Anne Robinson is so good in British Spending Secrets, you wonder where her peers are

Robinson is a pleasure: an old-fashioned newspaper hack to her very bones. But where are her female contemporaries?

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Britain’s Spending Secrets

Most people are madly conflicted about money, by which I mean that although they think about it all the time – or nearly all the time – they would rather die than tell you how much (or how little) of it they have. This isn’t, however, to suggest that they aren’t now and then inclined to leak a few important details: the mention of an overdraft here, the dropping of a flash designer label there.

As Anne Robinson points out in her new miniseries, Britain’s Spending Secrets (19 and 26 August, 9pm), our attitude to money is one of the ways in which we tell the world both where we came from and where we hope to go. Robinson, by the way, comes from Liverpool, where her mother sold chickens on a market stall. As for where she’s going, Louis Vuitton would do very nicely for now. “We’re circling my mothership,” she announced in episode one, as her car took her past the Bond Street store.

Ignore the Ronseal, Channel 5-style title: this series is more than the sum of its parts, for which all the credit must go to Robinson. This is her subject and she knows it: there is a certain authority when she talks to the camera. But it’s also a great vehicle for her journalistic skills. Robinson is an old-fashioned newspaper hack to her very bones and she can talk to anyone, addressing a single mother on benefits and Simon Heffer in exactly the same tone of voice, warm but ever sceptical.

Her questions are blunt but necessary. Plus, she is extremely (unexpectedly, perhaps) game. So funny and endearing was the scene in which she met a man called Jedi – he lives off-grid in a Berkshire wood – that I had to watch it twice. “He’s going to pop out somewhere here,” she said, scurry­ing into a gap in a hedge for their assignation. Naturally, she had invested in all the right outdoor gear: 8,000-tog anorak, sporty black beanie, gloves that would have seen Captain Oates through. When Jedi offered her a steaming bowl of dumpster stew – its ingredients foraged from supermarket dustbins – she tucked in with such unblinking aplomb, I half expected her to demand a second helping.

Don’t be so quick to judge, she instructed the viewer after every encounter. Still, impossible not to notice her own appraisals, outward or inward. Having declared herself loudly on the side of Charlotte, whose urge to own a refrigerator with a blue interior light was so great, it had brought the bailiffs round, she was noticeably less voluble when it came to Baroness Jenkin, a Tory peer who comes from an upper-class Scottish family and whose inherited dining chairs have been graced by the backsides of at least two prime ministers. But perhaps she was just too stunned to speak. Like lots of posh people, the baroness is proudly parsimonious. Robinson looked on in silence as she pulled an old pair of tights from a vat of marmalade she was making (what they were doing there, I’m still not sure), and emitted just the one word – “Perfect!” – when Jenkin modelled the eBay hat she had worn to Thatcher’s funeral. Whether this was praise or gentle sarcasm, it was impossible to tell.

Robinson recently pointed out in an interview that, at 70, she is the oldest woman on prime time who is not in the business of baking cakes. Her tone was jokey rather than furious; I suppose, by this point, she is plenty used to the casual sexism of the working world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get cross on her behalf. Why isn’t she on television more often? Why aren’t her talents put to better use? Yes, I realise that Watchdog is a major gig, but I think she deserves more than cowboy builders and ­mobile-phone charges.

And where, too, are her female contemporaries? How much longer will we put up with a culture in which the sole example of a post-menopausal success story is someone who is only able to talk in any depth about the crack in their Madeira cake? When I think about this – the writing off of female talent, the sheer sodding unfairness of a world that allows men to develop gravitas and women only to have wrinkles – I feel something close to despair. Honestly, it’s enough to make anyone want to hit Fenwick’s.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

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