‘Reality capitalism’ is no substitute for real entrepreneurship

Alan Sugar's The Apprentice was not a new dawn for British business: it was a gameshow.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Why did liberal commentators – normally so snobbish about reality TV shows and critical of greedy fat cats (especially if they got fat under Thatcher) – fall for The Apprentice, a reality TV show fronted by a fat cat?

The BBC2 programme, which concluded last night, was a surprise spring hit: it featured Amstrad boss Alan Sugar – Eastend boy done good (and then, in the 1990s, less good) – grilling candidates for a job in his firm with a six-figure salary. Each week the 14 wannabe apprentices split into teams and executed a business-related task, and Sugar – who doesn’t suffer ‘bullshitters, arselickers or schmoozers’ gladly – told one of the losing team: ‘You’re fired!’ Yesterday we watched as Tim, the young black guy from Sugar’s neck of the woods, beat Saira, the bolshy Asian woman with a gob like a foghorn, to hear the winning words: ‘You’re hired!’

Some couldn’t get enough of this ‘Pop Idol for the corporate world’. The Guardian said it was the ‘thinking person’s reality show’ (unlike Big Brother, which is presumably for unthinking people). Even the Nathan Barleys of cultural Clerkenwell, London, loved it: in Benugo, the ‘urban cool sandwich bar’ (their words), I overheard a man in a Trilby say he was organising a ‘gathering’ for last night’s final. Others claim it was not really reality TV at all, but something more special. The Daily Mail said that where reality TV gives us desperate wannabes doing degrading things just to get on the box, The Apprentice might inspire a ‘renewed enthusiasm’ for enterprise in Britain.

Get a grip on reality. That is a lot of bull being talked about a programme that fancies itself as anti-bullshit. The Apprentice was entertaining and a good watch, but it was also pure reality TV – in its forced ‘reality’ and in the producers’ self-important fantasies about their overblown gameshow making a serious comment on (or even contribution to) contemporary Britain. Those who like the programme should get over themselves: The Apprentice was only the BB of the business world.

In the penultimate episode, shown on 27 April, Sugar told the final four – Saira, Tim, poshboy James and wideboy Paul – that this was real life and that he doesn’t do what TV executives tell him to. Yet his slogan, ‘You’re fired!’, came straight out of the original American version of The Apprentice, which was fronted by billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump. Anyone who wondered why, on the Jonathan Ross Show on BBC1 last Friday night, Sugar ummed and ahhed when asked why he doesn’t make a t-shirt with his mug and the words ‘You’re fired!’ on it, it might be because Trump has already had that brainwave, and has even looked into copyrighting the phrase ‘You’re fired!’. Sugar might not do what the TV people say, but he seemed happy to read from their American-imported scripts.

Also in the penultimate episode, two of the final four were fired – first James and then, nailbitingly, Paul. Yet on his blog, James says that in reality (meaning the real reality) it happened the other way round: Paul was ditched first and then James. Why was it chopped and changed (allegedly) in the editing process? Perhaps because Paul became a firm favourite with viewers towards the end, and it was thus more dramatic to leave him (and the audience) hanging.

Much of the programme was staged. The firing finale followed the same format each week, with contestants from the losing team fighting to survive, just as surely as two family members would be picked to play for Big Money at the end of every episode of Family Fortunes. And for all the edge-of-the-seat tension during Sugar’s firings (allegedly free from the influence of TV execs), these scenes will have been constructed by directors thinking ‘lights’, ‘camera’, ‘action’ and ‘cut’. The Apprentice followed the first rule of reality TV: don’t let reality get in the way of good TV. That’s fine by me: good dramas need good editing. But let’s not pretend that Sugar’s firings were the stuff of real life, or something more than a Simon Cowell-style bollocking of the contestants.

As for the claim that The Apprentice might breathe life into British business, if that is meant literally (and it is), then British capitalism is in a worse way than I thought it was. It would take an awful lot more than a TV show to resuscitate the entrepreneurial spirit in stagnant Britain. If anything, Britain, like much of the Western world, has an anti-enterprise spirit. Being an entrepreneur is about taking risks, putting yourself on the line for something you think will make a profit and an impact; yet British companies, and the City itself, are more interested in risk management than risk-taking. This is an era of cautious, not cut-throat capitalism.

