Anne Robinson on Countdown and cancel culture

By Steven McIntosh
Entertainment reporter

  • Published
Rachel Riley, Anne Robinson and Susie DentImage source, Channel 4
Image caption,
Anne Robinson on the set of Channel 4's Countdown with Rachel Riley (left) and Susie Dent

Anne Robinson might be the first female presenter of Countdown, but it's probably best you don't draw that to her attention.

"When Channel 4 said to me 'you'll be the first woman', I groaned, because I was rather hoping we'd got past the stage of being completely astonished that a woman can do the same job as a man," she says ahead of her debut. "Maybe we haven't. You might as well say I'm the first presenter of Countdown who's got O-negative blood."

This observation perfectly sets the tone for half an hour in Robinson's company. She speaks frankly and lives up to her formidable reputation. The 76-year-old has previously fronted consumer affairs programme Watchdog and quiz show Weakest Link, proving she could terrify business chief executives and members of the public in equal measure.

She has often enjoyed playing up to her fearsome persona - even when the cameras aren't rolling. But, Robinson says, she's planning to go slightly easier on Countdown's contestants.

"One of the rules I had on Weakest Link was I never ever met the contestants before [filming]," she recalls. "Even on the celebrity shows, I'd come on to the podium, the lights would be ready to go, and people would say, 'Hi Anne', and I'd just keep a straight face and ignore them. That helped to build the atmosphere.

"But on Countdown, I do say 'hello, how are you', simply to allow them to see that the slightly pantomime character on Weakest Link isn't all of me. And I do think they're quite nervous, and I don't really want that, I want to be able to play with the contestants and get the best possible out of them."

Image caption,
Robinson says she played up to her pantomime villain character on quiz show The Weakest Link

Countdown first aired in 1982, inspired by the French TV series Des Chiffres et Des Lettres (Numbers and Letters).

Since then, it has remained a constant presence in Channel 4's schedule, its format reassuringly unchanged amid the fast-evolving television landscape. The show sees contestants make words out of randomly chosen letters and solve maths puzzles and anagrams.

Her predecessors as hosts were Nick Hewer, Jeff Stelling, Des O'Connor, Des Lynam, and, most famously, Richard Whiteley, the man who started it all back on Channel 4's opening night.

Robinson says there are "several reasons" for the show's enduring appeal. "First of all, it's cerebral. I like the way it has dark and light in it," she says. "There's Susie [Dent] doing origins of words, there's Rachel [Riley]'s amazing maths, and the contestants are very, very skilled. And I think it's never tried to bow to any of that shiny floor excitement. It's gone on being authentic."

(We say 'mmm' in response to this, to indicate our agreement, and immediately regret it. "'Mmm?' What does 'mmm' mean? Was that answer not interesting?" she asks. It's almost as scary as facing her in the studio.)

Robinson's appointment to the show has, inevitably, attracted controversy. As soon as it was announced, social media users dug up old clips from the Weakest Link, where she would pick on contestants for their appearance, sexuality or the fact they were on benefits. Her habit of humiliating members of the public, some argued, made her an unsuitable host for Countdown.

"It is a baffling decision," wrote Rupert Hawksley in the Independent. "This gentle, mid-afternoon game show, best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a slice of Battenberg, deserves better than Robinson's vicious tongue and pursed lips." Channel 4 must have known this was coming, and indeed stuck by her as she was set upon by the Twitterati.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Robinson says she hasn't requested any advice from previous host Nick Hewer

Robinson says she is blissfully unaware of most criticism. "What I do, because I'm not technically able to understand Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, I don't have any of those, so I can go on thinking everyone thinks I'm wonderful. It saves a lot of grief and it saves a lot of time."

That's as may be, but how does she respond to the suggestion that she couldn't get away with her Weakest Link put-downs nowadays?

"Well, I think it's true," she replies. "One of the several reasons we wouldn't do Weakest Link again is that we're into [the] woke era now. And there would be endless confusion about it. So you're quite right."

But while Countdown might bring out a softer side, her former steely demeanour won't be totally absent. "[The contestants] have not been cast as we did on Weakest Link, to expect and enjoy being teased," she says. "On the other hand, there would be no point in hiring me and not hiring Huw Edwards."

(Shortly after our interview takes place, The BBC announces it is bringing back Weakest Link for a weekly celebrity series, with Romesh Ranganathan as the presenter.)

Unsurprisingly, Robinson has limited time for cancel culture; where an opinion someone expresses can damage their career. "Well, it's exhausting isn't it?" she says. "Because it's cutting out genuine criticism. I hate it that television, newspapers and charities are all pandering to it. Instead of supporting the people who support their newspaper or their charity."

Image source, Channel 4
Image caption,
Countdown first aired in the UK nearly four decades ago

Robinson will have to put up with a gruelling diary as Countdown's new host. "It's quite a schedule," she comments, "it's five shows a day, which in effect means you do a week's programme each day."

She hasn't requested any advice from Hewer, despite it being offered. "Through the producer, he very kindly said he was available. But, and this isn't meant to be rude, I sort of thought it was it was information I could do nothing with. You know, it would be like Gary Lineker telling me how to do Match of the Day. We're just two completely different people."

We rattle through a few more subjects. She welcomes the significant increase in female presenters on high profile TV shows, from Strictly Come Dancing to Question Time, but notes it has not happened at a particularly fast pace.

"And there's always been a showbiz belief that you need pretty girls," she adds. "We don't judge guys... we don't look at the screen and say 'God, he's ugly' all the time. But you might be in danger of doing that with women, because you're so conditioned to any woman you see on television looking top dollar."

She adds: "I did a Radio 2 Saturday morning show for 10 or 11 years, and at that time in the early 90s, you never played two female singers back to back. You have to remember how long it's taken to even get where we are now."

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Robinson doesn't know how long she'll host Countdown, but points out Mary Berry is still on TV at 86

And what about the idea that women need to have surgery if they want to remain on TV after a certain age? Robinson has always been open about hers. But these days, a presenter like Lorraine Kelly is over the age of 60 and has publicly and proudly stated she's never gone under the knife.

"Lorraine is absolutely entitled to not do anything," Robinson replies. "And you're quite entitled to have surgery if you want to. I mean, why should anyone, particularly other women, object to you doing whatever you want to do? Most of them have got pierced ears after all."

Finally, we ask about how long she might do Countdown for, bearing in mind she hosted roughly 2,000 episodes of The Weakest Link, including the US version. "Look, somebody said that to me yesterday, 'would I still be there when I was 86'," she responds. "And we looked it up, and Mary Berry is 86 and she's still on television. So, I don't know."

Anne Robinson's first episode of Countdown airs on Monday at 14:10 BST on Channel 4.

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