Anne Robinson lookalikes to $1m prizes: How The Weakest Link became a global phenomenon

Rachel McGrath
·4-min read

A stone-faced Anne Robinson, withering put downs (which haven’t aged well) and, of course, a world famous catchphrase: The Weakest Link is one of the cornerstones of British television.

Today marks 20 years since Robinson first peered over her glasses at contestants who had no idea what they were in for, chastising them for literally any reason she could find and then delivering their cue to leave: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”

The concept - as with many hit quiz shows - was simple; a team of contestants had to create chains of correct answers to add to the prize fund, safeguarding cash along the way by stating “bank” before being asked a question. Get an answer wrong and the money in the chain was lost. Doing this one too many times would win you side-eye from your teammates/competitors, the wrath of Robinson and potentially prompt her famous phrase.

The winner was then decided in a penalty shoot out-style head-to-head, though it was the main rounds which were the real attraction.

Many episodes, admittedly, do not hold up too well in 2020. Robinson’s callous put downs saw her pick at everything from contestants’ jobs and lifestyle choices to appearances and weight, with many being shared on social media in recent years - for all the wrong reasons.

(BBC )
(BBC )

But at its peak, The Weakest Link was a global phenomenon. The show is the second most popular global television franchise of all-time - beaten only by Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - with broadcasters in over 40 countries licensing the format and creating their own versions.

Here’s what made it a huge global hit…

Anne Robinson

The Queen of Mean was certainly the main reason why the show was such a hit with viewers in the UK. The journalist-turned-presenter was already well-known to viewers thanks to Watchdog but while the consumer rights show saw her on the public’s side, The Weakest Link saw Robinson deride them instead.

Always dressed in black, the host delivered increasingly brutal putdowns, some of which were admittedly funny but on numerous occasions, she took it too far. During a celebrity special (more on those later) she reduced Blue Peter presenter John Noakes to tears by asking numerous questions about his beloved late dog, Shep.

Consumer rights champion: Robinson won plenty of fans as the host of Watchdog (BBC)
Consumer rights champion: Robinson won plenty of fans as the host of Watchdog (BBC)

“The audience didn't seem too happy with Anne either and some even booed. I think Anne knew she had gone too far,” a source told the Sun at the time. “As soon as John started crying she stopped the questioning."

Nevertheless Robinson was, for the most part, a hit. She also hosted the first series of the US version.

And… the other Anne Robinsons

When the format was licensed abroad, international broadcasters scrambled to find their own versions of Robinson. As a result, most international versions were hosted by (seriously strict) female presenters, including Krisztina Máté in Hungary and Lolita Cortés in Mexico.

At first, they were also legally required to undergo training from the BBC and Robinson, presumably in order to ensure their quips and ability to strike fear into contestants was up to scratch. The rules were later relaxed and Dutch host Bridget Maasland has even worn outfits including pops of colour while presenting the show. Shocking.

The prizes

The UK edition offered contestants the chance to win a relatively modest £10,000 in its first series, before the number rose to £20,000 after the programme proved successful - but around the world, loads of extra cash was often at stake.

The first US season offered a top prize of $75,000 (roughly £57,000 today) and for the second, this rose to $100,000 (£76,000). A celebrity series then saw another zero added on, with stars competing for $1 million.

A Singapore series offered hopefuls 1 million Singapore dollars (roughly £557,000) while in Japan, the top prize was ¥16,000,000 (£114,000).

Celebrity specials

The John Noakes incident aside, seeing Robinson roast C-list celebs usually made for amusing viewing. The host frequently made light work of bringing reality stars down a peg or two, showing no mercy when Love Island’s Kem Cetinay failed to impress in a 2017 Children In Need special.

“Anne was scarier than I thought,” he said, after being eliminated in round two. “She was just digging into me. I was sweating and everything."

Where the Weakest Link still airs today

After 12 years, 1,693 episodes and 15,000 contestants, the UK version of the show came to an end in 2012 (though Robinson later stepped back into the studio for charity specials). But the show is still going strong in four countries; the Netherlands, Cyprus, Greece and Russia.