A nation turns its lonely eyes to Anne

I must admit that even before I was a guest on her BBC Radio 2 show - and before I was praised in her Daily Mirror column, too - I was an admirer of Anne Robinson. Seeing her show The Weakest Link on BBC Television in the UK a few months ago, in fact, I immediately phoned an aficionado of American television shows in the US and told him: "Mark my words, this will be the next mega-hit on American TV."

It had everything that the previous worldwide British hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? had - and more. Not only were there the same dramatic sets, choreographed movements and carefully timed, stentorian music: here, in addition, was a perfect opportunity to wallow in television's latest psycho fantasy of pinpointing the symbolically weak and vulnerable among us, and then ejecting them in a sea of vituperation. A sure-fire hit for what Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under JFK, memorably described as the "vast wasteland" of American television.

What has taken me by surprise, however, is the amount of nonsense now being written about the programme on both sides of the Atlantic. The American critics woefully misjudged their public when they airily dismissed the show after seeing previews; the British, in turn, loved to resort to cliches and stereotypes of both countries, zeroing in on the supposed American view of Robinson as a dominatrix "nanny", that supposedly familiar British figure as evident in real life as the bowler-hatted City gent groping his way through thick fog. (I, for one, certainly wasn't brought up by a "nanny", and have a hard time thinking of anybody I know, or certainly like, who was.)

The facts, I think, are simple. The British are much better than Americans at discerning currents in collective national psyches, be they distasteful or otherwise; hence their success in tabloid press campaigns, and in picking winning formulae for 21st-century TV game shows. They also have, by and large, a better sense of humour. America is as venal and vicious as any society, but it maintains a superficial level of politesse that does not quite know how to take Robinson's humorous put-downs - especially when decent, good-hearted Americans are the targets.

Last but by no means least, the British are (still) better educated. When ABC imported the highly successful Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? format (which most Americans assume to be theirs), it easily found a robotic host called Regis Philbin, who could smile and charm his way through the course already scripted, choreographed and thought out by the British producers and host, Chris Tarrant. But when NBC needed a hostess who could think on her feet with caustic wit, it simply could not find an American woman to fit the bill. For their own editions of The Weakest Link, the Dutch have Chazia Mourali, the Belgians Goedele Liekens, the Germans Sonja Zeetlow - but, in the absence of any well-educated, witty American woman able to do the job, the Americans had no choice but to take Anne Robinson.

Perhaps, indeed, this is why the snooty American middle classes have been so put out by The Weakest Link's success. For a decade now, the US has been the unrivalled superpower in the world; as Boy George has already shown, it now thinks it is the only country that counts. Culturally and educationally, however, most well-informed Americans inwardly know they are still well down the charts compared with other western countries - and they resent it. Tom Shales, the Washington Post's television critic, demonstrated this succinctly. First, he compared Link unfavourably with Millionaire, apparently unaware that the US edition of Millionaire is a carbon copy of the British prototype. Then, having derisively said of Link that "the level of ineptitude is awesome", he likened it to the Titanic: "The poor old Titanic, of course, never made it to these shores. Neither should have The Weakest Link." (With writing like that, no wonder the Washington Post failed to win a single Pulitzer this year.)

The inner resentment of the American cognoscenti is fuelled by the contradictions that come with being an economic and military superpower.

Such status gives them the green light, they assume, to belittle everything that is not American: the Washington Post may choose to sneer at the Titanic and Weakest Link as British imports, but I doubt if 1 per cent of its readers (let alone its journalists) know that you could add radar, say, to that list, or the jet engine, or antibiotics, or even DNA fingerprinting. It embodies a cultural and social ignorance that goes hand in hand with the international and political isolationism of the kind Boy George would now like to personify.

Enraged though the American chattering classes are by the success of Anne Robinson - the entire front page of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post was given over the other day to a rant against the "Host From Hell", it doubtless being added outrages to Murdoch that she is a) British and b) from the BBC - the American public, just as they use jets and gorge themselves with antibiotics, are voting with their feet, or rather their eyes.

In Link's first week, NBC ran three episodes on successive nights and at different times. The second episode gained no fewer than 13 per cent more young male viewers, exactly the group advertisers want most. The likes of Shales, meanwhile, toil through whole lifetimes in obeisance to that vast wasteland.

Dumber though Britain may be getting, it has a long way to go yet. In the words of Anne Robinson to an ignorant American student, if she were him she would ask his college for a refund.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made