The Apprentice

Wednesday, April 13, 2005 by

In the same way the General Election campaign is unearthing the sort of unfailingly well-scrubbed young faces who’ll dominate our political scene for the near future, so our next generation of business leaders are also currently parading their similarly spotless credentials for public view. But while the former merely have the entire electorate to answer to, the latter have to contend with the rudest knight in the land.

“I’d have told you to piss off!” Sir Alan Sugar yells at the start of each episode of The Apprentice. It’s directed to some unseen off-screen victim, and is delivered with the kind of thunderous contempt that should make him a thousand enemies. Except the reverse is true. As the weeks have gone by, his familiar strangled cry has become a battle cheer. Rather than pigeonhole him as villain, it has cemented Sir Alan’s role in the piece as gallant hero.

All this is true because the person he’s hailing comes from the most spectacular bunch of ruthlessly go-getting yet thoroughly incompatible corporate high flyers TV has rustled up for a hell of a long time. They’re people who, some day, will be the ones really running the country. They’re also people who have screaming rows over venison soup, the best way of arranging a table display of teddy bears, and why it’s imperative to always walk on the same side of the road. “I give you my word as a Roman Catholic!” pleads one of them, the irascible Paul, begging Sir Alan to take him seriously. “Well I’m Jewish,” comes the tart response, “and I couldn’t care less.”

All the nuts and bolts of The Apprentice have been shipped over from America. The premise is the same, the format similar, and the ritualistic end-of-episode dispatch of the failed wannabe identical. But such a blatant transposition doesn’t seem to have encouraged participants in any way less headstrong, extrovert or downright demented than you’d expect to see in something dreamed up for US television. The only thing different is evidence of those two distinctive British traits of reserve and self-deprecation – and even these conspire to do more harm than good as the contestants err and stumble towards fulfilling their weekly tasks, invariably striking it lucky through chance rather than intention.

We can only marvel at how this cream of the crop, this epitome of British business talent, singularly fails to organise even the simplest of operations and repeatedly demonstrates an absence of any common sense. They’re supposed to be expert communicators and leaders, for heaven’s sake, but from the evidence shown they can’t even communicate amongst themselves. Instead, everybody shouts (“Chutney! Let’s do it! Let’s get on with it!” cries the tirelessly bombastic Saira) and everybody tries to outdo each other either through corporate speak (“I hired staff that were going to be incentivised!” reflects Paul) or affecting the appearance of being streetwise (“I can talk people’s language within two minutes of seeing them” cries Saira, again, slagging off her well-spoken rival James).

All of this happens, without fail, week in week out. And therein lies the brilliance of The Apprentice. As the show has gone on, it’s become more and more about meeting viewers’ expectations than trying to either top or subvert them. Because nobody cares about any of the contestants – they all appear equally unlikeable – and we know one of them will be axed at the end of 60 minutes, each episode contends itself with the mapping the route the players take to end up in their usual mess. It’s all about how, rather than what, things will go wrong. So this week’s task was the especially joyless assignment of flogging a text message subscription service, which we knew would trip up the teams, we knew wouldn’t inspire them, and which we knew would inevitably deliver poor returns: barely 1% of the potential market, in fact. But how they conspired to minimise the failure, and in particular how Sir Alan would then go about his usual task of bawling everybody out, was where the interest lay.

Self-consciously or otherwise, Sir Alan has ended up pitching his pre-ordained role of belligerent benefactor somewhere between witchfinder-general and a Cardinal of the Spanish Inquisition. In TV terms this is a masterstroke, because despite only being on screen for less than half of each programme he’s concocted a persona that’s so overwhelming it dominates proceedings from start to finish. Even in his absence Sir Alan’s petulant spirit haunts the contestants’ every move.

Of course it’s impossible to tell how much this is an act for the camera, but you’d like to believe you’re seeing the real man and how he really lives his life, simply because it’s so preposterous. This version of Sir Alan never smiles. Every sentence he utters sounds like it’s been translated back into English from a foreign language. Whenever he’s out from behind a desk he can’t decide what to do with the rest of his body. At one point during this week’s episode he was shown regally entering the executive stand at Spurs football stadium, before silently summoning his wife to his side with the prod of a single finger like a Renaissance emperor hailing a bootblack.

All this is priceless television. Best of all, his regular entrance into the boardroom is always framed in the most shamelessly melodramatic way possible: as a shadow materialising mysteriously behind a giant door of frosted glass, then entering, eyes bulging and head lolling, to take his giant seat behind the giant table of even more frosted glass. His gaze then alights upon his quarry, and so begins the ritual cross-examination, mock effrontery and full-on badmouthing. It’s the finest moment of every episode, because – once again – it plays completely on your anticipation of what’s about to happen. The amount of time devoted to these boardroom post-mortems has been getting steadily greater with each week, which can’t be an accident. A full third of the latest episode was given over to it. That’s 20 minutes of a primetime documentary confined to just one room and a small group of people talking to each other.

It’s to Sir Alan’s credit that he has become comfortable enough to play and milk these climactic showdowns with the right mix of tenacity and aplomb so as not to appear to prolong them for the sake of it, or for the sake of the camera. Who knows how long they really took to film; the fact is it doesn’t matter, and that you don’t care. The gameshow element of The Apprentice is at its most raw and unrefined during these moments, but everybody knows it, and everyone joins in the fun.

So the contestants talk back at Sir Alan – something, when you think about it, downright unimaginable in any other context anywhere – and he talks down to them in the most appalling fashion. He paints himself as the worst boss in history while his supplicants paint themselves as the rudest, most toadying and backstabbing bunch of sycophants in the world. And a lot of people do a lot of shouting.

It’s at this point that any sympathy you’ve entertained towards any of the competitors earlier on in the episode always evaporates, as their inability to retain their dignity and the power to speak in coherent sentences runs amok and everything becomes one massive, unflattering, ill-edifying tantrum. You remember how there’s not one likeable character among them. But Sir Alan remembers the importance of playing to an audience, and never fires the most tetchy or charismatic of contestants. Only the dullards get the chop. The irritants live on. Hence the infighting can resume anew, and there’s always a reason to tune in next week. Hooray!


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