Maybe it’s just reverse psychology. That harassed, careworn fisog is so traced with the parchment lines of gloomy cynicism that, in a curious way, its every appearance on the box acts like an antidote to depression (or rather, since we’re talking business here, Depression). Search me for any other convincing reason that explains the charmed life of The Apprentice.
But success it has been. Sir Alan Sugar’s return to BBC1 attracted 8.1 million viewers and a 33% share in the 9pm hour, according to unofficial overnight figures.
Let me offer a heretical opinion: its success won’t last. That’s not simply because it’s a long way through its natural programme cycle as it embarks on a fifth series. But because the format is now too much at variance with reality.
Now, I know what you’re going to say. It never was a realistic depiction of any known business environment in the first place. Nor has Sir Alan been a particularly successful entrepreneur, and therefore credible role model. All right, he did make £800m at one point in his career (enough to keep most of us in M&S socks for the rest of our lives) but most of that was in property – wasn’t it? – so it doesn’t count. In short, the only thing that’s ever been real about The Apprentice are the first four letters in ‘reality TV’; it’s pure entertainment. And, on that level, still pretty funny.
But is it? There comes a point where the camping up no longer hits the spot, or captures the zeitgeist. That point is where the producers fail to realize that they themselves are part of the parody: we’ve reached it now. The yahoo capitalist culture seeded in Thatcher’s eighties, of which Sir Alan is such an eminent example, is curdling in a deepening dyspepsia of public disapproval.
At the head of the list of emerging anti-heroes is, of course, Sir Fred Goodwin – the supreme demon of unrepentant greed. But where bankers lead, lesser acolytes of the creed are sure to follow. As the ‘L’ of the Nasty Noughties Depression elongates, so contempt for capitalism’s cruder, more benighted evangelists will become commonplace. Just this week the European heads of seriously over-bonused AIG have quit because they can’t take the heat any longer and even Ken Clarke is getting flak over his unhealthy interest in offshore “investment”. Indeed, (I am indebted to the FT’s Lombard for this little gem) we are not far from parliamentary committees beginning their investigation with the following question: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the financial services sector?”
That’s not good news for wannabe capitalist attack dogs in search of 15 minutes of fame. And, give it another year, it won’t be good news for TV ratings either.