Reality TV as a genre is one I have grown steadily to abhor, more because it is cheap, nasty, humiliating and cringeworthy than the fact that it’s usually just badly made and unwatchable (since when did those factors ever stop TV producers?!)
There have only been two exceptions to this general rule. One was a series long since booted into touch called The Mole, in which a group of people are made to do a variety of tasks, knowing that among them is a double agent masquerading as one of their party. In a Freudian way this was a fascinating scenario, but evidently did not capture the attention of the British public. That is often the problem with intelligent concepts, but let that pass.
However, The Apprentice is still going strong, which possibly proves it is not the intelligent concept it purports to be. Unlike the American version, hosted by vain egomaniac Donald Trump, we have our own barrow boy made good, Lord Sugar (never Alan or Sir Alan, you note – he insists on the full title.) Sugar brings his own gruff and belligerent charm to the series, though has moaned on occasion that the programme should be made more business-oriented and that he should be made to seem fluffier and less harsh in the editing process. If it quacks, it must be a duck…
The principle is simple: two teams complete a business task in a short period. The best performing is rewarded, and of the losing team one candidate is eventually “fired” (though that is a misnomer, since they never actually worked for Sugar in the first place.) Eventually the show is reduced to the final two competitors, and after a final task Sugar decides to which he will award £250,000 of his own money as an investment angel. Originally, he was offering jobs in his own company at a salary of £100k, but presumably the results were so appalling that practice was abandoned. Ah, but he is never out of pocket. The BBC funds the Apprentice, and doubtless all the regular players get a fat cheque to ease their furrowed brows.
Talking of whom, Lord S is advised by his two lieutenants. Nick Hewer, he of the uniquely mobile face and shrewdly dismissive put-down, has been there from the start. Margaret Mountford, whose was if anything the more withering of the two, has now ridden off into the sunset to complete her PhD in Papyrology, and now been replaced by comparative youngster Karren Brady, best known for being Chief Executive of football clubs but rapidly honing her barbs for her new role.
Make no mistake, this is a show established for entertainment purposes and is never the serious business contest it masquerades. If it was purely about business the candidates would be disappointingly competent and nothing like as flamboyantly egotistical. Mini-Donalds, you might call them, though a substantial number think they might be mini-Alans by virtue of being cocky barrow boy types who look most comfortable flogging veg off the back of a lorry (one in the current series actually is a market trader.) There is usually a smattering of corporate types, some with MBAs, but it’s patently obvious Lord S detests business graduates who are happiest conducting business meetings with suits.
If they truly represented the cream of British business talent, the country would be heading down the tubes faster than you could say “Lord Sugar.” They have obviously been briefed to camp it up and to appear good for TV viewing, and in some cases evidently believe their own hype. Others are clearly less comfortable bragging, and would prefer to be quietly effective. No doubt some candidates may well be effective in some tasks but the purpose of TV are taken deliberately out of their comfort zone. When you apply to join the Apprentice you can guarantee that you will be the subject of abject humiliation and ridicule at some point, and look a total prat on many more occasions.
The tasks set embrace roughly the skill sets you would expect to see in a balanced well-rounded business leader (selling, buying, trading, creating, managing people and scarce resources, demonstrating leadership by becoming “project manager” etc.), though to say that on the strength of two days effort per task the candidates truly demonstrate excellence in each would be dubious to say the least.
Look at the pic above and you’ll get the picture: that is Azhar Siddique’s gung ho fronting of a video of his team’s fitness regime to sell the concept to health and fitness clubs. If you wanted to see what I meant by cringeworthy, follow the link above – and this is by no means the worst example! This is the worst of all worlds – hurling the candidates into a wholly artificial scenario whereby they are forced to collude and compete will never see them at their best, but from the Beeb’s point of view no sympathy should be shown. They are greedy enough to go for the prize and happy to win their 12 episodes of fame in exchange for the risk of looking like dickheads by virtue of a very careful editing process.
However, this is not what really counts. What matters is the boardroom. I say THE boardroom, a frothy concoction in frosted glass, though this is actually a mock boardroom in a studio somewhere, with an actress playing Sugar’s PA. Sugar’s actual boardroom is in his HQ in deeply unsexy Brentwood, and presumably less televisual.
This is more courtroom than boardroom – Sugar listens to what the teams have to say, hears judgement from the officers of the court over which has won, hears the pleas of mitigation, then applies his judgement swiftly and without mercy. The words to spring from his lips may be “you’re fired” but he might just as well be wearing the black cap and intoning with suitable gravitas “off with his head.”
But then, how often does the viewer say to him or herself that the whole lot should be fired? On very rare occasions two candidates have been shown the sword, and at times the already restricted patience of Sugar is tested to its outermost limits – you can tell he would happily ditch the lot.
But the feistier the defence, the more likely the defendant is to wriggle out and be given a second chance, but further chances are few. Candidates with endurance should expect to endure and survive multiple boardroom battles, lose tasks as well as win some, and to have to plead for their own survival on at least one occasion. They should be able to work as a team but also to demonstrate sharp elbows and to outmanoeuvre their colleagues. It’s astonishing how rapidly that team morale deteriorates under pressure as people who until very recently had been geeing one another along triumph ally begin to rip one another’s throats asunder.
While the more elegant among them may aim for a genteel stiletto between the vertebrae, most begin to engage in naked hand-to-hand combat at the first sign of distress. There have been several panto villains amid the fray, most famously Katie, who would say one thing to the cameras and something quite different to her colleagues and to Sugar, though ultimately she got found out – whatever else he might be Sugar can spot the political players – they are not his sort either. He likes young people to be malleable, not scheming and manoeuvring. His choices would not be, and frequently are not our choices, but then our criteria as viewers would be very different. Lord S does not want employees who think they should be inheriting his empire, he wants entrepreneurs who are quick-witted and quick-footed. Katie went on to become a vituperative media pundit and is probably doing very nicely in her role as a professional cow.
The ones who are blagging are generally found out in the penultimate episode, the one where each is given four tough interviews by business sharks, people who can spot bullshit at a thousand paces. Two out of four remaining get fired there, and you wonder how often they have been scratching to find any survivors to be the least bad.
But eventually there has to be a winner, and from the BBC perspective it is they who emerge triumphant with figures of 6-8 million viewers per episode, plus more for the after-show post-mortem hosted by Dara O’Briain and a mixture of business people, pundits and stand-up comedians (who obviously know all about business.) Because this is more a show about luvvies than ever it is about business, much to the chagrin of serious business people.