I’m not a fan of car crashes as a spectator sport (hence my interest in the pioneering thinking of Hans Monderman, I suspect). I don’t watch F1 races– I’m a Grand Prix widower – and, following the same formula (no pun intended), I don’t watch The Apprentice except when my usually kindly and supportive ASK colleagues suggest a particular episode for my … er, delectation? So I missed Episode 1 of Series 6, where “16 of Britain’s brightest business prospects” (their words) made sausages and sold them to the unsuspecting public. My partner watched and told me how much it would probably have made me shout at the telly. I don’t doubt it: in its high-flying world of black limousines and luxury apartments, coarse language would be inappropriate, so let’s just say it seems to be mainly populated by people who couldn’t organise (ahem) a pea soup in a brasserie.
My ASK colleagues must be persuasive, as we’ve mentioned the programme three times before: comparing and contrasting with Big Brother, commenting on its approach to recruitment, and the damage to the language that its contestants inflict. But after watching Episode 2 of the current series (hurry: only two months left to view at iPlayer! Roll up! Roll up!), those persuasion skills are going to need sharpening. I was actually relieved to go back to my Book Club novel, a ‘thrilling’ story about Victorian London’s sewer system, cholera and ‘effluvia’, although I did wonder if the Victorian barkers and street hawkers had somehow magically leeched into the tv.
There was a lot of fighting talk, although quite what we were supposed to learn or be edified by was a struggle to deduce. Sadly, the boys’ opening proclamation – “We’ve gotta beat those girlies” – turned up to be a wiser prediction than the girls’ “It’s a matter of professionalism”. And these, despite their ages, are definitely boys and girls: maturity isn’t one of the programme’s strengths. The longer I watched (and an hour felt like an eternity), the more I wondered what I’d learnt from even very fitful viewing of six series of it: the main points that I had taken away seemed to be the desperate disservice the programme was doing to the whole idea of ‘business’ and (to Lord Sugar’s shame) to the notion of apprenticeships.
While the contestants are shown tossing in every business cliché in the book – if you edited out the mentions of ‘not holding back’, ‘hunger’, ‘confidence’, ‘risk-taking’ and ‘100%’, you’d have a short trailer left – the programme itself seems hellbent on making a mockery of its own content. Product design from initial concept to pitch in 24 hours flat? Hardly realism, is it? And it leaves the feeling that everything is seen as generic: sausages are beach towels are perfumes are breakfast cereals are … Market knowledge and analysis (let’s skip expertise) are reduced to soundbites. Yet the programme is relentlessly generic ‘reality contestant telly’: because someone is going to get the boot, everyone seems permanently to be backstabbing everyone else and screeching their own merits. And by pitching everything in terms of competition, the concept of teams is undermined before it’s underway. Only one of the contestants in this episode seemed to have grasped that no team member will be under threat provided that the team wins, and the team was therefore greater than the sum of its parts.
The most depressing point is that apprenticeships – and the first thing that needs changing about the programme is the title – are about learning on the job and about receiving mentoring, yet these things are absent from the screen. If the intention of the programme is even vaguely educational, the message is being lost. In reality, work is increasingly project-based and the idea of specialism is now inate: we left Adam Smith’s pin factory a long time ago, as the Bank of England point out explaining his presence on £20 notes:
In the famous example of a pin factory, Smith explained how co-operation between workers in the factory to divide tasks between them raised their combined output.”
Yet in The Apprentice, team leader is a fluctuating, rotating role and everyone has a stab at everything, or at least everything on a restricted menu. Each ‘task’ is essentially a sales task, judged on the numbers, a criticism not lost of some of the candidates. Here’s former contestant, Lucinda Ledgerwood, blogging for The Daily Telegraph in 2008:
Is sales a real test of business? That’s my question to Sir Alan.
I know that sales are integral to the majority of businesses. But if Sir Alan is looking for an apprentice with all-round business skills, what is selling a car going to demonstrate?”
Even within this criticism, identifying a product niche, developing and designing a product, branding it, manufacturing it, marketing it and selling it are all in reality different specialisms, with different skills, qualifications and professional bodies. If The Apprentice has an educational equivalent, the nearest is actually Foundation Art (a year spent having a go at most things to identify strengths and preferences as well as differentiating wheat and chaff). But Foundation Art courses are not apprenticeships. As for mentoring or coaching, there was just the one reference to it in Episode Two: golf coaching for the winners. Er …
The poor viewer is left with two quandries. Firstly, is this really just an entertainment, and not a very entertaining one at that? And secondly, what kind of message about business life is this sending to anyone whose parents haven’t had the wit and diplomacy to wield the remote control? ‘Business life’ winds up being portrayed as a somewhere where conflict and squabbling are the order of the day, where point-scoring matters as much as either cohesion or results (both teams, incidentally, did dismally), and where – despite the emphasis on importance and originality – the bulk of the day is spent hurling clichés at one another. As someone wisely, but surely inadvertently, pointed out: “It’s like watching a bunch of amateurs.” (We touched on the reality tv phenomenon recently discussing the glut of actresses becoming amateur conductors and chefs; reversing the scenario doesn’t seem more edifying.)
The finest words of the programme went to Karren Brady, Vice Chairman of West Ham United FC and Baron Sugar of Clapton’s right-hand woman for this series, when she told the losing (girls) team:
Remember who you’re representing in the process: young women out there who want to have an opportunity to do this, and you should set an example to them.”
True, as Lord Alan agreed. (I also couldn’t help but think that, quite apart from the ‘six figure salary’ going to the winner, someone is keeping everyone in suits, designer specs and power heels during the programme production process. There’s a learning point about cost-effectiveness there somewhere, but not one we’re about to receive.)
But it doesn’t take more than a glance in the Boardroom’s seductively reflective surfaces to revel that, if some of the contestants treat it as ‘a boxing match’, then the format sets them up to do so. Being ‘passionate’ and ‘not holding back’ have their time and place, the locations of which are identified through self-awareness and personal development and experience: if the candidates are learning these, their learning is on the cutting room floor.
The comparison with Big Brother that we made earlier is still an interesting one: it remains hard to sympathise with people who are fully aware of the format but who still commit themselves to appearing within it, making fools of themselves for our … well, entertainment, I guess. But I’m struck by my own earlier point: Big Brother winners (selected by the public after exposure to many more hours of them) tend to be people with personal qualities that ultimately endear them to us.
I just hope that the programme makers, producers and directors heard Karren Brady’s words as clearly as I did. (I wonder how many of the other 7 million viewers took them on board as well.) In the interesting of sparing the rest you another hour’s viewing, here are Margaret Mountford eyebrows making much the same point.