If one were to make a Billy Joel-esque montage of the early 2000s a la “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” chances are that it would include one of the era’s most well-known phrases, spoken in a clipped British accent that somehow also sounds like a sneer: “You are the weakest link — goodbye.”
The woman behind this auric one-liner, of course, is UK television presenter Anne Robinson. The stern earworm of a catchphrase on the game show, The Weakest Link, paired with Robinson’s slick uniform — a high-collared black frock whose pop culture genealogy seemed part Star Trek, part Matrix, part villainous schoolmarm from a 90s-era horror anthology series – made her all the more staunchly memorable. To American audiences especially, Robinson’s perpetual stoicism and severity were a stark contrast to the game show presenters of yore, a foil to the perpetually smiling Pat Sajaks and Vanna Whites that generations of television viewers were used to.
While Robinson might loom large in the imagination of anyone who owned a TV in the early aughts, it’s almost shocking to realize that her tenure on American television was much less outsized. The U.S. iteration of the show, which premiered on NBC in 2001 as a weekly primetime staple, ended after only a year. So, why did Anne Robinson disappear from our TV screens? And why wasn’t she asked to reprise her post for the game show’s October 2020 reboot? Find out below.
Before her TV career, Anne Robinson was a tabloid journalist
While television presenter and The Weakest Link host Anne Robinson might be best known for her work on the small screen, the first major phase of her career came in a different media format entirely: print.
Born in 1944 in the coastal town of Crosby in Lancashire, England, Robinson was interested in acting as a child, but decided to instead pursue journalism as her career. BBC News reports that Robinson landed her first major job at the Daily Mail as a reporter in 1967, which made her the first woman ever to be appointed for such a role. She quickly gained recognition after reporting on the untimely death of The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein within the same year she was hired, per the Independent.
While Robinson was fired from the Daily Mail in 1968 (stemming from her marriage to the tabloid’s then-deputy news editor, which resulted in divorce in 1973), she went on to write for similar publications. According to Robinson’s 2001 autobiography, Memoirs of an Unfit Mother (via The Post.ie), during her time at The Daily Mirror in the early 80s, Robinson was dubbed “the Wednesday Witch,” an allusion to her work as a featured celebrity columnist that for all intents and purposes made her a proto-Perez Hilton for the pre-Internet age. Her work as the pseudonymous Wednesday Witch helped her hone her somewhat caustic style, which would serve her greatly after she eventually took on her hosting role for The Weakest Link decades later.
The Weakest Link host eventually became popular as the 'rudest woman on television'
Anne Robinson began her foray into television in 1982 — the same year she was summarily fired by the Daily Mirror for pushing a scoop on Princess Diana, which ultimately lead to insensitive reporting about the late royal’s battle against an eating disorder. Her first appearances were as a guest panelist for British TV staples, like debate program Question Time, though she subsequently got her footing as a television host as a substitute presenter for the BBC show Points of View, and eventually took over the role entirely from her predecessor, per BBC News.
Eventually, Robinson’s most memorable role to date — host for the original British version of the game show, The Weakest Link — began in 2000 on the BBC Two network. It was immediately apparent that the show’s popularity was intrinsically tied to Robinson’s on-air persona, which critics at the time categorized as icy, at the very least. More pointedly, that same BBC News profile referred to Robinson as “acting like a cross between Cruella de Vil and Hitler’s mother, a dominatrix, a bossy school ma’am, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a [POW] camp commandant,” further dubbing her “the Rudest Woman on Television.”
But despite her detractors, such criticism might as well have been praise for viewers of the show, leading to its short-lived American spin-off on NBC in 2001.
Anne Robinson knew when to say goodbye to The Weakest Link
While the American version of The Weakest Link might have made enough of an impression to warrant a 2020 reboot (this time, with Jane Lynch taking on Anne Robinson’s role as host), it initially didn’t last long stateside due to a ratings drop, per Vulture. In the long run, it also had little impact on Robinson’s career: though she would go on to make other television appearances, almost all of them on British networks, she maintained her role on the NBC game show’s original BBC counterpart for 11 years, before parting ways in 2011.
In an interview with The Guardian, Robinson confided that her decision to leave the program, which included a total of “1,693 episodes, 15,000 contestants and 230,000 questions” throughout her tenure, per the newspaper’s tally, was based on her innate intuition that it was simply time to go. “If there’s anything about longevity in television, it’s about knowing what to take and what to turn down, and what to stop,” Robinson said at the time. “It’s often about what not to do anymore.”
While a number of media outlets speculated that her departure was due to a pay cut, Robinson was swift to dismiss the rumors. “My fee wasn’t cut,” Robinson stated. “I said I’d do 10 years and then, because [the show was moved] to [BBC] Scotland [to air] and they were brilliant, I did a year more than I intended to do.”
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