Is ‘The Apprentice’ a business show or an entertainment show?
‘The only reason we did it was to talk to young people about business. But if it was pure business, it would be on at 3am and four people would watch it. It’s got to be the essence of business submerged in a solution of entertainment. And I think the editors do that brilliantly.’
It’s all about us putting ourselves in their place, isn’t it?
‘Yeah, it allows everyone to shout at the screen. Including some bloke on his sofa with a can of Stella who hasn’t got a job and isn’t likely to get one anytime soon. He’s still got the right to shout “Don’t do it like that!” at his TV. And that’s the great thing about it.’
How you think you would have got on in that situation at their age?
‘Awful. I wouldn’t have had that self-confidence. That is some hot house environment when those youngsters are in there. They’re locked in that house for week after week after week and yes, there’s camaraderie but underneath it all, there’s burning ambition and that includes stabbing somebody in the back. They have a few drinks, and then it comes out. They hate the next bloke. If they do a good job, they hate him! I couldn’t have stood that tension.’
Do you ever feel sorry for any of the contenders?
‘I feel very sad sometimes at the very end, when they’ve got up to week ten or something and then they get fired, because you’ve got to know them. We’ve always kept our distance from them but inevitably, you begin to have your favourites. Sometimes I’ll say to Alan: “listen, you’d better go out and see if they’re okay.” Or me or Karen will go out and they’re leaning against the taxi, sobbing.’
The casting’s obviously crucial. Are you involved with it?
‘We don’t have anything to do with it. They trail in with their wheelie bins and that’s it! But course, it’s crucial. They don’t want anybody who’s going to run home to mummy in floods of tears. Plus, in order to get through the audition, people have got to make extravagant claims about themselves and then, guess what, they’re saddled with those claims and can’t shake them off. And finally, they want people who are bright and actually, some of them are terribly bright, you know.’
Were there too many sales tasks in the last series. And do you get involved in the setting of the tasks?
‘In a peripheral sort of way. They’re fixed and we sort of know what they are, but Sugar goes over it with a big red pen. Because it’s got to be realistic: it’s got to be something that isn’t just a telly-task. But when you think about it, how many sort of planks are there in a business? You’ve got buying and selling, product selection and product design, presentation and that’s about it. Business is, generally speaking, not that complicated. Let’s say there are 15 main planks, now, you’ve got to dress them up in interesting clothes and that’s the difficulty, finding new ways to do it.’
There seem to be a lot of tasks that involve cooking.
‘Because that’s what makes disasters! What we don’t want are tasks in white rooms, centered on computers. They’ve got to be with the public. There’s got to be jeopardy. There have got to be hazards. You know: “My God! Who put curry powder in this, it’s killing me!”.’
Do you have a favourite series of 'The Apprentice'?
‘I have a favourite episode. The Marrakesh one with the Jewish boy [Michael Sophocles]. With the kosher chicken? Brilliant. And then the one when they went off to Lush Cosmetics or whatever it was and made soap, or some bloody thing. And then they got tangled up between sandalwood and cedar wood. Do you remember? They thought they’d spend £3.50. £720 I think it was! That was brilliant too.’
Do you ever start laughing when you’re watching them work?
‘The enjoyment comes when you see the finished article. Otherwise, you’re looking at three days of running around. Having sandwich picnics in gutters in Hackney. Writing everything down so you can tell Sugar when you get back to the boardroom because he’s in the office making a few quid. That is not fun.’
Have you ever profoundly disagreed with any of his decisions?
‘Yeah, way back [in series one], there was a girl called Miriam Staley and I think he admitted afterwards that he got it wrong. I don’t know why he did that. Generally, he’s spot on. But when he gets those final three in front of him and gets to work on them, by the end of it, I don’t know who he’s going to bloody fire and neither do you and neither does the bloke on the sofa. That’s the joy of it. In he goes, like George Carman QC in the High Court, and tears one of them apart and, generally speaking, he’s right. He’s a born cross-examining barrister.’
You’ve become a media personality in your own right. How’s that been?
'It’s all a bit odd really, isn’t it? I don’t take it too seriously. I’m very grateful for it and I think I’m very blessed. I don’t deserve it. I’ve got no talent, no training, no nothing. I got lucky.’
So, who would win a game of ‘Countdown’ between Lord Sugar and Karen Brady?
'I think that would be a draw. Actually, can we have Margaret? Margaret would win!'
‘The Apprentice’ season nine begins Tuesday May 7, 9pm, BBC1 and continues Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC1.
Read our reviews of the first two episodes of 'The Apprentice', series nine
We had our doubts about last year’s series of ‘The Apprentice’. Was this hardy perennial running out of steam at last? Had the contestants become too generic and predictable? Were the tasks insufficiently varied and interesting? Something was wrong.