Well, well, something new on The Apprentice. Who would have thought it? This time around Lord Sugar isn’t hiring them; he’s going to be their business partner and invest £250,000 in a venture with them. (Which makes the series title a misnomer, surely, but since when was this series about giving a realistic education in any aspect of business?). Novelty and innovation were quickly restored to their usual levels as we met another 16 hopefuls – on second thought, make that boastfuls (these people don’t hope: they believe global success is their birthright) – and Lordalun duly sent them to flog fruit and veg. I, meanwhile, recalled an old joke about the difference between a barrow-boy and a daschund. (If you don’t know it, click here.) But the punchline doesn’t work when the only thing a bunch of dogs wears out is the viewers’ patience …
Each team – the usual initial boys v girls – was bunged £250 and instructed to add value. “I want some return on my investment”, spoke the Dark Lord. Shuddering on the sofa with a fork stuck in my leg to distract myself from the audio-visual pain, so did I. Volunteering to watch the opening episodes, I invested two hours in this, and I learnt precious little – except not to watch it again. I already knew how to recognise an orange, and how to make soup. I’m allergic to them, but I could still have given you a tomato soup recipe off the top of my head.
Have eight all-conquering men reached their late 20s without either making soup or, failing first-hand experience, whipping out their smartphones to Google for a recipe? No-one even magisterially delegated the task of finding out what soup was on the grounds that they were simply too busy on loftier things. Entrepreneurs – even self-proclaimed ones – are supposed to live on their wits, aren’t they? (And to have a soupcon – sorry, couldn’t resist – of self-awareness: this lot would benefit far more from being on an open programme than a tv programme. Where’s the learning in watching the playback six months after filming, with only a jeering pub – or an empty living room – for company?)
So why does the programme persist in parading the truly witless for our supposed delectation? As lovingly satirised by The Poke’s The Apprentice Drinking Bingo Game – why hadn’t I seen that before I started viewing? – these are people who are forever passionately bringing things to tables and pushing envelopes without ever demonstrating the basic nous required to work as waitresses or postmen. (And envelopes? In the 21st century? How delightfully retro.) Young Gods aren’t what they used to be, are they? But then, as I pointed out after shuddering at the last series, Young Gods used to have proper apprenticeships, where they were developed and trained. (That bingo game missed a few too: I noticed an awful lot of “Just trust me on this” being said, with zero visibility of any reason as to why anyone would.)
One moment jarred rather badly. Verbally dismissing Edward a good 50 minutes after everyone else has surely done so mentally, the Sugarlord reminded him not to be ashamed of what he does best. It wasn’t the lack of any clear sign of Edward having anything he did best that was my problem with that: it was the irony. Like many others who’ve ever watched the programme, I miss The Blessed Margaret. Nick Hewer has, however, bravely stepped up to the mark to help on the PR front and defend the programme’s honour. Here he is, being interviewed by Shortlist magazine:
The Apprentice may not offer an MBA, but it teaches buying and selling, adding value, location, product selection, negotiation, marketing, presentation, advertising, handling interviews… Maybe a dozen basic skills. And that’s plenty good enough.”
Mmm. I saw their importance being very briefly outlined, and examples of how not to do several of those things. I certainly didn’t see a great deal of teaching. I’m happy to concede Nick’s point that, unless the programme is entertaining, people won’t watch it, but isn’t there a snag with that. If teaching these things isn’t entertaining, we don’t see the teaching and the viewer doesn’t get the learning. A couple of paragraphs later in the same interview, Nick seems to miss his own point:
[…] if you went to business schools in Yale or Oxford and got the most brilliant people [to star in the show], no one would have a clue what they were talking about. They’d make references to Hungarian economic theory and nobody would watch the thing. It’d be stuck out on BBC 17 at 4am and the bloke who commissioned it would get fired. The whole point is to make it entertaining, so that the jobless man on the squashy sofa can scream at the TV, ‘No, don’t do that! I’d be better than this lot!’”
