Just Business: The Apprentice

“Hello girls. How’s me pants doing?”

Not my words, but the words of Sir Alan Sugar who, it gives me more pleasure than I can measure to report, returns this week for the fifth series of the BBC’s hit comedy series, The Apprentice.

Of course, Siralan, to use the Blake’s 7 name by which mere mortals have come to refer to him, is still refusing to admit that this – a comedy, and a great and gleaming black one, part Carry On, part Brasseye – is what his programme is. Five years in, Sugar, managing to keep a straight face, is still insisting The Apprentice has something to do with reality, and serious things to reveal about the business world. And he’s not alone: launching the new series this week, Jay Hunt, controller of BBC One, pitched in to claim that, “In the current economic climate, The Apprentice has never seemed more relevant. That emphasis on sheer hard graft seems more appropriate than ever before.”

This time last year, when Raef and Michael and Lucinda and Alex and Lee McQueen were lining up to tell us how great they were, despite the clear evidence, Hunt’s comment would have left me merely wondering whether she had ever actually seen an episode of the show. No one, I suggest, has ever settled down for The Apprentice looking forward to seeing a bit of hard graft, and nor, indeed, have they ever seen any. Hard graft is what happens in those gleaming London office blocks you see in the opening credits of The Apprentice at night, when the cleaners come in; or what a nurse into the twelfth hour of a shift on the cancer ward is experiencing. It’s not what happens when a bunch of grown men try to take pictures of babies in uniforms for a calendar.

This year, though, “in the current economic climate,” a horrific and suddenly blindingly obvious thought occurred. What if this actually is how the business world works after all? What if The Apprentice’s hypnotically hideous torrent of horrendously clueless tossers really are representative of our thrusting captains of corporate industry? It’s not a pleasant notion. But it would explain a lot.

The new series has a slightly reduced budget, its annual overseas episode has been dropped and the challenges have a “Buy British” emphasis, all supposedly reflecting the recession. But the greed-is-good idiots’ parade of The Apprentice doesn’t reflect it: it shows us how it got that way in the first place.

The British Apprentice is based on the genuinely awful American series starring the genuinely awful Donald Trump, but it has little to do with it. For one thing, Sugar is just a born TV star, part of a long national tradition of slightly insane big mouths who manage to remain engaging while being colossally and corrosively opinionated and egotistical.

The spankings Sugar doles out every week in the boardroom are the programme’s money shots, but done with a twinkle, an unforced, untutored, language-mangling wit (I still don’t know exactly what “tut,” – as in, “the biggest load of tut I’ve ever seen” – actually means, though I can guess), and a clear, exasperated common sense. I’ve said this before, but Sugar would be fantastic value to watch even if he was just sitting in a chair getting angry about something he’d read in the newspaper, like a Jackanory for grown-ups – in exactly the same way that any of the panellists on Dragons’ Den wouldn’t. It’s weird, but Sugar and his sidekicks, the fantastic Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, still seem far more like real people than any of the contestants.

For another thing, our Apprentice looks about a million times better than the American show, or any other reality show. With London blushing in the morning, glinting in the afternoon and glowing at night, the production makes the city look more entrancingly cinematic than most recent British movies, while the razor edge editing and magpie scoring makes the programme itch like a mischievous thriller – the clock ticks down in a way that drags you nearer to the edge of your seat than 24 has ever managed.

Really, though, for the true antecedent, you have to look past the Trump series, and beyond all the other Big Brother-style reality contests and go much further back. The real roots of The Apprentice lie in early evenings in the 1970s and The Generation Game: specifically, that section where Brucie would get contestants to watch a professional doing something – making fireworks or a bit of pottery – and then try to copy it, in the certain knowledge they would cock it up amusingly. Watching Apprentice hopefuls running around trying to sell fish is just the big screen version of that, but with the added pleasure that these contestants, a mix of shameless, clueless, weasely backstabbing liars, cheats and puffed-up suck-ups, are mind-bogglingly easy to loathe. And, presumably, hand-selected from thousands of applicants purely on that basis.

Never mind “hard graft.” The most strenuous work is actually being done by us, the viewers, as we risk aneurysm while screaming obscenities at them, and strain to stretch our hooting minds around the incomprehensible things they say. (“Look at the breasts on this haddock.”) It’s a cathartic pantomime. Almost every one of us has at some point had a boss who is an idiot with no idea about what they’re supposed to be doing and the imagination of a gnat, and wondered how they ever got the job. The Apprentice shows you exactly how, and gives you the chance to scream at them – before having to go and work for them again on Thursday morning.

This is the perverse genius of the programme. Where other reality competitions have audiences dividing into camps over who they want to win, The Apprentice unites people in wanting everyone to lose. The programme makers shoot themselves in the foot a little here: after months spent making every applicant look a howling turd, they finally have to do an abrupt U-turn in the final episode, and try to convince us one of them is actually worth employing. This is why the last episode is always the least interesting.

As it is, I’ve not seen anything of the new series yet. There was a ritzy media premier of the first episode held in London the other night, but I didn’t go, because, to quote Sugar again:

“I don’t like liars, I don’t like cheats. I don’t like bullshitters, I don’t like schmoozers, I don’t like arselickers.”

And also because I didn’t get an invitation.

Published in The Sunday Herald, March 22, 2004