Credo: Margaret Mountford: 'I was once called the nation's favourite headmistress'

The ex-lawyer, ex-'Apprentice' adviser and reluctant celebrity on ambition and debt

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The Independent Online

HOW MUCH BENEFIT IS ENOUGH? That, essentially, is the thrust of our new show [which Mountford presents with The Apprentice's Nick Hewer]. The image we get from the media is rather distorted: that everyone on benefits has 27 children and lives in a mansion. Actually, very few people defraud the system, and most struggle to make ends meet.

I DON'T KNOW WHAT MAKES FOR CONTROVERSIAL TV This is probably because I don't watch TV myself. But I hope our show will make people think. Twenty years ago, opinion polls suggested that most people were in favour of the welfare state. People aren't so willing to accept that money should be spent on people who aren't working.

I CAME INTO TV BY ACCIDENT I'd been a lawyer for 25 years and when I retired in 1999, I joined the Amstrad board. When Sir Alan Sugar started on The Apprentice, he asked me to be the female adviser. I think it was because I knew so little about TV that I agreed to do it.

I WAS ONCE CALLED THE NATION'S FAVOURITE HEADMISTRESS I like to think that was a compliment. I certainly don't think people felt they needed an exercise book down their trousers if coming to see me. And I'm not sure I accept that I had a fearsome reputation. I don't suffer fools gladly, but who does?

PUBLIC RECOGNITION DISCOMFITED ME Being someone who never recognises anybody, I was amazed that so many people recognised me, and continue to. A lot of people come up and ask if I'm that woman from The Apprentice. Sometimes I say yes, other times no.

I LEFT 'THE APPRENTICE' TO BECOME A STUDENT at the age of 57. I studied papyrology at London's UCL, and it was such fun being in a classroom. I felt 18 again. And no, I wasn't the oldest student. I might have been the second-oldest though…

STUDYING IS A WONDERFULLY SELFISH OCCUPATION You read all these things, you write all these essays, and you work hard, but it's just for you. I think mature students do well because they're doing it for themselves.

I HAVE A LOVE OF LANGUAGES At 14, I wanted to be an interpreter or translator. I went to university to study French and German, but hated it, so switched to law.

PEOPLE ASK FOR ADVICE A LOT I'm not a font of wisdom. I simply try to help people when I can, but not regarding the law. I retired in 1999. Things have moved on a lot.

I'VE ALWAYS BEEN AMBITIOUS in that I have always wanted to succeed at whatever it was I was doing. I was successful as a lawyer, successful as a student, and I leave it to you to decide whether I have been successful as a television person.

THE LAW AND THE TV INDUSTRY are very different, but both attract highly ambitious people. In TV all [people starting] have to do now is memorise the different kinds of coffee people want. Eventually they might get the chance to make programmes that make people change the way they look at the world. That's the ambition. Not all will fulfil it.

I RARELY WATCH MYSELF ON TELEVISION I would watch sometimes, just to see how The Apprentice was edited. Was it edited to my satisfaction? No, I thought it was all rubbish!

DEBT HAS BECOME A WAY OF LIFE My parents' generation was appalled at the idea of debt, but now it's simply a part of the way we live.

Margaret Mountford, 61, is a lawyer turned television presenter and personality. 'Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits' starts on BBC1 from Thursday at 9pm