Enter The Dungeon: Dragons’ Den

On balance, unless you include watching your own foot turning slowly gangrenous, there is nothing more entertaining than seeing ordinary, desperate people trying to hold their fraying dreams together by publicly begging for money from self-satisfied multi-millionaires with big horse faces. So it was good to see Dragons’ Den back this week on BBC Two.

I get that Dragons’ Den is supposed to be a comedy. Surely not even Evan Davies, the economic Gollum who whispers in the shadows of the programme, would seriously try to maintain it’s anything to do with “business” – if that were the case, why force the hopefuls to present their ideas without being allowed access to their own figures? Thing is, I’m not really sure who the joke is on.

On the big horse face of it, the series, with its forelock-tugging loser’s parade, is an unapologetic rip-off of The X Factor’s freak show audition episodes. It got its big gag in early this week, in the shape of Andy, a self-styled David Beckham lookalike, seeking an investor for his “Double Dates” idea, a kind of “pay to go out for a night in the company of someone who looks vaguely like a celebrity if you screw your eyes up” business. To prove his credentials, he was accompanied by a man alleged to resemble Johnny Depp in his Pirates of the Caribbean guise, leading me to wonder whether, if you were actually paying for it, that would really be the version of Johnny Depp you would choose.

Not long into his pitch, Andy froze and dried up. “I can’t talk,” he mumbled, which, as every single one of the three million people watching instantly quipped, made for quite a good David Beckham impression, actually.

Then he just stood there, asphyxiated by embarrassment, sweating and paralysed as the camera, sensing humiliation as a hawk senses baby rabbits, glided in. Honestly, it couldn’t have been more fun if he’d just lost control of his bowels right there, while dancing girls in Thatcher masks jumped up and down behind him, pointing.

Earlier, during the opening “Meet the Dragons” sequence, I had fleetingly entertained the hope that, beneath the surface, Dragons’ Den might actually be poking fun at the millionaires themselves. The members of the panel are introduced in little sequences that illustrate their rich, unsmiling lives: lolling on yachts, flying private jets, driving sports cars and, in the case of Duncan Bannatyne, getting tough with an expensive-looking punchbag. In short, scenes that make them look like utter gits.

The idea seemed to be to present them like the billionaire villains you’d be encouraged to hate in a bad kids’ movie. This would be only fair. I have no doubt they are all very good at doing whatever it was that made them rich. But being rich shouldn’t in itself be enough to put you on my TV for an hour on a Tuesday night.

Compare them with Alan Sugar. If Sugar were to lose all his cash overnight, he’d still be pretty good value to watch, even if the programme simply involved him sitting in a room getting angry about something he’d read in the paper. In contrast, watching the Dragons strain to produce spontaneous hardboiled putdowns is like watching constipation drying. Consider this charmless retort from Peter Jones: “I don’t struggle to get dates because I am seriously good-looking and I am wealthy.” No, Peter, you struggle to get dates because you’re the man who thought Tycoon was a good idea for a TV series.

On reflection, however, I realise those opening shots were irony free, and actually intended to look excitingly glamorous and cool, something to aspire to. Because the real butt of the joke in Dragons’ Den is us, the poor masses huddled watching at home. The programme thinks we’re cretins. How else to explain why Davies, in his narration, feels the need to explain what has literally just happened, all the time, in the patient tones of a care worker asking an elderly patient if he needs the toilet?

“Losing a Dragon this early is a disastrous setback,” he says, just after someone has suffered the disastrous setback of losing a Dragon early. “Now, Theo Paphitis steps in- ”

Listen hard, and you can hear Alan Sugar watching out there: “We know, Evan, we bloody know! We’re sitting bloody watching it! Jesus wept, what a bleeding berk…” I’m out.

Published in The Sunday Herald, October 21 2007