On Wednesday, I watched Episode 10 of the current series of The Apprentice with a friend who I’d seen the previous show – and indeed will watch the final – with. We enjoyed watching it together, appreciating the audacity and sheer ridiculousness of the candidates as well as the ludicrousness of some of their ideas and rhetoric.
Irresistible are the lure of the puns (‘crunch time’, ‘that really takes the biscuit’, ‘crumble under the pressure’... in the biscuit task episode, for example) and the facial expressions of Alan’s aide Nick Hewer. The music and the editing that make each instalment into an enthralling hour-long drama are done so well that I’ve seen every episode since its inception in 2005, including the junior edition and Comic Relief specials. Not something I’m proud of, mind. There are far worse shows on TV, of course, but the BBC hit that has drawn as many as 10 million viewers really does send out the wrong message.
In Episode 8, after surprising viewers by keeping Melody in, Lord Sugar told his aides: ‘She’s ruthless, she’ll walk over and tread over anybody; she’ll eat them up and spit them out for her breakfast. That’s what I like about her’. This was seconded by Karren Brady, who pretends to be some sort of feminist but instead just supports the macho culture of the show, who agreed: ‘I think she put the boys to shame today’. Brady must surely recognise the irony of her turning her nose up at the lads mag photo shoot in Episode 7, when she writes for The Sun (!) and made her name working for pornographer David Sullivan. She typifies the show, which glorified contestant turned I’m A Celebrity participant Katie Hopkins, the right-wing anti-feminist who called for ‘the majority of universities to be culled’ on Question Time last year. Hopkins famously declared she had ‘lied or cheated to get what she wanted’ (Sir Alan put the question to her)... ‘someone else’s husband because I wanted him’ and indeed drove her stepdaughter to anorexia.
Each time I tell my 8-year-old brother not to point at people in the street, he replies: ‘But Lord Sugar does it’, which does – to be fair – make me laugh as much as it makes me despair at the Apprentice behaviour that infects viewers.
There’s always the one who loses out because Sir Alan wonders ‘if he’s just a nice guy’: Ansell in Series 2, Lohit in Series 3, James in Series 5 and – I fear we’ll soon see – Tom this series.
There’s always the episode where Sugar fires someone because of their profession – ‘I don't need another corporate lawyer’ (before firing Karen in Series 2) or ‘Glenn, I’ve never yet come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business, so you’re fired’.
There’s always the one-liner from Sir Alan which dominates my Twitter feed for the next hour: ‘All I've heard from you so far is a lot of hot air, so in the interests of climate change...’ or ‘You’re not a big fish... you’re not even a fish!' It’s no surprise such memorable quotes each week reverberate around the Sixth Form Common Room the day after every episode; more that discussions of who everyone likes and who everyone wants fired continue up until the following Wednesday.
Full of irony, it was rarely richer than in Sir Alan's words that featured in the opening sequence of previous 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'. Week after week he keeps in those who big him up (making suck-up Michael survive the final three three consecutive times in Series 4 and hiring Simon in Series 3 largely because he’d done the most research of Sir Alan’s companies) or bullshit (allowing Jim to win the biscuit task by making empty promises to the company who went on to order 800000 units of an unlimited budget and links with film stars, awarding him the 'BBIW (Biggest Bullshitter in the World) Award').
The uniqueness and absurdity of words and phrases you’d never hear elsewhere or don’t even exist almost make it worth tuning in for alone. Zoe ‘couldn’t give a shiny shit about Melody’. A shiny shit? Who says that? Series 6’s Melissa simply made up words, leaving Sir Alan no room for ‘manouevrement’ and no option but to fire her after his ‘analysation’ found a lack of ‘professionality’ in the candidate whose grasp of the English language hurt viewers’ ears almost as much as Tom and Melody’s role play in the biscuit pitch.
So why do I watch a programme that celebrates such characters and such conduct? I’m not entirely sure. It is – despite the messages it sends out and monsters it features – great entertainment and maybe what TV should be: infuriating, excruciating at times but gripping and leaving you with lots to discuss, even if much of that is the rude, abrasive behaviour of the boss himself as much as the contestants.