Much more than a spoonful (of Sugar)

I went to a pub quiz in Peterborough two weeks ago.  It was to celebrate a friend’s birthday and I think we were being ironic.  It was dark by the time we parked up so I could be wrong, but the pub seemed to be in an industrial estate; I was reliably informed that this was the posh part of Peterborough though it still looked a little like the Slough Trading estate.  The quiz was supposed to be the main event of course, and a large number of teams had turned up.  In the end, it wasn’t the most highbrow affair, with three of the four rounds being ‘General Knowledge’ (or at least questions taken from the GK section of the quizbook that the barman got for Christmas).  The other round was the more intriguing ‘Things that happened in 2010’ – not exactly topical, but I was looking forward to a few brain-teasers about the recent local history of this Town.  Not a bit of it – each question started with ‘Who won…’ and ended with the name of a reality TV show.  Dancing on Ice, X-Factor, Strictly were all there, though I was disappointed to note an absence of winners from ratings success ‘Pointless’.  I’m not sure if we got any right – my only stab was at the winner of The Apprentice 2010, which I got wrong.  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that he/she has disappeared without trace (though may be on QVC I suppose) or maybe because all these pinstriped wannabe Sugars just tend to merge into one homogenised mass of macho soundbites and trouser suits after so many years.

I always used to think that The Apprentice was the standard bearer for non-shit reality TV.  At least there was some talent involved, a worthwhile prize at the end and some genuine business-based tasks for some of the more promising of Britain’s young business minds to get their teeth into.

This has now disappeared, and the series is yet another lazy tired piece of reality dross, being flogged to death by an unimaginative corporation to a public that seem to be able to stomach year after year of formulaic posturing.  There are many flaws and aspects that really grate, but here are the worst IMO:

1.  The show is no longer about finding ‘The Apprentice’.  The winner now gets to set up a new business using some of Alan Sugar’s money.  In fact, after the first series, the show become less about finding an apprentice at all and more about creating water-cooler TV where pushy 20 and 30-something business people could play-off against each other for who had the more cringe-worthy soundbite.  Listening to 21 year-old yuppies talking about how they ‘always get results’ and ‘don’t care who they trample over to get them’ gets rather tired by series 8, though the line of ‘don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon’ was a personal favorite.

2.  The tasks themselves are the same every series, and in the same order.  There’s the one where they have to make a food product (ice-cream, ready-meals) and then sell them (farmers’ market, tube station); there’s the one where they get a mystery set of items they need to buy for as little money as possible; there’s the one where they get interviewed by some of Alan Sugar’s cronies (questions tend to be along the lines of ‘you’re not very good are you?’ and other playground insults); there’s the one where they have to go and buy some original Art and then sell it on.  The tasks are of course designed to make good TV, not to identify anyone with particular business sense.

3.  The ridiculous set-up of every task.  This usually begins with a phone-call from Alan’s PA at 4.45am, asking them to be at a London Landmark (British Museum, Tower Bridge) by 6am.  ‘The cars will pick you up in 15 minutes’.  I’m never sure why this should be part of the test.  Do all top businessmen and women have to prove their skill in the early morning and limited make-up time, or are we just supposed to think that Alan’s up selling Amstrads at this time?  The links between the locations and the tasks provide the most entertainment in the whole show, and I’ve not once guessed the nature of the task from the start location.  Usually Alan’s cronies will be standing six feet apart, when Alan makes an entry between them from a lift or a pile of dry ice.  His first few lines tend to go something like:

‘We’re in the British Library; there’s lots of books here; books have pages; Elaine Paige once sung Total Eclipse of the Heart; lambs have hearts; you’re going to Smithfield market to buy offal which you then need to sell to paying customers at St John’s Wood tube station….

4.  Team names.  Why?  This merely adds to the cringe-factor as they come up with names that sound like the ones rejected from 90s TV series Gladiators (think insignia, prime, triumph, Hunter (ok, so maybe he was a Gladiator…)

5.  The fact that Alan Sugar is now thought of by the new generation as someone to whom people should aspire.  When I was growing up, he was the person that got his fingers burned at Spurs and whose company made crap computers.  He’s now Branson and Trump rolled into one, pretending that his Essex offices occupy most of the Gherkin and regaling us with tales of how he built up a business from nothing (every week).

6.  The way they hold their mobile phones as though they’re suspiciously sniffing the area where you connect the charger.

Or maybe the most disappointing thing is that so many people still tune in.  The Apprentice is now adopting the old Perry/Croft maxim: if you just do and say the same thing every week, people will like it.  It’s like a big pin-striped comfort blanket.  And I don’t care who I hurt by writing this blog, because I’m on my way to the top and I won’t stop trampling on people until I get there.