A former contestant on the UK show The Weakest Link has published a new op-ed essay slamming host Anne Robinson for homophobia. The charges come at a sensitive time for Robinson, who just scored a new job hosting the gameshow Countdown for the UK’s Channel 4.
Benjamin Butterworth appeared on the UK version of the popular game show in 2010. The Weakest Link features contestants working together to build up a supply of cash during a round, then immediately vote to cut one of their competitors. All the while, host Robinson, a self-styled “Queen of Mean,” mocks the players and their shortcomings.
During his time on the show, Butterworth claims that Robinson mocked his homosexuality by asking inappropriate questions during banter between rounds.
“I was young, socially awkward, and in a hairdo that resembled a small dog. An obvious target for the sort of mockery that passed for TV in the noughties,” Butterworth writes for the UK site iNews. “I wanted to spar with Anne because, well, who wouldn’t? But I never anticipated how personal the show could be.”
For Butterworth, that sparring quickly crossed boundaries. “’Do you like girls, Benjamin?’ she asks among other small talk,” Butterworth recalls. “I fumble, surprised, confused. I am out as gay to my family, and researchers have probably asked that during the long phone chat they did before filming. But I never thought it would form part of a teatime quiz show.”
“The point of the scripted joke is clear: I’m gay, geeky and a virgin,” he adds. “And for the record, only two of those things were true.”
Butterworth goes on to recall his anxiety when the episode finally aired. Though he’d come out to his immediate family, he’d kept his sexuality hidden from extended family, including his grandmother. Lucky for him, the producers cut most of the banter before the broadcast. Others, however, weren’t so lucky. He goes on to cite several examples of Robinson mocking players for their sexuality or gender presentation.
To be clear, Butterworth doesn’t argue against Robinson landing her new job. He does, however, insist Channel 4 makes it clear that she is not allowed to mock contestants based on their sexuality.
“The defence of Robinson has always been that she was playing a character,” Butterworth concludes. “That it was all pantomime. But contestants like me, on the receiving end of those nasty and often snobby attacks, were not playing a character. Channel 4 will need to be clear that the Robinson’s new “chic” incarnation of Countdown will not play on the same cynical tropes that popularised her programme in 2000. If they don’t, it will be the end of Countdown that so many have enjoyed.”
Once described as “Harry Potter in drag” by style maven Mr. Blackwell, Anne Robinson has become an icon of British television. She also enjoyed brief popularity in the United States, hosting a prime time version of Weakest Link from 2001-2002. Throughout her career, her acerbic style has earned its share of detractors. In 2006, a report on homophobia at the BBC cited several examples of comments by Robinson to support claims that the channel was “endemically homophobic.” Robinson also attracted criticism in 2017 for attacking women alleging sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo movement for not reporting the incidents sooner.