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In the age of austerity, ‘The Apprentice’ is tone-deaf trash TV

Alan Sugar, you're fired.

There are people in prison with cleaner records than The Apprentice. This, remember, is the TV show – or at least the American original, which led to the creation of the British version 15 years ago this year – that paved the way for Donald J. Trump to become the 45th President Of The United States Of America. The TV series that gave the world Katie Hopkins. A show that has left a trail of resentment and ill feeling throughout its run; Stella English, last woman standing in series six of the show, described the job she ‘won’ with host Lord Alan Sugar as “a sham”. Saira Khan, runner up in 2005, has accused the show of “promoting bullying in the workplace”. Vana Koutomitis, runner up in series 11, went so far as to describe the show’s living conditions as “psychological torture”.  

There was a time where The Apprentice was essential television. When it arrived on British screens, in 2005, the word ‘austerity’ had become historical in its usage, rolled out in discussion of hard times like the miners’ strike of the 1980s. Blair was still in office and the trajectory of Britain still felt more angled-up than down. Into this environment, the idea of  16 smartly-dressed young people, brimming with confidence and vision, jostling for an opportunity to make good of their lives, seemed perfectly fine. It certainly made for excellent television.

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But now? In 2019, there’s something about The Apprentice that makes for alarming viewing. It’s unlikely that the affection felt for contestants like 2010’s Stuart Baggs, who sadly passed in 2015, will be reciprocated for this season’s Ryan-Mark Parsons, a ‘luxury-womenswear consultant’ who requires “billions to live the sort of lifestyle I want to lead”. 

Two years ago, a report estimated that Conservative austerity policies were responsible for at least 120,000 deaths. Ocean life is contaminated with plastics. The arctic is thawing. The Amazon ablaze. Residents of west London once housed in Grenfell Tower are still without homes. Looking at the situation Britain finds itself in now, squabbling about ‘profit margins’ seems especially distasteful. We’re not impressed when the contestants jet to South Africa and Finland within three weeks of this season’s premiere. Instead, we just think it’s pretty tone-deaf in a year dominated by talk of a climate emergency. 

We used to look at Apprentice contestants with comedic distain: “Did you see the worst person ever on The Apprentice last night?” we’d say. How much we truly believed them to be the problem and not victims of a lie propagated by neo-liberalism probably depends on our own capacity for empathy. Generally speaking, 2019 has seen the majority of us have a more nuanced understanding of reality TV.

This year Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon from Love Island took their own lives. The Jeremy Kyle Show was finally cancelled. The incredible, tragic documentary Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain showed us the woman behind the tabloid headlines. Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution over how men treat women, especially in the workplace. Men shouting down women in faux boardrooms is a terrible optic for 2019.

And so it wasn’t The Apprentice that went wrong as much as our society – consciously or not, the show reflected it. You might be able to see the tonal shift for yourself as Lord Sugar chops and changes his advisors a decade in. Out go Nick (Hewer, in 2014) and Margret (Mountford, in 2009); two figures that were serious but kind, stately national treasures or dream grandparents who seemed the types to always have a Werther’s Original in their pocket. Hewer – a man whose aftershave probably smells like warm oatmeal – went on to host Countdown, for heaven’s sake! They were replaced by Conservative life peer Baroness Karren Brady and human-pitbull-hybrid Claude Littner. There’s a metaphor for the shifting values, purpose and personality of Britain within all of this. 

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The Apprentice in 2019 is an Apprentice that reflects badly on the state of modern Britain. This season has seen seven BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) candidates dismissed in seven weeks. Of course, a spokesperson for the show insists that “the candidates’ performance both on the task and in the boardroom are the key to Lord Sugar’s decision”. But once again – like Sugar’s shapeshifting henchmen – The Apprentice is merely responding to the reality of the society it exists in. When The Guardian reported on ‘unconscious bias’ in 2018, they found that 43% of BAME people feel that they have been overlooked in a job application or for promotion at work in a manner that felt unfair, compared with only 18% of white respondents. Astonishingly, they went on to report that there are more CEOs named ‘Steve’ in Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 companies than there are from ethnic minorities. 

The Apprentice feels especially out of sync within an era where so many are trying hard to be better. Sugar – a man who runs his Twitter account like he’s in control of an endlessly replenishing bazooka – is struggling with the concept of ‘woke-ness’ more than most. Last year Sugar tweeted an edited picture during the World Cup of the Senegal national football team looking as though they were selling counterfeit goods. “I recognise some of these guys from the beach in Marbella,” he wrote. “Multitasking, resourceful chaps.” He was, you can’t help thinking, just warming up. When Jemelin Artigas, one of this season’s Apprentice contestants, was asked to leave, Sugar reportedly quipped – in a cut scene – “No wonder your country is in a state. It’s because it’s full of people like you.” 

The Apprentice has a duty to get diversity right, otherwise – like so many other facets of modern life – it will only embolden racists. Speaking of which, one of this year’s contestants, Lottie Lion, was recently gently reprimanded for saying “shut up Gandhi” to Lubna Farhan on a group WhatsApp chat

When The Apprentice started, it was a show about people making money. Then it became a show about people wanting all the money. And now? Well, you can’t help thinking, if The Apprentice is going to have any future, it needs to be a show that values something more than just money.

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