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Sugar gets his Girl Friday

He looks up to me...and I look...

The Apprentice – The Final

So Stella it is. The rules of The Apprentice have always been vague to the point of pointless and implemented by The Lord Sugar with a delighted capricious inconsistency that leaves us in no doubt who makes the final decisions and therefore who is in charge. But The Apprentice is a jealously guarded product with a worldwide market to satisfy so I rather think LoAS is kidding himself if he thinks he is actually in control of anything very much. Certainly there was no real pretense in the final programme that the result of the challenge would be the basis of the choice of the winner.

Why? Well there were no sales: despite constantly banging on about the relationship of profit to the balance between costs and revenue throughout the series, in the final challenge all this went out of the window. Not even notional orders were canvassed from the Industry experts to assess the relative merits of the two products, just vague, “well I liked that”, “I didnt like that anecdotal” remarks. Costs were mysteriously ignored: if Stella and Chris each sold say £10,000 worth of Prism and Urbon, Stella’s level of profit I bet would be at least double that of Chris’s. For all its ‘iconic status’ the unique triangular Prism bottle must have cost at least double that of the more traditional shape of Urbon, even if that did look like a cross between Virgin Olive oil and Cider Vinegar. The only number we had was virtually meaningless in isolation: the new product must retail at £20. Despite quaffing free BBC, or more accurately Mark Burnett Productions booze, and making a few generalized remarks of stupefying obviousness, what do we suppose would have been the first question every buyer present would have asked: “how much does it retail at”? Of course not: “how much does it cost so I can judge the relative value of an unusually expensive bottle in my pursuit of my own profits from buying either product”.

Despite some Jamie-assisted improvement in Chris’s presentational delivery this was always no-contest against Stella, if for no other reason than almost uniquely among these and Apprentices throughout the years, she understands that to market and promote a product, if you want people to think it is good something more subtle is required than constantly and condescendingly telling them it is good. This weird communication skill blindness infects almost all Apprentices who even in promoting themselves can’t understand the difference between earning praise, deserving respect, engendering support; and constantly bragging about how good you are and how superior to everyone else. Handsome is as handsome does as the saying goes. The idiotic assumption lying behind this self-delusion is that everyone but the speaker is a complete idiot: the viewer, Alan Sugar, buyers for major companies: judge me by what I say, not what I do; believe me more the more often I sing my own praises and the louder I mouth off about them.

Of the many conundrums about The Apprentice, perhaps the most nagging question is why, apart from its perhaps originally unexpected popularity, is it on the BBC? Its core of delight in the embarrassment of others has more commercial channel appeal. It betrays the American flavour of the programme which creator Mark Burnett, though English, first sold in the US with Donald Trump in the Sugar role. The humour of humiliation is a very American thing reflected in much of what passes for comedy in Hollywood’s recent output. This is sad from both angles for me: some of the wittiest, most delightful comedies ever made were made in Hollywood, when writers of stature invested movies like The Philadelphia Story and The Little Shop Around The Corner (just re released by the way) with unmatched wit and style. But just as the gross out humour of so many current Hollywood comedies rests heavily on the cruel attraction of schadenfreude, so we Brits have taken avidly to reality programmes like The Apprentice, Big Brother, and the excruciating early rounds of the X Factor and Britains Got Talent.

In fact I take comfort in the fact that considered from one perspective, perhaps unintentionally, The Apprentice has much in common with the documentary genre. It can be seen to operate a little like the superb The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott 2003). There without a single word of judgmental narrative Achbar and Abbott simply interview and filmed CEOs, Executives, Vice Presidents etc of some of the most rapacious business enterprises on earth: no Michael Moore polemics, editorial value judgments etc etc. Brilliantly these two directors pay out lots of rope, ask lots of exploratory questions, and let the participants hang themselves as their attitudes, assumptions, venality, lack of moral sentiment and judgment becomes only too apparent to the watcher. It is a superb documentary for that very reason.

Much the same can be said of The Apprentice: although here I think the result is unintentional. If deep down, at a serious level, anyone is genuinely humiliated by the Apprentice, it is of course Alan Sugar himself: his sexism, inverted snobbery, insecurity in the face of intellectual talent and flair etc, is graphically demonstrated every week and in each series so far. OK he gets the money, which he doesnt need; and the slightly tacky celebrity he does not crave. In fact without being sentimental about it I suspect Alan Sugar is a tad more likable in whatever passes for his ‘real life’, than his self-caricature on The Apprentice would suggest. But I think we do see what he believes are the key requirements of success in the business world and the fact that very many, very successful, very rich business people hate what we might call ‘Sugarism’, none of them have so far had the gumption to challenge it in public. Apart from Sir John Harvey Jones before he died.

No, Little Al is perhaps the biggest victim of the inexorable money making machine that is Mark Burnett Productions. They can exploit Al’s taste for self importance and self aggrandisement. Encouraging Apprentices to grovel and suck-up adds flavour to the carefully manufactured dramatic juice of the franchise. Make no mistake this is no Auntie BBC, unexpected success story: it is a precisely manufactured, commercially honed product which will I suspect, like Big Brother, not hesitate for a moment to court controversy or complaint to maintain ratings, or increase them.

I did a little maths at the end of this weeks show: it takes 37 Producers of one kind or another, including several with titles like Head, Executive, Senior, to bring The Apprentice to the screen: over a dozen editors; and at least 6 Directors. That’s apart from the 80 or so technical people etc. Why there are even a couple of people in charge of scripts! One begins to wonder whether even Bilbo Baggss witticisms are scripted for him.

The Apprentice makes a fortune for its owners by persuading Lord Sugar to reveal some deeply unattractive personal qualities in being unpleasant to a bunch of young people who persuade us themselves out of their own mouths, that they deserve everything he dishes out to them. After 6 series the format is looking a little tired: it will be interesting, though I suspect unedifying, when the owners of the golden goose try to keep the golden eggs a-coming indefinitely.

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