May 13, 2011 11:36 pm

Sugar and spite and all things trite

Young men and women compete like laboratory rats before Alan Sugar in ‘The Apprentice’

The Apprentice returned this week (BBC1 Tuesday and Wednesday) alongside its attendant consolation programme with the weekly losers (The Apprentice: You’re Fired, BBC2). For a seventh series, we will see young men and women of ambition and talent performing like lickspittle medieval squires before the ennobled businessman Alan Sugar, the host and master, chorusing, “Yes, Lord Sugar”, “Sorry, Lord Sugar”.

Once again, they will voluntarily face humiliation in their appearances before Sugar and his fellow judges, former PR consultant Nick Hewer and Karren Brady, vice-chairman of West Ham United Football Club. Once again, they will be set to compete like laboratory rats, the bitching and infighting lovingly dwelt on.

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John Lloyd

I know how they feel. The BBC, which encompasses this into its capaciously flexible view of public service television, mounted a presentation at which the first episode was shown and Sugar was lobbed a few jokey soft balls by Dara O Briain, the 16th greatest stand-up comedian in a Channel 4 listing of the profession last year, a normally amusing man who hosts the You’re Fired show.

In the journalists’ question time, I quoted some things the contestants had said about themselves in their introductions – “my social life, my personal life, don’t mean anything to me: I live to work”; “the only focus is me: I’m cold, I’m hard” – and asked Sugar if he thought these were the kind of character traits he wished to encourage. He affected not to understand the question, even after two repetitions. Unfortunately for me, I misread my shorthand and said that a contestant had described herself as “obnoxious”, which she had not. Sugar pounced on this, and – after checking with Mark Linsey, BBC’s head of entertainment commissioning – said, “They didn’t say obnoxious”.

I repeated what they had said but Sugar didn’t get his fortune by giving up on an advantage and simply repeated my mistake. The event moved on to the real questions from the 100 or so other journalists, that is, questions that treated the occasion, and the programme, as show business.

It is show business, part of that also capacious and flexible school that is reality TV, one of the great innovations of the past few decades. Reality shows can be more or less straight, often reverential, series following stressful occupations, such as the long-running US show Cops (Fox); Sky 1 is running one entitled Emergency with Angela Griffin (Wednesdays). Or they can be tightly managed as The Apprentice has been since its debut in 2005.

The show is based on the US programme of the same name, hosted since 2004 by the property magnate Donald Trump. Like Sugar’s, it has been successful but is now declining, perhaps affected by Trump’s airing of his doubts about Barack Obama’s US birth.

The first episode of the new British series saw two teams, one of young men and one of young women, compete to do something entrepreneurial with £250 worth of fruits and vegetables. The men, led by a largely inarticulate accountant called Edward Hunter, made and sold orange juice and soup, and made a respectable return; the women, led by Melody Hossaini, who has worked with 12 Nobel Prize winners, spent only £170 and doubled their stake. Hunter, who tried desperately to blame the others for losing to the women, was fired – largely for suppressing his inner accountant and pretending to be a ruthless leader.

The second episode saw a young man named Jim Eastwood, a candidate for the sack, save himself by attacking a colleague. His former employer, Sean Coyle, later told the BBC website, proudly: “Jim will always do what he has to do to survive.”

These people, mostly in their 20s, are competing to win a £250,000 investment from Sugar in a start-up business – a development from the previous prize of a job in Sugar’s company.

Successful entrepreneurs are generally adventurous, diverse and thoughtful: this crop’s way of pleasing Sugar was to be servile, grandiose and uniform, competing in genuflecting to him, boasting to the camera while knifing their fellow contestants.

Because Sugar has promoted himself, with the BBC’s active support, so successfully, he is accepted as an authority on what it takes to do business. But successful entrepreneurship doesn’t depend on servility, bitchiness and treachery, the traits promoted in The Apprentice. Successful companies, and successful business schools, teach decisive leadership – but leadership that draws out strengths and addresses faults, not that which mocks mistakes and ridicules inadequacies.

Columbia Business School offers classes in meditation; Berkeley’s Haas School of Business teaches students to rein in their aggression and to accept criticism with grace and curiosity. One of British businesses’ large faults is in having short horizons and seeking rapid returns: The Apprentice continues the tradition.

The fun of watching humiliation has taken over whatever heuristic value the show ever had. Sugar, whose strength in business was his reputation for being straight and direct, has let celebrity turn these traits into graceless, grumpy parodies.

He has too much common sense to implode with malign idiocies as Trump seems likely to do but much more of the “Yes, Lord Sugar”, chorused by eager young men and women, and anything can happen.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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