for eight years, until 2001, and which she returns to this week.
For consumers, the surge in use of the internet has meant that many more lines of communication have opened between company and customer (but not necessarily in a positive way); a worldwide recession has meant that money is tight for many, so people are less likely to shell out for shoddy workmanship, poor customer service and second-rate products; and the phenomenal boom in internet shopping has meant there's a whole new raft of companies for people to complain about when things go wrong.
For Anne herself, a lot has changed, too. The BBC quiz show Weakest Link – and her famous catchphrase – propelled her to transatlantic fame; her face was plastered on huge billboards across the USA, but the downside was she had to cut short her tenure on Watchdog, which has championed the rights of the consumer for the last 29 years. More recently, at the end of 2008, and at the age of 64, her long – and well-documented – wait to become a grandmother finally ended when, in December, her daughter, Emma, gave birth to grandson Hudson, who Anne clearly adores.
"It's fantastic," she exclaims, when Programme Information's Jane Dudley asks whether she's enjoying being a grandmother. And she's a very hands-on granny for that matter, too. "I've just had Hudson for two weeks while they [Emma, and her husband, Liam] went to Jamaica, and she's just back, grumpy that the phone's ringing because she's got jetlag! Today is the first time in two weeks I haven't had to get up at six o'clock to give him his bottle."
But if anyone – particularly the bosses of big companies who have angered Watchdog viewers – thinks that becoming a grandmother has turned Anne into a soft touch, they can think again, as this week, the long-running consumer show returns, with Anne once again at the helm, in a new, hour-long slot and with a new format.
"They can start cleaning up their act – I promise you they can't hide from me," she says of the big businesses that fail to come up with the goods. "They really do have to put on their armour and fasten their seatbelts come September," she continues.
"Often, the chairman of the company is some establishment figure who somehow is never connected with the appalling service that's going on. I'm always happy to speak to them before I interview them. I'm not pulling any tricks on them, I'm just not prepared for them to say, 'Let's put this in perspective' and 'We're the victim of our own success' and 'This only happens to a small amount of people'.
"It always astonishes me because usually they send in some sharp suit who's wasted money on media training and actually the worst thing you can be confronted by as a representative is someone who looks like your middle-aged aunt!"
So what happens when the cameras stop rolling? Does Anne shake hands and thank the busy bosses for coming on the programme? "Whatever they want," she says, nonchalantly. "If they want to storm out that's fine, too. Listen, I worked for Robert Maxwell – nothing's going to frighten me!"
The Watchdog team receives around 7,000 emails and letters every week and the website has 250,000 hits a month, and Anne admits that she didn't have to think twice about returning to the show. "It's the worst negotiation I've ever done," she confesses. "They just asked and I said yes, when can I start?
"I only stopped because, at the time, for three years, I was commuting every 10 days doing Weakest Link in LA and doing it here, and it was impossible. I left halfway through a series. It's my natural journalistic home, though." Anne's journalistic credentials are second to none – she was Fleet Street's first female editor and she has written for newspapers including, to name but a few, The Sun, The Express, The Times and The Daily Telegraph.
"We'd turned Watchdog into a programme that really focused on the big, corporate organisations."
Perhaps one of the companies that suffered most at the hands of Watchdog – and Anne – was Hoover who, in the Nineties, offered people who'd spent a certain amount of money on their products free flights to Europe and the USA (which might have come in handy when Anne started her London-to-LA commute), but soon found that the demand was far too great – and expensive – for them to cope with. People complained in their hundreds and the story made front-page headlines for weeks. "It was massive," says Anne.
Watchdog's new format means that viewers have an even greater chance of naming and shaming the worst companies in terms of customer satisfaction. The show features a new-look set and, more importantly, a studio audience, allowing viewers, for the first time, to air their grievances with the big bosses in person. "The most crucial thing is the audience," says Anne. "The set will have a gantry, rather like Top Gear, so there won't be an office look; it's a different approach. And those people in the audience will be people who have got a grievance."
And it's not only members of the public who will have their chance to air their grievances as the series will also feature some well-known faces, too. "I'm persuading as many as possible to come in and make their complaints personally," says Anne. "I think my Aunty Betty in Birkdale will love it if someone like the Duke of Edinburgh is making the complaint," she laughs. "Apparently he adores the show. If I'm off sick that's who I'll ask to stand in for me!"
The new series will also include the hit BBC One secret-filming show, Rogue Traders, presented by Matt Allwright, a familiar face from Anne's previous stint on Watchdog. "Matt was working on radio in Southampton and he got in touch with Watchdog because his mother was having a problem with a washing machine. I said 'let's hire him' and we did. And now he's doing the hugely successful Rogue Traders, which will be seen through the programme."
One thing that'll remain the same about the new series, though, is that it'll be the same hard-hitting consumer affairs programme that more than four million viewers have come to love. "They've been doing a brilliant job; we're just going to take it up an octane or two. It's not as if I'm taking over something that isn't fantastically successful, there'll just be a bit more 'roar of the greasepaint, smell of the crowd'!" she laughs. "And I'll be in Yves Saint Laurent, as always!"
Another thing Anne is relishing with the return of Watchdog and her return to prime time TV is the fact that she, in her own words, will be "the oldest woman in television".
"I never came to television as a dolly bird – I came as a writing journalist to replace Barry Took, because at Points Of View he'd written the script. So I am what I am – I've never really been anyone but me. I haven't traditionally started by being a beauty queen.
"Whatever people say about me, they've always thought I was a decent journalist and that's what I'm most proud of. That and my modesty," she adds, with her tongue firmly in her cheek. "I think what I've always done on telly is something quite individual. You can always be replaced but the trick is to try to do something that makes you hard to replace."
And now that she's come full circle and returned to Watchdog, it seems as if Anne has proved her point, and it seems as if her grandson, Hudson, might have given her a new source of inspiration, as a different group of companies now have reason to be fearful of her; the baby product market is clearly one she's going to be watching carefully. As yet, though, she says, she hasn't had any bad experiences, "but I hope I do!" she laughs. "Actually, for a lot of people I never actually left Watchdog, in that I rarely receive bad service. What friends do is make me stand in front of their washing machine or car so they can take a picture and send it back to the manufacturer!"
And with that last comment, Anne's off to coo over Hudson one more time before her daughter takes him home.