Anne Robinson, The Weakest Link And The Rise Of Cruelty As Currency

The show's unorthodox approach to its guests is back in the spotlight.

Anne Robinson

by Guy Pewsey |
Published on

Just over twenty years ago, a TV sensation was born when the first episode of The Weakest Link aired. Anne Robinson, until then known only in the UK as a tough-talking but undoubtedly amiable TV presenter, was transformed. Encased in black, with her blunt red bowlcut and Demon Headmaster sunglasses, she was a cruel quizmaster, a dominatrix without the whip as she doled out insults between rounds. Two decades on, she may have a lot to answer for.

For some reason, cruelty and villainy were big in 2000. It was the year that saw Nigel Lythgoe earn the moniker of Nasty Nigel after judging Popstars (remember Hearsay?) with a firm hand. Nick Bateman received the nickname Nasty Nick (journalists, eh? Eternally creative) when he lied and schemed in the Big Brother house. But they were tame next to Anne.

For the uninitiated, The Weakest Link saw a group of contestants take turns to answer questions. If they got theirs right, their prize increased. If wrong, the jackpot emptied (unless you’d banked in time, of course). The group then voted to kick off the worst performer (or greates threat) but before they did so, Anne stepped in for a chat. She would raise one, cruel eyebrow and tell people they were probably gay, stupid, poor or ugly.

She confronted Marilyn, a beauty therapist, with a cutting ‘so you haven’t had any time to work on yourself then?’. She told Kevin that he was 'round and tubby' and asked one woman why she was 'dressed like a lesbian.' Watch the clips now and cringe: it is horrendous to revisit what we cackled at. This week, even more moments have been unearthed, thanks in part to the announcement that Anne is set to take over hosting duties of Countdown. People are incredulous at being reminded of the things she used to express. She has been accused of racism, classism and homophobia, among other things.

It is strange to remember that Anne's novelty appeal was in her marked difference from the affable clowns who encouraged the contestants on shows like Family Fortunes, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or The Price Is Right. The public couldn’t get enough. The show was picked up in the US and Anne went along for the ride to equal success.

Anne Robinson

Anne was also a rare woman in male-dominated primetime TV, which cannot be underestimated or downplayed. The fact that a fifty-something women took centre stage in one of the BBC's biggest exports is something to be celebrated. But she was a harbinger of something dangerous. There was, I would argue, a cost to spinning venom into gold.

Like Nigel and Nick, Anne led the way in making cruelty into currency, enabling people to become rich and famous by being insulting and offensive. As we entered a new millennium, nastiness became a way to get ahead. Simon Cowell picked up the baton, and we watched with glee as he tore apart the aspirations of countless dreamers. Gordon Ramsay soon followed, his shouting and swearing making him a star on both sides of the Atlantic. There is an entire regular segment on The Wendy Williams Show where the TV legend essentially lays into an individual of her choice for several minutes, with the audience whooping in unison.

The constructed reality shows that have become staples of the schedules have made millions from filming the machinations of young men and women who know that their chances of getting hired for the next season are boosted greatly if they amp up the drama. We hated Spencer and Heidi in The Hills, but we watched anyway. Tyra Banks may have sought to be an encouraging and supportive judge on America's Next Top Model, but some of the most iconic moments in the show stemmed from when she lost her temper.

Has the tide turned in recent years? Kindness may be in lately - stars like Ellen DeGeneres have built careers on niceness, although that particular reputation seems in tatters - but negativity is still more entertaining. Last year Canada’s Drag Race rubbed viewers up the wrong way due to the seemingly disproportionately mean criticism offered by judge Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman (he was accused of fat-shaming and disproportionate insults) but I would argue that cruelty still sells, particularly in reality television.

Before this new Countdown gig, Anne Robinson ceased to be a TV fixture. Simon and Gordon did not. Did we run out of tolerance for a mean woman while still accepting nasty men? Did we wake up to her meanness? Or did her particular schtick just get tired? Her sharp tongue drove the public wild and made her an international star. But maybe, just maybe, the world would be a better place if she and her peers hadn’t pulled at that particularly brutal thread.

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