Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Apprentice

The Apprentice has probably passed its sell-by date on American television by now, but the BBC is only just embarking on season 2 of its version. When the UK edition was first announced, with the unlikely substitution of Sir Alan Sugar for Donald Trump, I was sceptical. Sir Alan is undoubtedly rich and successful, but he is not showy or ostentatious in the same way as Trump. Nobody would describe Amstrad as a glamorous corporation - least of all Sir Alan himself, who spent much of season one staring in disbelief at candidates who seemed to think they were joining ICI.

But, much to my surprise, The Apprentice worked out rather nicely. As with the excellent Dragon's Den, it turned out to be an example of the BBC's public service ethic at its best - harness all the conventionals of reality TV and use them to genuinely explain something about business.

The differences between the British and American editions have always been fascinating in themselves. American readers will be thrilled to learn that the BBC has posted the whole first episode online (the link is top right), allowing them to compare for themselves. Note how the BBC couldn't bring themselves to hire fourteen calendar models, and have actually selected people who you might actually encounter in the real world. Note also that the BBC flatly refuses to engage in the mildly insulting practice of using the candidates as narrators by getting them to read out "interview" segments describing what's happening, and instead has recourse to the voice-of-authority narrator.

There is, admittedly, a token attempt to sell the winner's prospective lifestyle as lavish and magnificent. This is slightly undercut by the fact that only a few days earlier, they aired a documentary about last year's winner, which gave a rather more realistic account of what he does for a living. The deal, it turns out, is that you do indeed get a real job at Amstrad, with genuine responsibility and your own projects to look after. You also get a guaranteed £100K salary for the first year. Since Sir Alan was clearly free to get rid of Tim after that year, and mentioned at one point that, obviously, Tim wasn't really worth £100K because of his relative inexperience, I rather imagine that Tim was kept on at a more realistic salary. We also saw that he's still living in the same house with the wife and kiddie, and has been working seven day weeks. Don't get me wrong - it's a genuinely excellent prize if you're looking to get into that line of work, but let's not fool ourselves that it's especially glamorous.

(That said, the one area where the BBC have been notably willing to fudge things for dramatic purposes is the nature of the prize. In reality, for example, last year's runner-up Saira was also hired by Amstrad, and both her and Tim worked at the company for several months before Sir Alan rendered his final decision. None of this really undermines the legitimacy of the contest, which never claimed to be anything more than Sir Alan's personal choice based on the skills demonstrated, or the genuineness of the prize, which effectively consists in being paid massively over the odds for your level of experience and getting your foot in the door at a well known company. But it was all very much skated over in the broadcast version.)

Otherwise, the British basically follow the format of the Americans, and have even been known to recycle tasks. Since Sir Alan is naturally far too busy to pay attention to these bozos himself, he has his loyal henchmen to do it for him. A skim of their official bios suggests that they're genuinely long-term advisers of his, who are both recently retired, thus explaining why they have so much time to contribute to this exercise. Margaret Mountford has always struck me as somebody who must send the producers into paroxysms, since she simply doesn't have the intimidating look that central casting asked for. But Nick Hewer is a godsend, thanks to his permanent expression of tongue-biting disbelief.

While the Americans all seem to want to aspire to the gloried condition of Trumphood, Sir Alan has no truck with gold-plated, blinged-out penthouses and has ended up creating a subtly but significantly different show, still peddling a vision of self-made success, but one that at least seems passably grounded in the real world. This is a show for people who aspire to be... well, Sir Alan Sugar. Which might not be glamorous, but will still make you very, very rich, so stop complaining.

Of course, most of us don't want to be Sir Alan Sugar, and I for one have written a living will requesting that I be put down if I should turn into Donald Trump. This doesn't matter, because our hook for this show is the prospect of seeing the really gratingly annoying contestants get publicly humiliated. Usually, after two or three of them have emerged as utterly appalling, others start to seem like saints in comparison and begin to gain audience sympathy. (Such as Tim and, to a lesser extent, Miriam last year. I have strong suspicions that Saira made it to the last two because, as a frequently pushy and irritating woman, she could serve as a de facto villain for the final episode.) In the meantime, we learn some valuable Reithian lessons about the world of business. Well, a bit.

The big problem for the producers in the first couple of weeks is that the format gives them an insane number of characters to introduce - fourteen contestants in total. There's obviously no way you can properly cover them all in the first week, and the producers' answer is simply not to try. Instead, and luckily for them, the girls team provides a genuinely interesting controversy with their approach to the first task. Personally, I'm on their side on this one, although it's a strategically silly move when you consider that the aim of the game is ultimately just to impress Sir Alan Sugar, rather than to win or lose individual tasks.

Meanwhile, they focus on the stand-out figures, most of whom are gloriously hateful. It's notable that in all the introductory vox-pops, when everyone is talking about how driven and talented and successful they are, only Karen uses the word "arrogant" and seems to recognise how annoying everyone must sound when they deliver these speeches. They've been asked the direct question, of course, but there are tactful ways of responding and Karen seems to be the only one who bothered to apply her mind to it.

Syed is clearly marked down as this season's version of Paul, the wideboy salesman with slightly dodgy ethics and a petulant inability to cope with rejection of his ideas. Except Paul's ideas at least tended to be good. Syed's attempt to convince his teammates to name themselves "The A-Team" is painfully hilarious, especially as nobody can bring themselves to tell him what a terrible idea it is, and they just keep changing the subject in the hope that he'll give up. It's British politeness at its ineffectual worst, and it's worth watching the show for that alone.

Look out also for Jo, the disturbingly over-emotional child-woman who doesn't have a hope in hell of winning, and whose body language seems stuck at the level of an eight-year-old appearing in the team introductions for We Are The Champions. After only thirty seconds of watching her, I already had a powerful impulse to see her drowned in a sack, and by the end of the episode I strongly suspected Sir Alan felt likewise. She's going to make for compelling reality TV.

The skill of good reality TV is to hook people with the schadenfreude and then make them care about seeing somebody win. The Apprentice, filmed in dutiful BBC2-style and equipped with a vaguely public-service theme, is clearly hoping to be the reality TV show that middle-class families with five dictionaries feel okay about watching. But it's also a damn good, if unusually de-glammed, example of the genre in its own right.