First Night: The Apprentice, BBC1

A magnet for arrogant Thatcherite wide boys
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The Independent Culture

One of the most important lessons for any aspiring business tycoon is that you cannot overestimate the importance of stating the obvious and eliminating all possible ambiguity. Thus Sir Alan Sugar explained to the 16 hopefuls queuing up work for him on The Apprentice: "Mary Poppins I am not" (just in case any of them thought they had ended up on House Of Tiny Tearaways by mistake).

The new run kicked off in traditional style, with Sir Alan testing the contestants' grasp of the most basic principles of selling – in this case, sending them out in two teams, boys and girls, to flog £600 of wet fish off a market stall. Within minutes, the operation had bogged down under the strain of choosing team names: the men rejecting "Impetus" on the grounds that over the phone it might sound like "Impotence"; the women choosing "Alpha" because it looks "a wee bit like a fish".

There followed a series of object lessons in how not to do business: the Alpha females, stall swamped, swiftly learning lesson No 1: you don't make a profit by selling below cost price. By mid-afternoon, they had sold 75 per cent of their stock for £440 (a net loss of £10). They swiftly recovered, though, taking the remainder out on to the streets and selling it at inflated prices to end up with a £150 profit. The boys – trading as "Renaissance" – took a little longer to grasp lesson No 2: know your product. What they were selling off cheap as undesirable turbot was, in fact, posh monkfish. At the end of the day, they finished up trying to get rid of stock in a solicitor's office, where they were comprehensively outhaggled (there were at least two more lessons here, about choice of venue and customer). They ended up with a profit of just over £30 and were, frankly, lucky to get that.

But of course, you don't watch The Apprentice to learn about business (you certainly don't appear on The Apprentice to learn about business: you are never going to find out how to emulate Bill Gates by trailing the man who gave the world the Amstrad word processor). You watch it because the combination of publicity and cash attracts the most thrillingly unattractive and self-regarding individuals imaginable.

Having met Michael Sophocles, a telesales executive ("You're right, I am arrogant. What you going to do about it?"), and Nicholas de Lacy-Brown ("I haven't failed in the traditional sense at anything but I did get a B in one GCSE, which to me was a failure"), I'm not even sure I believe this many really unpleasant people could exist at one time. This leaves open the possibility that the BBC went back in time to the 1980s and extracted the purest Thatcherite wide boys it could find. But what if I'm wrong? What if they really do represent modern capitalism? Then modern capitalism is nearing its final crisis and that slump is going to hit harder than anyone realised. Cheers, Sir Alan.

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