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Please, Sir Alan

Updated Friday, 30th May 2008

Jason Toynbee takes a critical look at the popular TV show "The Apprentice".

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Like around seven and a half million other people I love the watching The Apprentice. For anyone outside the UK, or those who don’t watch or talk about television, this is the BBC’s major reality TV show at the moment. It features business man Alan Sugar and a bunch of aspiring apprentices who, in weekly, competitions between two teams, are progressively eliminated until the Chosen One emerges in the final show of the series.

The social critic in me (a powerful ranting voice that’s difficult to silence) says this programme is horrific. It glorifies selfishness and unbridled ambition. It suggestthat the way to get on in life is through shafting your co-workers. What’s more, it promotes capitalism in its most vicious form.

But if that’s the beginning and end of it, how come I like watching this programme? Could it be there’s a yuppie deep in my psyche that punches his way out every Wednesday night? Actually I don’t think so. The more likely explanation is that in common with others I like this programme because it is, at least in part, critical of the people and the scenarios it presents to us.

So, the contestants tend to be incredibly vain, but they’re also pretty stupid. They make basic mistakes in carrying out the tasks, like not reading simple instructions. And they spend a huge amount of time boasting and claiming, even in failure, that they have given ‘110 per cent’. The absurdity of this is palpable. They also lie. In fact public lying on this scale is rarely seen outside the realm of establishment politics with its steady drip-drip of untruthfulness. Then there’s the issue of class. The bourgeois contestants are as bad as those from working class backgrounds. Take Raef, who got knocked out last night (21 May), and his pal Michael. This pair come from well off backgrounds and were educated at elite institutions. While their pomposity and complacency is monstrous, so too is their ability to screw up.

Of course none of this necessarily invokes a critical response. We could just be enjoying the hubris of it all. Still, it does seem to me that the programme is a symptom of unease about capitalism, its mode of operation and dehumanising effects. What about the real capitalist on show then, Alan Sugar, or ‘Sir Alan’ as he is generally referred to. Sugar made his name and his fortune in the 80s. A true Thatcher generation self-made man, his Amstrad corporation produced the PCW range – an early mass market desk top computer. I started out in academia on one.

Sir Alan Sugar Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Sir Alan Sugar.

On screen, Sugar is a highly accomplished performer. He combines the roles of high priest of capital, task master and hanging judge with a certain gruff charm. What’s interesting is that as well as showing his disgust with their incompetence he also demonstrates an ethical stance towards the contestants. Lying and back stabbing, he seems to suggest, really are bad. Yet, just as in establishment politics, so too in the private world of capitalism, vicious self-serving behaviour and mendacity flourish. That’s the danger of The Apprentice then. It serves ideologically to imply that big business is actually OK when really it’s very far from being so. Please, Sir Alan.





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