I thought this dearth of enterprise was neatly reflected in the contestants on The Apprentice. For me, the most striking aspect of the show (contributing at least 75 per cent of the entertainment value) was the incompetence of some of the wannabe apprentices, these great white, black and Asian hopes for British enterprise. Who can forget Rachel, who, while giving a presentation to some of the country’s top advertising executives, kicked off her shoes and, inexplicably, started to do a David Brent-style dance? ‘How you feeeeling?’, she asked the execs, who looked like they were feeling suicidal. Or Raj, who stuttered and spluttered when he met celebrity hypnotist Paul McKenna because – get this – Paul McKenna is one of his heroes?

Of the final two, Tim was lectured about his negotiating skills by none other than Ian Wright, the footballer cum gameshow host who is surely (after, perhaps, The Apprentice’s very own Rachel) the most pointless person on TV. One of Saira’s initiatives included thinking up an ad slogan to encourage fans of Tottenham Hotspurs to text the letter ‘F’ to sign up for a news alert text-messaging service. She came up with: ‘Get your “F” off to get your Spurs on.’ A bewildered-looking Spurs boss told her that was too rude to plaster around White Hart Lane, which was the least rude way of telling her it was naff.

Amstrad itself today produces at least as much hot air as it does useful products. Back in the 1980s, Sugar’s company made PCs, and at one point hoped to dominate the PC mass market (until Microsoft came along). A word commonly used in discussions of Amstrad in the 1990s was ‘troubled’: Sugar tried his hand at chairing Spurs in the early 90s, Amstrad split into Betacom and Viglen in 1997 and finally stopped making PCs in 1998, and then launched its em@iler phone in 2000, which has made some profit. Sugar kept one of these phones next to him in the boardroom on The Apprentice, maybe as a reminder that his company still serves some purpose in the world.

Today, Sugar is known as the ‘man who saved Spurs’ or the businessman who didn’t conquer the computer market or the former entrepreneur who now makes most of his money from property. Isn’t he really the Mr Mediocre of capitalist enterprise? Now, thanks to The Apprentice, he’s become a celebrity capitalist – and the fact that the value of Amstrad shares went down while The Apprentice was on suggests that you can still be a celebrity capitalist even as your ventures in capitalism flounder.

The Apprentice was reality capitalism, not the ‘real thing’. It made being an entrepreneur about having the right attitude or pose, and even lapsed into self-help jargon in the book published to accompany the series: ‘Self-belief is a critical skill for success in business….’ Perhaps fittingly in a country where we have a ‘knowledge economy’ instead of a real economy, with ideas taking the place of invention, The Apprentice was as much a personality contest as is Big Brother or Pop Idol. Tim might have a new job, but Britain’s entrepreneurial spirit is still on the dole.

Alan Sugar: too hard-hearted?
by Para Mullan, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development

Sugar’s style of management in The Apprentice was judged by some to be too blunt and direct. He didn’t hesitate to tell the contestants when they had failed or to fire those who didn’t deliver. Yet he was not as hard-hearted as he made himself out to be. He gave Saira and Tim the benefit of the doubt when they failed to perform, and gave Raj – the contestant who kept insisting he wasn’t a natural salesman – numerous chances.

To the extent that Sugar was ‘harsh’, I found it quite refreshing, at a time when every failure seems to be attributed to some factor beyond the control of the individual. Today, regulations and protocol demand that we managers spend time with employees to explore why they are unable to fulfil the responsibilities laid out in their job description. Could the job be too stressful? Are they unfocused because of problems at home? Is the work environment not conducive to their performing well? Perhaps they should attend a course or have some form of training to teach them what their job is about….

So many reasons have to be teased and discussed. We are discouraged from asking whether this person is simply not up to the job. In testing the candidates and holding them to account, face-to-face, for their successes and failings, Sugar at least reminded us that individuals must take responsibility for what they do – and fail to do.

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Topics Culture


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