April 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It doesn’t take long to get a taste of what scores of contestants have endured from tart-tongued Anne Robinson, host of Britain’s Weakest Link, the BBC quiz show that’s supplanted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in popularity since its overseas launch last August, and which invades America on NBC April 16. No sooner does a writer settle into a chair opposite her in a London TV studio than Robinson asks, ”Where are you staying?” When told the name of the hotel, she snaps, ”Why are you staying there? That’s a fussy little place in the middle of nowhere — wait, don’t tell me: A woman told you to stay there, right? Told you it was a posh place, did she?”

Well, no, actually, one begins to splutter, much like the unnerved questionees on Link, over whom the 56-year-old, redheaded Robinson presides dressed in schoolmarm-long black dresses, sensible shoes, and steel-rimmed glasses to match her steely glare: Think Mary Poppins as a dominatrix.

Tea drinkers dig the way Robinson not only asks difficult questions (”In the New Testament, who is called ‘the beloved physician,’ Luke or Matthew?”) but also needles the contestants, describing their efforts as ”sad” and ”embarrassing.” (The correct answer is Luke, by the way.) The series poses trivia questions with the threat of expulsion: After each round of questions, the beginning eight contestants vote off one of their number in successive rounds until a sole winner is left. (The top prize is [Pounds]20,000 — about $30,000 — which NBC says will be increased here to a larger amount yet to be announced.) Link is best known, however, for Robinson’s pithy, pitiless farewell to every pathetic sod who slinks off the set in what’s called the Walk of Shame: ”You are the weakest link: Goodbye!” It’s the tag line NBC has been pumping into its Link commercials, the phrase they hope will be this season’s ”Is that your final answer?” pop-cult mantra.

But wait: The British are used to the stinging lash of boarding-school bullying and House of Commons wig-pulling; they groove on vicarious masochism. Americans, by contrast, feel self-esteem stroking is an inalienable constitutional right; are led by a President who campaigned as a ”uniter, not a divider”; and are accustomed to Regis Philbin’s jokey crankiness. Will we take to a woman who ridicules contestants by asking the TV audience, ”Who is suffering from vacancy of mind?” and ”Whose doughnut has run out of jam?” and ”Who’s gone from dim to downright stupid?”

”She’s the anti-Reeg,” says NBC’s Jeff Zucker, who, upon leaving his post as the Today show’s executive producer to head up the network’s entertainment division, made it one of his first moves to sign up Weakest Link, thereby launching the lagging network into the ”scripted reality” game-show competition. He admits, ”There were people [at NBC] who said, ‘She has an accent — will people understand her sense of humor? Is she too mean?”’

”What attracted me to the game,” continues Zucker, ”was her: She was fierce, she was competitive, she was feisty, and I think those are all the things that we need to be as a network.” Robinson, who was born in Liverpool and worked for decades as a print, radio, and TV reporter, returns the compliment. ”[Zucker] is a newsman…and he, like me, enjoys the chase [for ratings], the excitement and the edginess, and would be completely uncomfortable with anything less aggressive.”

Weakest Link requires every single skill I’ve acquired over 30-odd years in journalism,” says Robinson. “A woman from the Los Angeles Times told me that she normally interviewed important anchorpeople in New York, and asked was I doing this for a lark, and I said no! I thought to myself, I consider myself every bit as important as the important anchorpeople she usually interviews.” She laughs, but just a little, her eyes flashing defensively.

The daughter of an elementary-school teacher father and a shopkeeper mother who became “the biggest supplier of poultry in the northwest of England,” Robinson’s life has had its own weak links. Married twice, with a daughter who’s a TV and radio producer in Washington, D.C., Robinson has been frank in the British press about her years as an alcoholic, but now says, “I find it a bit tedious hearing about people’s near-death experiences”—meaning her own. “I used to have a radio show, and I would nearly slide under the table from boredom as all the American stars would come in to tell me about their ‘recovery.'” Nevertheless, she’s writing an autobiography that’s due to be published in England in October (a U.S. deal is being negotiated). “It’s quite a shocking book: it’s called Memoirs of an Unfit Mother,” she says. “It covers all my drinking phase.”

Between tapings of the London Link edition, Robinson is holding forth; she’s out of the trademark black dress and in a peach-colored bathrobe, shoes off, lying on a sofa in her office with her feet up, a lunch of chicken breast and salad nearby. Meanwhile, the next crop of contestants is a few doors down, in a green room where they’re nervously nibbling at cold bacon-and-egg sandwiches. Twenty-five-year-old Brian Wright says he got this far by passing a 20-question test and an audition. “Weakest Link is not for the fainthearted,” he says.

