After The Apprentice returned this week, Michael Deacon argues the BBC program has long ceased being a search for a brilliant new entrepreneur.
People today may not realise it, but Lord Sugar actually started out as a businessman. In fact, he occasionally still dabbles in business even now. This will doubtless come as a surprise to the millions of admirers who know him only for the role that has made him rich and famous, that of comedian.
This week The Apprentice returned with the first two episodes of a new series (BBC One), and Baron Bonhomie was quick to flash his celebrated wit. In episode one the contestants tried to sell hi-viz jackets. “They musta seen you comin’!” quipped the drollery magnate and wordplay billionaire. The men’s team was led by Jason, a student of Greek history.
“Jason, did you bring in the golden fleece?” jested the pun mogul and mischief king. Episode two saw a second successive defeat for the women’s team, Evolve. “Well, Evolve, you haven’t evolved into winners yet, that’s for sure!” barked the wisecrack tycoon and multinational humorist.
As headily effervescent as a sip of champagne, and delivered with the ease of a master, Lord Sugar’s jokes – or, as the man himself privately calls them, his “Sugar plums” – have been brightening the boardroom for nine series, and are a key factor in The Apprentice’s appeal. Well-placed sources say his company Amstrad plans to capitalise on his success by branching out into Christmas crackers. According to insiders, the crackers will, like other Amstrad products, be made from an attractive grey plastic, with the joke appearing on a small LED screen along the side. A box of six is expected to retail at £149.99.
As for the contestants in series nine, they seem much the same as those in the previous eight. This was inevitable, because The Apprentice is self-selecting. The aim of the show is not, as its makers pretend, to discover a brilliant new entrepreneur, but to expose to ridicule the deluded, conceited and inept. If you haven’t managed to work that out yet, you’re exactly the sort of poor dope they’re looking for.
This year’s entrants have made an excellent start. The most promising is Alex, the one who looks like Freddie Mercury impersonating a Welsh undertaker. His style is a winning mix of childlike earnestness and doglike simplicity. In the first episode he tried to sell loo paper. “Yeah, no, I was gonna say, it’s all clean, it’s not, like, reused…” In the second episode he tried to sell a new flavour of beer to a pub – but didn’t bring any for the pub’s owners to taste. “The bottle is empty,” he conceded, “but you can smell it…”
Jason, he of “golden fleece” fame, is pretty good value too. “My intelligence is like a machete in the jungle,” he boasted. So far, as Lord Sugar might say, he’s been about as helpful as a machete in a balloon factory. Another candidate has demonstrated exemplary use of the third person. “Behind every good project manager, there’s a Neil Clough!” beamed Neil Clough.
There was even direr news for British business in Mary Queen of the High Street (Channel 4). Apparently, more than a hundred of our shops close every week. The obvious solution would be to uninvent the internet, but for the time being Mary Portas is attempting an alternative strategy: making high streets nicer to visit.
She began her quest on Roman Road in London’s East End. This seemed an oddly appropriate setting, because I’ve often thought Mary, with her plainspoken severity and crushing glare, would make a fine character in EastEnders: Dot Cotton’s daughter, say, or a third Mitchell brother.
In her new series – which is much like Mary Queen of Shops, but with the addition of burger stands and rows with luckless councillors – she strides about, copper bob ablaze, peppering all in her path with criticism and commands while petrified shop-owners dive for cover behind the nearest mannequin.
“Why would you choose that as your logo? It looks like a poo on a stick!” she snapped, before turning her sights on a dingy bric-à-brac stall. “It looks like a wet pair of old knickers!”
Broadcasters are understood to be in talks to screen a live Sugar-versus-Portas quip-off. The winner will go through to face either Simon Cowell or that man from Dancing on Ice in the final.
Bankers (BBC Two) is a new documentary series about the banking crisis. According to one insider, the problem began round about the year 2000, when across the industry it “became acceptable to make money from clients rather than for them”. Few people seem to have worried about this very much at the time, but such is human nature. When things are going well, we don’t ask questions; we ask them only once it’s too late.
For the layman there are many mystifying aspects to the teetering tower of terror that is modern banking, not least the names. Top bankers’ names are implausibly literal, brashly trumpeting their owners’ wealth and grandeur. Bob Diamond, Rich Ricci, Mervyn King. They’re the sort of names you’d expect to find in a bad satire. At any moment during the documentary you expected to be introduced to a Jez Flash or a Henry Opulent or a Jules Dastardly-Zillionaire.
Perhaps the best name belongs to the former chairman of Barclays, Marcus Agius. Imagine a man called Marcus Agius being a binman or a bricklayer. Of course you can’t. He could only be a Roman emperor or the modern equivalent, a chairman of Barclays.
The documentary did its best to explain everything (except the names, on which subject it remained politely silent). But it was still chilling to watch, not least whenever Bob Diamond came on screen. God, that grin. He looks like a squirrel wearing outsize dentures. (Sorry. I’ve clearly been watching too much Mary Portas.)
If The Apprentice, Mary Queen of the High Street and Bankers made you fret about the Britain your children will inherit, you could always comfort yourself with the final part of The Village (BBC One). The Village was theoretically a drama about life during and after the First World War, but really it was propaganda for the present. Peter Moffat’s script was so remorselessly miserable you almost wept with gratitude to be living in a world of hapless loo roll salesmen and grotesque bankers. Anything not to live in that wretched Derbyshire village 90-odd years ago, where men spoke only in grunts and women only in sobs, and where your every action was soundtracked by a whining violin.
Clive James returns next week