Is Sir Alan softening up to make a credit-crunch Apprentice?

The waspish Amstrad boss can be a fearful figure for the show's contenders, so should his producers take some sting out of his tail? Ian Burrell speaks to them

Is Sir Alan Sugar becoming nicer? The executive producers of The Apprentice think so, and say they've been trying to bring out the more "funny and compassionate" side of Britain's notoriously irascible business tycoon.

It can't, you might think, be easy working for Sir Alan on a television show that he has made his own like almost no other presenter, a show that is about to enter its fifth series and has become an annual landmark not just in the broadcasting schedules but for the media as a whole.

Michele Kurland and Colm Martin come together as the production team for the first time this series and they, just like the show's candidates, will be expected to deliver the goods for the Amstrad boss. "He doesn't suffer fools and if we ever try to not bring something to his attention he will find it in a second," says Kurland, executive producer, who has been on the show for three years. "There's no point in bullshitting him."

Martin, the series editor, joined the team last year and is "exec-ing" a main series for the first time. "He's very keen to have people who aren't just 'yes' people and he says that a lot," he points out. "That means when you say 'no' you have a forthright discussion but the important thing is that you stand your ground with him, he does respect you if you respect him."

This latest excursion is being billed as the credit-crunch series of The Apprentice. The candidates, who include an aristocrat, a stockbroker, an ex-footballer and a beauty queen, will be given tasks that better reflect the economic downturn, such as giving a makeover to the sort of down-at-heel British seaside resort where more of us will be holidaying.

The show might also be a little softer around the edges thanks to a slightly jollier host, a process that Kurland says has been under way for several series. "People who have seen [the first programme in the new series] have said he seems funnier and more accessible. But he is very funny and compassionate. In the last three years there has been a change to show that side of him, because it was a bit pantoville before. Because he's funny doesn't mean he can't be direct and tough."

The Talkback Thames production team are seeking fun and compassion but are careful to avoid anything that might incur Sir Alan's wrath as an inauthentic stunt. "We really enjoy working with Alan Sugar because it's always real business in there," says Kurland. "With the American series [of The Apprentice] they get a bit stunty, in one series the losers had to live in a tent in Donald Trump's garden."

According to Martin, the show needs to make even greater efforts to avoid being trite. "The danger is you take it too far down an entertainment stunt route. In credit-crunch times it's more important than ever that it feels real."

This is not an ordinary reality-television show and the background of Kurland and Martin reflects that; both are graduates of the BBC Business Unit, where they learnt from the award-winning Robert Thirkell, creating hit shows such as Trouble at the Top. "I have worked for 30 years on business programmes and Sir Alan Sugar is bloody brilliant," says Kurland. "Business can be wrapped up in a lot of consultancy talk, there's a whole business speak, but he cuts through that and says this is all that matters about this particular business, the rest is all fog or distraction. He makes business accessible."

Having that business background makes the production team less susceptible to the extraordinary media interest that surrounds this show, Martin claims. "If you just came to this not having that experience, I think that could be intimidating and you could be tempted to distort your film to make it more interesting to the press, and that's not what we do."

Even so, the candidates, who must pass a two-stage audition process, have to be prepared for the worst. "Part of me will always love my candidates because we've all sat at home watching telly saying, 'I would do that', but they actually get out there and do it and I don't like to think their lives should be ruined by television," says Kurland. "We try to warn them that if there's any skeleton in their cupboard, things come out, so be prepared for it."

They flatly deny that they encourage Sir Alan to retain the most entertaining candidates. "Sometimes people will say, 'Did so and so get fired because they weren't entertaining enough?'," says Kurland. "That drives me mad because I think of people who have been fired, who from a telly point of view were fantastic. Nicholas the barrister from last year went in programme one, he was someone who you could have watched a lot more of."

No – it's Sir Alan's choice, and he never gets to see the candidates perform the tasks. "People think he has an opportunity to see lots of rushes and footage, but he doesn't see anything," says Martin. "He hears back from Nick and Margaret."

The two executive producers say that with a successful format like The Apprentice the secret is to meddle as little as possible. After filming begins, Kurland admits they have little opportunity to interfere. "The day the shoot starts is like the bullet train has left Tokyo Central, it all moves so fast," she says. "From then on it's strictly between the candidates and Sir Alan."

'The Apprentice' starts on Wednesday, BBC One, 9pm

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