It’s sometimes a shock to recall that The Apprentice has been on our screens for more than 15 years. For a decade and a half, Lord Sugar – originally plain old “Suralan”- has been summoning shiny-suited hopefuls to his wobbly prefab boardroom, pointing at them and making leaden witticisms. The show has been a ratings success for the BBC, with the most popular episodes regularly attracting 10 million viewers. And of course, it is part of a worldwide franchise of shows, spanning from Finland to Colombia.
Its early days were promising: many people had never encountered characters like these. The participants were quick-witted, enterprising young people whose ambition was to make money, but who were quite open-minded as to how they would do it. Some emphasised their sales prowess, some their management skills, others their strategic vision. The Sun initially called it “the thinking man’s reality show”. It even seemed to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit: an EY study in 2013 found that 71 per cent of entrepreneurs felt the UK fostered their culture and ideals.
It has always, though, been entertainment. There were early criticisms that the series winners, promised the role of “Sir Alan’s apprentice” (surely with a nod to the Star Wars franchise?), in fact were often with Sugar for a matter of weeks. And those who have created a public profile have traded heavily on their reality/celebrity status; none has become a commercial titan.
As the years have rolled on, the lure of entertainment has grown stronger, and the contestants have become more exaggerated and more absurd. One of the current crop boasted that his friends called him “AK-47” because “I’m a killer salesman”. I’m fairly sure that’s not what his friends call him. We long for these hubristic absurdities, the tight suits, the short skirts, the fillered lips and the armour-plated self-confidence built on delusion.
It is something of a shame that the nation’s most popular business-related TV show is, essentially, Barnum’s circus for the 21st century. Dragons’ Den is more serious, and has been promoted to BBC1, but The Apprentice remains the flagship. Isn’t there room for more content, something that returns to Reithian principles in the BBC’s 100th anniversary year and educates, informs and entertains?
Entrepreneurs often have terrific narratives. They embody two of our favourite tropes, rags-to-riches success and cautionary tales of overconfidence and disaster. In the modern gig economy, surely the public feels closer than ever to entrepreneurs who strive to achieve and monetise their dream. If they exemplify the “can-do” spirit, aren’t we all looking for a bit of that as we emerge from the pandemic?
There seems to be an obvious parallel in the world of publishing. Bookshops groan with tales of business success and disaster: Run to Win by Stephanie Schriok of Emily’s List; Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s demolition of the Sackler family; or Liftoff by Eric Burger, the story of the rise of Elon Musk. We want to read about outsize personalities, but we also want to peer behind the veil, to see and to understand how the mechanism works.
Yet linear television seems devoid of this kind of content. I’m old enough to remember the BBC’s Troubleshooter, in which Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries, toured the land dispensing frank advice to struggling businesses like Apricot Computers and the Morgan Motor Company. It was unshowy and of its time, but gripping. We’d never seen anything like this before.
There’s every chance that more programming which looked at entrepreneurism and business in general could be a virtuous circle. The more we know, the better informed we are, the more active participants we can be in the wider economy. If Bake Off can drive people to their kitchens, think of what these kinds of shows could do. They would be entertaining, popular, but insightful and true-to-life.
If anyone wants a presenter with some camera experience and his own wardrobe, I’ll be in my trailer.