The (needlessly stereotyped) man on the sofa would be right, of course. The bigger problem is that – as Nick’s quote itself points out – he already knows how to do better: the programme isn’t teaching him at all. Nor is it giving him any kind of motivation: given what’s on parade, the programme doesn’t just fail to teach in the direct sense, it fails to teach by example. The contestants may be many things, but role models certainly isn’t one of them. Sofa man (who turns up almost verbatim in a Guardian interview, by the way: we give Nick top marks for both consistency and loyalty) might be inspired, but only to shout at the telly.
The Blessed Margaret was so fired with enthusiasm for all things entrepreneurial she left to pursue a PhD in Papyrology, while even Nick – judging by his Twitter feed (scroll back to April) – spends part of the year pickling walnuts in France and confesses to The Guardian that he can’t afford a Ferrari. (Heavens man, what would the contestants make of that lack of application and graft? Have you really been giving your opportunities the full 317%?)
Worse, he confesses to the same journalist that “making the series is too much like hard work”. If Tom the Inventor can already be suited and booted to answer the door to the courier at 6am while the others shuffle about in housecoats and boxers, what excuse does Nick have, other than perhaps age? And if the giddying world of entrepreneurialism can’t inspire them, what chance do the rest of us have? (If nothing else, given their struggle with the word ‘vegetable’ yesterday, I hope most of this year’s contestants aren’t asked to write about …)
But I found that Shortlist article more alarming. (Predictably) addicted to bigging things up as the contestants, most of it I read with a shovel of salt on standby. Until I hit this section:
Previous small-screen portrayals — from the evil oil barons of Dallas to dodgy Del Boy — have cast businessmen in a negative light.
But in research commissioned by the Department For Business, Innovations And Skills published last month, nine out of 10 established entrepreneurs felt that the current crop of business-reality programmes made viewers think more agreeably about people who start their own company.“
So 90% of established entrepreneurs missed the point that Nick felt was obvious to even poor old Steve, still stuck on the sofa in Rotherham with a can of Stella? A business community that frequently berates the British education system for providing them with inadequately skilled candidates approves wholeheartedly of televising people who can’t identify an orange when they’re looking at 50 crates of them, spell ‘vegetable’ or think to phone their Mum for a soup recipe is setting a good example? Apparently so:
Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute Of Directors and an experienced executive (his CV includes MD of Whitbread Beer Company and chairman of Yo! Sushi), agrees: “Since the IoD spends a lot of time trying to get more people interested in running their own businesses, we’re generally positive about shows like The Apprentice. It brings the business world into people’s homes and promotes entrepreneurialism to a wide audience. Something of which we’re very much in favour.”
Oh well, I guess I’ll just crack open a Stella, soften the sofa and brace myself to watch these people generate large viewing figures and small cash sums from old rope and incompetence in the name of my development. Perhaps I’ll learn to respect them. (Hats off to one business model in the meantime: getting the BBC to pay for your recruitment process thereby generating free publicity for your autobiography is a good wheeze. Given the help he’s getting already, you can search for Lord Sugar’s book on Amazon yourselves – I’m not giving him a free link.)
If I have to pick a winner? Blimey, that’s as difficult as watching it … Perhaps missing the point of his own programme title, Lord Sugar reprieved Leon in the boardroom during Episode 2 as “he runs a business so he must have something”. There’s public support building for #soupman, as Jim Eastwood is already known to the Twitterati, and there’s a calm unflappability to him that bodes reasonably well (if not necessarily terrifically telegenically). But so far I’d vote for Tom Pellereau. Of all the contestants, his quote in the initial press material suggests it’s not just about vanity and competition:
For me the Apprentice is a bit like the Olympics or the World Cup for entrepreneurs… I want to challenge myself, find out if I am ready to step up to this level.”
Bonus mark for not assuming the Gold Medal is already in the bag and the winner’s plinth is already being assembled. And his former university speak highly of him too (or at least someone in their press office presumably did – along with a British Library blog on patents and IP, which makes a change from estate agents.)
But I’m sorry, after two hours of The Apprentice, I needed to recover by watching something that was refreshingly honest about itself, understood its demographic perfectly, and provided endless examples of expertly choreographed teamwork: The Eurovision Semi-Final. A fiver on Serbia might give even me a small return.