Culture: Who'd want to be in the firing line?

I'm looking forward to the new series of The Apprentice, which begins this week, not least because it will be interesting to see how the format has been tweaked to take account of the credit crunch.

On the face of it, The Apprentice owes its success to the get-rich-quick atmosphere of the credit-boom years and the format now seems a bit out of date.

Take the various companies owned by Sir Alan Sugar (pictured). He sold Amstrad to BSkyB for £125m in 2007, leaving him with four main businesses: a company that charters private jets, a company that sells advertising, a small IT company and a property portfolio. Some of these businesses are bound to have been hit by the crunch, and some experts suggest that tens of millions have been wiped off Sir Alan's personal fortune. Which prompts the question: would an ambitious young businessperson regard a job with Sir Alan as being quite as desirable as it once was?

Then there's the fact that the contestants in previous series were asked to give up their current jobs as a condition of appearing on the programme. Will the makers insist on that this time round? It seems a little cruel, given how difficult it will be for the losers to get another job. And if they do insist on it, won't that mean the calibre of the contestants is lower than usual? After all, wouldn't a person who entertained some hope of career advancement in their current job be unlikely to give it up for a one-in-16 chance of working for someone whose main business interests are private jets, advertising and property.

Finally, there's the look and feel of the show. In previous series, the BBC has often showered the winning teams with lavish prizes, flying them to exotic locations, treating them to slap-up meals, and so on. Will they do the same in season five? Not only will it risk alienating the BBC licence-payers, but it will seem out of step with the new, more frugal spirit of the age. I predict a much less opulent-looking series.

No doubt Talkback Thames, the makers of The Apprentice, will have done their best to reinvent it for these more straitened times. And if the contestants fall below what is already a very low bar, that will just add to the comedy.

The fifth series of 'The Apprentice' begins on Wednesday on BBC1

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