Fire-breathing – and full of hot air

The theme music is sinister. Black Range Rovers, top-class gas guzzlers, sweep into an empty street. Four men and one woman in middle age step out and line up, staring stonily into the camera as if auditioning for a cut-price mafia movie

Cut to the inside of a converted warehouse. The five “dragons” sit in line, and at ease. Clips of the coming programme show them demolishing – with mockery or contempt – would-be entrepreneurs who will come to ask for their investment.

The “dragons” in the new series of Dragons’ Den (BBC2 Wednesday) – Duncan Bannatyne, James Caan, Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis – are successful business people, mainly in the leisure industries. The show takes the form of these dragons watching a hopeful supplicant demonstrate a product or a service; they then decide if they will invest – their own, real, money – and on what terms.

But the form of the show isn’t the real draw: it is the humiliation visited upon the hopefuls. In this, Dragons’ Den joins The Apprentice and, more distantly, Big Brother and its celebrity and other spin-offs, in the category of (personal) joy through (others’) pain.

To watch these deplorable shows is to understand how most people obey when asked in a phoney experiment to amplify the pain on those they can see through a glass screen (and who are actually actors miming pain). Once the proceedings have been introduced by Evan Davis – the show’s presenter and former BBC economics editor, who regrettably lends his prestige to the exercise with a jaunty “this will be fun” air – we accept that this is how pitching for money should be.

But it shouldn’t. Dragons’ Den is about the exercise of the power that money has conferred on the dragons. Those who come before them are nervous about their products – one man looking for investment in an English vineyard clammed up for 30 seconds, an eternity in TV time; no one offered help (though he later got an offer, from Bannatyne). They are doubly nervous because the dragons are now celebrities, so the hopefuls are flustered and flattering, offering them little gifts as if to placate cantankerous deities. In this coming week’s episode, watch for personalised cakes, accompanied by a pair of frilly knickers: the way to a man’s heart.

The contestants never tell their pompous tormentors to stuff their money (which lies in piles beside them). It is depressing that freeborn British men and women, who wish to prove themselves in business, should be so beaten down by the power of TV and celebrity, so unable to hit back and say: “What do you know?”

What, for example, would leisure industry entrepreneurs know about the road safety market? The first hopeful of the new (eighth) series was Derek Cousins, who wanted £50,000 in exchange for 10 per cent of the equity in a project that would put lights on flashing warning signs to make them more visible. Jones did a theatrical mockery number, and asked another dragon to interrupt so that he could enjoy his laughter. Meaden stepped in, but was also convulsed, and also asked to be relieved. After some fun, Bannatyne told Cousins: “You win the worst invention ever brought to Dragons’ Den”. The fact that he could so pronounce after a few minutes spider-and-flying with a man who was, to be sure, not well prepared, is the kind of lesson no one should be learning.

I asked a friend, who is a successful entrepreneur and manufacturer, what he thought of the show. He agreed that it was “crude and voyeuristic”, but said that the dragons do know, at least sometimes, what they are talking about, mainly because entrepreneurship is about people.

The dragons have an opportunity to explore character – and yet they betray it. Instead – they too being willing victims of the show’s formula – they pretend that such judgments can be made after a few minutes of basilisk staring and formulaic discourtesy.

There is one exception. Caan has heard of manners; no pushover, he asks reasonable questions and doesn’t appear to join in the group kickings. He has gone further: in May, Bev James, who runs the Entrepreneurs’ Business Academy as a joint venture with Caan, put out a press release criticising Lord Sugar of The Apprentice, Simon Cowell of Britain’s Got Talent and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay for encouraging “a new breed of egotistical bully boss”. Caan’s TV manners, she wrote, “are beyond reproach”. It was sycophantic, perhaps, and aimed at getting free publicity – but still, she’s right.

The Silence (BBC1 Monday-Thursday) had at its centre a deaf young woman, Amelia, who witnessed a murder – and who happened to be the niece of a senior detective. The coincidences, along with the straining after dramatic effect, diverted attention from a story working on a series of moral and behavioural levels, all interesting.

The detective’s duty to act within the rules and disclose the witness’s identity was at war with his need to protect his niece. His family was unable for much of the time to take on board the tug between public and private responsibilities. Like many such dramas, it was overloaded with dilemmas that it did not give itself time to examine: even so, it was gripping, moving, vividly acted (especially by Douglas Henshall as the detective and Genevieve Barr as Amelia) and at times thoughtful.

john.lloyd@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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