The real stars of The Apprentice

Step aside, Sir Alan. In the current series of his reality TV series, it's the tycoon's sidekicks who have stolen the show

Margaret Mountford

Until the current series of The Apprentice, Margaret Mountford was a rather enigmatic lieutenant. As "Surallan's" right-hand woman (she always sits on his right), she has developed a skill for bursting the inflated ego of even the most cocksure contestant with a single purse of her finely painted lips, a withering glare with those piercing, slightly bloodshot eyes, or, most famously – and effectively – a despairing roll of her eyes towards the heavens. But, increasingly, the silver-haired spy employed as Sugar's "eyes and ears" is finding a voice, and it's no less terrifying than her looks.

The best of a long line of withering putdowns that have made up for the dismal quality of the contestants in this series of television's most addictive show came on Wednesday. Hushed in conversation with Sir Alan and Nick Hewer, the greying trio were discussing the plight of one Michael Sophocles, who, despite claiming on his CV to be a "good Jewish boy," showed a jaw-dropping ignorance during a task in Marrakesh, where it became apparent he didn't know what a kosher chicken was.

"But he's clever, isn't he? Didn't he go to Edinburgh?," asked Nick. "Well," came the sneering reply from Margaret, "I think Edinburgh isn't what it used to be." And with those nine words, one woman had besmirched not only a man, but an entire city.

It will have come as no surprise to those who know Ms Mountford, 56, whose reputation in the real business world is as fearsome as it is in The Apprentice's faux boardroom. Even Sir Alan, who said at the beginning of every episode in the last series, "I don't like liars, I don't like cheats. I don't like bullshitters, I don't like schmoozers, I don't like arse-lickers", has described Mountford as a "fiery character".

The flame was lit in Holywood, Northern Ireland, where Mountford grew up, the daughter of a clergyman, and went to school. She has said her background has helped her in her career, because "coming from Northern Ireland gives you a lot of basic level-headedness and stands you in very good stead". But brighter lights beckoned and a young Mountford headed to Cambridge, where she studied law at Girton College before becoming a solicitor in private practice.

She first met Sugar some years later as a corporate lawyer for the prestigious legal firm Herbert Smith, which was employed during Amstrad's flotation on the Stock Exchange. It was the start of a 20-year, perhaps unlikely, relationship.

An articulate, schoolmarmish foil to Sir Alan's wheeler-dealer style, she has never been employed by the electronics tycoon but has advised him on countless deals and is a non executive director of Amstrad.

She was an obvious choice to join Sugar at the boardroom table when the idea for a thinking man's reality show, dubbed "the interview from hell" was first mooted in 2004. Since episode one, she has become one of the show's mainstays and has developed a brand of scorn so singular she should have it trademarked.

It has been said that Mountford may leave the show, but The Apprentice boardroom would be nothing without its headmistress. SU

Nick Hewer

With his silver, military haircut, frameless specs and deadpan intellect, Nick Hewer is not your average television star. Hand-picked by his "generous friend" Sir Alan Sugar, his official role on The Apprentice was originally to quietly observe the contestants and report back to his boss.

But this former PR bigwig's charisma is more than enough to eclipse any of the show's weasel-like "stars". And he has achieved this, against the odds, with just one quizzically-raised eyebrow.

Fans of The Apprentice will recognise the jaunty facial gesture as one of 64-year-old Hewer's two main expressions. That, and the other – a disapproving, chewing-on-a-lemon grimace – have won him legions of fans. Indeed, as the show's audiences will appreciate, Hewer has often looked on impassive and silent, letting the likes of fired apprentices Kevin, Jenny and Jennifer variously impale themselves on Sugar's barbed comments. This "suit" is the true survivor. He has brought new levels of depth and pathos to the practice of steely peering over one's specs.

He has undoubtedly had a lot of practice. The businessman-turned-reality TV star began his career in public relations in the 1960s. He rose to become head of his own company until its sale in 1998, boasting an impressive client list which included the secretariat of His Highness the Aga Khan.

Hewer first came across Sir Alan when he won the bid to represent his computer company Amstrad in 1983, going on to take care of all of the magnate's business and personal dealings. Indeed, he was a trusted member of the computer company's "family" and an integral part of its management structure.

When Sugar held a lavish dinner at The Dorchester to celebrate Hewer's official retirement (his company had just been sold) the former PR-man remembers the occasion with the silver tongue of a true professional: "Sir Alan is a very generous friend," he says. "The best thing about working for him was there was always something going on. He has vibrancy about him."

His new-found peace, however, was fleeting. In 2005 he was "enthusiastically cajoled" by Sir Alan into appearing in the first series of the entrepreneur's new television vehicle, and has continued ever since.

On screen, he is no limelight hog, instead playing his muted expressions for laughs. Upon being confronted with a PVC-clad "Britney Spears" auditioning as a look-alike for a photography business (one of the many and varied tasks set for contestants), his look of befuddled disapproval brings intelligent humour to a surreal situation. He stops just short of being reality television's answer to Buster Keaton.

Despite reports that his sober appearance belies a somewhat racier private life – Hewer was recently pictured quaffing cocktails by the News of the World with two "assistants" of his own, a "mystery blonde and brunette" at a showbiz bash – the divorced father of two children has been dating his girlfriend Catherine, a 59-year-old businesswoman, for 11 years.

And, while his career has taken him all over the world, and his retirement has allowed him to pursue his life-long passion of world travel, it is not all champagne flutes and fast-moving capitalism. His other enthusiasm is the much more down-to-earth subject of tractors – particularly the Massey Ferguson 35 – which he rides at his holiday home in France. RS

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