The seventh series of The Apprentice (BBC One) began last night, and the main news to report is that the title is now completely meaningless. The winner of The Apprentice in 2011 will not be Lord Sugar’s apprentice at all. Instead, he or she will get £250,000 of his cash and start a business.
Why so? Well, as we should all know by now, Lord Sugar of Clapton is a man who gets sick of things quite easily – cautious Carols and steady Eddies, poshos from Sandhurst and most of all blahdee idiots who couldn’t cook a sausage in a baked bean can (or some such Sugarism) have all stuck in his craw in the past.
This year he announced he is sick of what he calls the “moaning culture”. Everyone is complaining that banks won’t lend to small business. To Lord Sugar it’s sheer blahdee sloth. As he is always keen to remind anyone who will listen, he dragged himself from trainee bugler in the Jewish Lads’ Brigade Stamford Hill Division to intergalactic business Godzilla by starting out selling gravel to crows in Hackney or whatever it was. So should we all.
The upshot of all this is the format change: the lucky winner will get not just the cool quarter of a million but Lord Sugar as some kind of bearded, pudgy-finger-pointing guardian angel leering over their shoulder and telling them what he’s sick of on any given day.
You don’t have to be much of a business analyst to see what Lord Sugar and his Apprentice producers are up to. It’s the kernel of all great business “ideas” – fillet the best parts from someone else’s naive little venture and do it bigger and better. In this case the sincerest form of flattery is apparently being liberally bestowed upon Dragons’ Den.
Quite how this change of tack will pep up proceedings over the next 12 weeks remains to be seen, but last night it made not a blind bit of difference. Everything that makes The Apprentice the nation’s favourite real-life panto is much as it was last time.
Some of it was better. When Stuart Baggs ennobled himself as “a brand” last September it did indeed end up being a hideous stigma seared upon his forehead, yet plainly no one has learned a thing. A woman called Melody said, “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the Moon.” As linguists grappled with that one she topped it with the announcement that she had been “personally taught” by the Dalai Lama.
And when Leon, from Harrogate, who looks a bit like Nigel Havers, opined, “I don’t like your gimmicky salesman who thinks he can sell ice to an Eskimo. Chances are he probably can’t, and why would an Eskimo buy ice?” that rumbling sound you heard was gag writers the length and breadth of the country throwing their pens down in complete surrender.
Stratospheric self-regard was followed immediately by the sort of brainless blundering usually reserved for zombies in schlock horror films. The task was to buy a load of fruit and veg and palm it off as breakfast and lunch on unwitting workers.
The boys christened their team “Logic” and immediately proved the name comically inappropriate by choosing soup as their product even though none of them knew how to make it. (Though this did gift us a marvellous Pythonesque moment, when their project manager Edward cried, “Let’s make soup like we’ve never made it before!” before being reminded by one of his team-mates that they hadn’t made it before.)
Edward made such a mess of the boys’ fruit/soup double whammy that he deprived the episode of any suspense. He was always going to be the one staring down the whorl of Lord Sugar’s finger. None the less, two quite amazing things happened in the boardroom. Firstly, a male contender, Tom, said, “Sorry, Lord Sugar,” as one of his manifold failings was outlined.
Sorry? Sorry? Has anybody ever done something so lily-livered and entirely unthrusting in front of the King of Clapton as apologise? Was this somehow symptomatic of the moaning culture? No, actually. The admission of weakness played quite well with Sugar. Note to future contestants: upscale the humility going forward.
And then Edward, who by this point was in danger of complete mental disintegration, descended further, into a form of anti-language that Sugar called “semaphore”. Sugar would ask him a question, and in response Edward would pluck an aphorism from his business-speak bingo bag and blurt it out regardless. “How much did you sell them for?” “I don’t fit the mould.” “Why did you do that?” “It’s all there?” “Are you insane?” “The gloves are coming off. I roll with the punches.”
Let this serve as a warning to young apprentices everywhere – moaning may be wholly despicable, but too much entrepreneurial bravado can be bad for your health, too.