Sore shoulders in the boardroom: The Apprentice

Playing the game: jokers and knaves.

For some reason everyone in The Apprentice refers to what’s happening as ‘the process’. I like it because it’s so pompous, while the process itself is hard to define. Just what are they doing?

I’d heard a lot about the programme before I first watched it last year. Sometimes it was criticised for being part of and reflecting a certain kind of business world, while I still hear people arguing about the wisdom and fairness of Lord Sugar’s decisions, for all the world as if it were a serious attempt to find Britain’s greatest entrepreneur.

My only concern is whether it’s right to be so cruel to the buffoons on the show. I was immediately reminded of Charlie Brooker talking about My Super Sweet Sixteen on Screenwipe (see here); far from celebrating what it showed, ‘the more you watch it, the more you realise it’s a stone-hearted exposé of everything that’s wrong with our faltering so-called civilisation.’ There are moments of what seem to me genuine affection and even admiration, but surely everyone recognises The Apprentice as essentially a satirical farce in which parodic characters are tempted into humiliating themselves using their overweening ambition as bait? It’s a handy and entertaining way of exposing some of the absurdities of contemporary business culture, especially the way people speak, but it can be uncomfortable viewing, especially when contestants are set against each other in the boardroom at the end of each episode. After Screenwipe I was reminded of a passage from the science fiction novel, Dune (which I read over and over when I was ten).

‘The interesting thing about this man was the wounds on his shoulders—made by another fisherman’s claw-boots. This fisherman was one of several in a boat—a craft for travelling on water—that foundered … sank beneath the water. Another fisherman helping recover the body said he’d seen marks like this man’s wounds several times. They meant another drowning fisherman had tried to stand on this poor fellow’s shoulders in the attempt to reach up to the surface—to reach air.’

‘Why is this interesting?’ the banker asked.

‘Because of an observation made by my father at the time. He said the drowning man who climbs on your shoulders to save himself is understandable—except when you see it happen in the drawing room.’

The Apprentice may be cruel, but it’s probably the best television satire since Chris Morris last made a series. I especially like the mix of banality and portentousness, beginning with Prokofiev’s noble if slightly melodramatic Dance of the Knights, accompanied by the massed ranks of the wheeled suitcases. Then there’s the cult of Sugar, Sir Alan presiding over his court like some mythological goat-king, scrunch-faced, whiskered and angry, sending his minions out on quests to win his favour. The quests themselves sometimes seem like deliberately trivial parodies, the Labours of Hercules made into a schoolchild’s list of errands; ‘I want you to find and win these nine shopping items, preferably on sale, bringing them unto me before the cock crows.’ The ineptitude of the contestants when attempting petty tasks can then be played against the grandiosity of their CVs, with the goat-king reading out passages as he passes judgement, often adding to the overwhelming hubris and irony by emphasising his own omnicompetence and brilliance. The final quasi-mythological touch is the underlying theme of hubris inviting nemesis, or pride coming before a fall, which the set-up is there to encourage and expose.

Calling this comical parody quest a process, which sounds something like a medical or legal term, is an agreeably ludicrous touch. Encouraging people to make themselves ridiculous can be ugly, but it can also be deserved and even beneficial; how much better a riposte to self-serving bullshit this is than a thousand homilies and earnest editorials, while the contestants aren’t hated, they are laughed at. I may be a late adopter, as they might say, but I’m an enthusiastic if occasionally uneasy one.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, December 2014)

Read my 2015 Apprentice piece, ‘Pets and prizes. Sugar, Johnson and Hodge’.

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