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The Apprentice: arrogantly brilliant TV

Ignore the po-faced complaints about Alan Sugar’s cocky wannabe apprentices giving the green light to bullying. They should be seen as role models.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Culture

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It has taken only two weeks for some strange new names to take hold in the British consciousness. Raef Bjayou and Jenny Celerier. They are stars of the new British series of The Apprentice on BBC1. He has unusual and alarming eyebrows and an accent; she’s all red hair, iron chin and talk-to-the-hand attitude with a catchphrase to match: ‘If you’re sitting on the fence, you’re taking up too much room.’

Now starting its fourth series, The Apprentice continues to stir up media reaction, even outrage – but it remains genuinely popular. It has won a BAFTA, and 5.7million watched the series two finale when Michelle Dewberry beat Ruth Badger, prompting a move for the show to BBC1. More than six million watched the opening episode of the latest series, which aired on 26 March. As we were introduced to the characters and they underwent their first challenge – selling fish from vans – it was clear that the BBC had managed to pick 16 candidates who were very far from being backward at coming forward. ‘I’m a true example of pure class and elegance’, said Sara Dhada. There was also Michael ‘I sold my absolute heart out’ Sophocles (the names are as remarkable as the lack of self-consciousness). Another contestant, Ian Stringer, thinks there are ‘winners and… I don’t know how to spell the other word. I can’t say it.’

The first loser on the show was Nicholas de Lacy-Brown. The ‘de Lacy’ bit is pure fiction on his part, invented to make himself sound posh – the ‘Brown’ comes from his father ‘who fought the hurdles of his working-class upbringing’ to pay for young Nick’s education. Much as I love the image of the burly Brown senior wrestling wooden hurdles to the ground, if he had jumped more of them he might have been able to afford an education for his son that stretched to an ability to price fish by the pound.

Anyway, Nick managed to get enough academic achievements to set himself sufficiently apart from the other Apprentice candidates (‘I had nothing in common with any of them’) and from Sir Alan (‘he doesn’t do art’). It gave rise to a class-divide drama, with Raef brightly discerning a certain ‘us and them attitude’, or what he referred to as a prince-and-pauper split. Not surprisingly, Nick was fired on the first show – the real reason for his sending off was surely his schoolboy error in telling Sugar, the ex-chairman of Spurs, that he finds it ‘very difficult to have conversations about football’.

One down and already this was just too much TV arrogance for some. Guardian writer Charlie Brooker responded quickly, arguing that all of us humans need to be taken down a peg or three. Who do we think we are, he asked… before answering that we are nothing but ‘an infinite swarm of haircuts and anuses’, and The Apprentice contestants a bunch of ‘arrogant titheads’ lacking in proper humility (1).

Commentators, and indeed society more broadly, do not take well to open expressions of arrogance these days. They have no time for the greed-is-good idea, Gordon Gecko-style. No, today it’s all about respect, mutual tolerance, and the eternally posed question: ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ Episode two of The Apprentice showed us that it is just not going to happen for Lucinda, precisely because she isn’t arrogant enough. Jenny (the red-haired scary one) told Lucinda that she mustn’t act like ‘a spoilt silly little girl who’s throwing her dummy out of the pram, because I’ll just get it and shove it down her throat’. When Lucinda responded by sulkily sleeping in through the team meeting the next morning, I started to wonder if Jenny might not have been justified.

Others, however, wondered if Jenny was possibly setting a bad example to the nation with her bullying tactics. One commentator argued: ‘The Apprentice makes casual discrimination and bullying seem acceptable… Maybe the BBC should even things out by making a programme about business where people are nice to their fellow contestants and employers treat them with respect.’ (2) This monkey-see monkey-do view of humanity – where we apparently watch bullying on TV and then become real-life bullies – really does need a Jenny-style telling off (‘I am the project manager and I have not finished speaking’, as Jenny would say).

In fact, the very last thing we need is another programme preaching mutual respect and tolerance. More programmes featuring unabashed arrogance and characters with some real fight in them might go some way to help redress the current imbalance. When have budding entrepreneurs ever been anything less than loud, brash and gauche? Never. What has changed is society’s willingness to be tolerant of a thrusting and dynamic individualism that is quite up to clambering over the competition to get what it wants.

It takes arrogant self-confidence to believe that you can change something you don’t like, that you can make a difference and achieve the impossible. Today, however, there seems to be no place for people who want to make history, whether it’s in business, sport or politics. No place for overweening brilliance on the ball like Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo, criticised last week for his ‘arrogance’ (3). Even Barack Obama has recently been accused of walking ‘the arrogance line’: apparently he loses voters when he makes statements like ‘Every place is Barack Obama country once Barack Obama’s been there’, but wins them back when he admits: ‘I am an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.’ (4)

The Apprentice may not be proper drama, but it is more TV reality than it is Reality TV. Filmed in advance in a converted glass factory in Battersea last summer, its contestants have had to keep quiet for some time about who got fired and who didn’t (5). And despite all the criticisms, it consciously plays up to contemporary concerns about arrogance and ambition, reassuring us every week that pride comes before ‘you’re fired’. I hope that some real pride and self-interest wins out. These days, when the very worst kind of arrogance is deemed to be trying to shape nature to the interests of humanity, we could do worse than be reminded that there is nothing wrong with fighting to better oneself. And nothing does it better than The Apprentice right now.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) What the contestants on The Apprentice need is a good slagging off. Allow me to get the ball rolling, Guardian, 31 March 2008

(2) You’re fired, Comment is Free, 3 April 2008

(3) Roma threaten revenge on ‘arrogant’ Cristiano Ronaldo, The Times (London), 3 April 2008

(4) Obama walks arrogance line, Associated Press, 17 March 2008

(5) The Apprentice: Behind the scenes with Sir Alan Sugar, Daily Telegraph, 25 March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

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