Later, while on the air, Brian will incur the host’s ire when he flubs a question about English politics and excuses his mistake by saying, “I could not bring myself to say the name ‘Thatcher.'” Robinson, peering over her steel rims, retorts: “I see. And are there any other categories of questions we should be aware of that you won’t answer because of your principles?” Brian is soon dispatched, and shaking visibly backstage he says, “After you answer a question from her, you don’t even hear the next two, you’re so relieved to be out from under her glare.”

Versions of Link have been exported to eight countries, all of them led by different yet red-haired and female hosts. Only America is being graced, if that’s the word, with the original. Phil Gurin and Stuart Krasnow, executive producers of the American version, love Robinson’s ratings-reign-of-terror. “This is not a show about encouragement,” says Krasnow. “Anne is so direct, so savvy,” says Gurin from Los Angeles, where Robinson will fly once a month to tape eight shows per visit. The producers explain that the U.S. version features a studio audience instructed to “wear dark colors, and told, ‘Don’t applaud.'” Says Krasnow, “We’re going for a somber mood—a little menacing, edge-of-your-seat mood.”

Zucker admits there’ll be some ”tweaking” in importing the show: ”The questions needed to be Americanized,” he notes. Americanized, hell: Given that the questions Robinson asks her English contestants tend toward high culture (”What was the nationality of the artist Gustav Klimt?”), won’t the entire enterprise have to be dumbed down for Joe Six-Pack over here? ”That’s what I said to you when I said we’re going to have to Americanize the questions,” says Zucker.

A few months ago, NBC execs filmed a pilot in England, recruiting local Americans. ”I did the pilot with what appeared to be a lot of vice presidents from [American] banks who didn’t know what currency you had in Vietnam and that sort of thing,” Robinson laughs. She makes no excuse for her impertinence, on or off camera: ”I think the [tone] of Weakest Link is nothing that any journalist doesn’t find in any newsroom—it’s a kind of irreverence, a sense of the absurd, of not taking things too seriously, and a good degree of irony.”

Speaking of which, NBC also taped a pilot with Survivor winner Richard Hatch as host. (If the prime-time version does well, there’s a chance the network will put a Hatch-helmed daytime version into syndication.) So did Robinson meet the gabby nudist? ”Yes, and he was kind enough to give me a copy of his book, 101 Survival Secrets, which was to teach me how to conduct myself better”—and here she rolls her eyes with elaborate sarcasm.

Robinson, who reportedly made nearly [Pounds]2 million (about $3 million) last year (neither she nor NBC would say what she’s getting for her American foray), notes that there are already plans for a celebrity edition of Link over here. Who’d she like to have a go at? ”I’m completely besotted by The West Wing [and] I’d like to get Martin Sheen and Allison Janney. I’d like Norman Mailer, I’d like Julia Roberts, I’d like Nicole Kidman, I’d like Frasier—what’s he called? Kelsey Grammer?”

In London, it seems as though everyone has an opinion about Robinson. Ask a young skinheaded taxi driver, and he says Robinson is ”a nice girl.” Then he goes on to compare her favorably to one of his favorite soccer players, who’s been known to ”beat his wife a bit—he gets a bad rap; he just needs a bit of help.” O-o-o-o-kay: Does this mean the driver thinks Robinson is a meanie who needs help? He laughs. ”Annie doesn’t need any help; she’s gotten famous now, but that’s the way it is here: They bring you up fast to knock you down.”

Told of the driver’s remarks, Robinson, whose eyes twinkle mischievously when she’s off stage, chortles: ”Well, I don’t knock my husband around, but he got the fame part right.” Robinson, who’s married to her manager, agent John Penrose, recently endured a potential knockdown when she went on a British talk show and made a few impudent remarks about Welsh people, saying, among other things, ”What are they for?” Americans might be baffled by the ensuing uproar—a Welsh Labour Party official said her remarks ”border[ed] on racist”—but Robinson insists she was ”joking” and that she’ll not apologize, despite receiving death threats in the mail. ”Listen: I covered Ireland [as a reporter]; I don’t intimidate easily,” she says.

Although Robinson’s spunk is not in doubt, her success Stateside is: Will the rough-and-tumble Weakest Link prove to be NBC’s Survivor, or just the XFL in drag? Either way, it’s been a pretty good adventure for a self-described “aging, redheaded, ex-drunk, Irish-Catholic Liverpudlian with bad ankles and a crooked face.” She’s her own show’s strongest link. Goodbye.

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