May 262008

Published in The Evening Echo on 26/05/2008

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for Sir Alan Sugar.

Why feel sorry for a man who’s managed to accumulate a fortune of more than GB£800 million over his chequered career? A man who’s ferried around in a chauffeur-driven Bentley? A man who flies around in his own Lear jet?

Not a lot feel sorry for, you might think; apart, perhaps, from the fact that he supports Tottenham Hotspur…! But then you remember that Sir Alan has signed up with the BBC to do “The Apprentice”, which is now in the middle of its fourth series. And the poor man must be ruing the day he signed on the dotted line.

Sure, the programme has made Alan Sugar a household name, but at what cost… and does someone that successful really need to raise his profile anyway?

Never mind the fact that he comes across as an acerbic, megalomaniacal tyrant; or the fact that he’s forced to jab an accusatory finger at one hapless candidate after another as he delivers his “You’re fired!” catch-phrase every week (apparently it’s written into his contract; a legacy from the original American show format, featuring the equally megalomaniacal but frankly much more ridiculous-looking Donald Trump). No, the real blow must be that he has to actually hire one of these buffoons at the end of the series.

Why on earth would a man who obviously doesn’t need the money, and who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, decide to lumber himself with such a motley assortment of corporate misfits? Worst of all, he’s actually obliged to give one of them a job at the end of it… and based on their performance on the tasks to date you can’t help but wonder at the wisdom of that.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The Apprentice; it makes for compelling viewing, but for all the wrong reasons. It should be all about watching outstanding young business people tackle challenging business-related tasks as they struggle to reconcile conflicting goals: the selfish desire to become Sir Alan’s apprentice, and the need to work with others as a team to win each task.

Where the above description falls down, of course, is with the “outstanding young business people” bit. They’re conspicuous by their absence!

There’s something deliciously entertaining about watching incompetent people floundering out of their depth and sinking fast. It’s good telly – but you can’t help wondering where they managed to find these people. Apparently these are the best of over 20,000 applicants to the show. Well, if this selection of rueful wannabes is the cream of Britain’s emerging business talent, then ambitious young Irish people should be rejoicing. Based on this evidence, opportunities across the water for those with a shred of business acumen should abound.

At the end of the day, while The Apprentice is dressed up as a show about recruitment – “Welcome to The Apprentice,” extols the official BBC website, “it’s the job interview from hell” – it’s actually nothing of the sort. Candidates are picked not for their talent or ability, but on the basis of selecting a group that will generate drama, conflict and controversy. They’re picked to make good telly, rather than to make good apprentices. Which just means the TV production people are doing a good job… and that, of course, is as it should be.

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