Flunkey business: ‘The Apprentice’ is back – and this time it’s personnel

The show only tests ability to suck up to Lord Sugar and laugh loudly at his lame jokes

Apprentice 2019 will be a little different, I think. Brexit will have come and gone by then and few will remember the old ways (partly because without EU safety regulations there'll be a coating of lead on everything).

Lord Sugar, garbed in a skull mask, spiked shoulder pads and leather codpiece, will make most of his pronouncements from astride an armoured battlewagon studded with the skulls of failed apprenti, flanked by his dread companions “Claude” and “Karen”, now dressed as monks. But the weekly tasks will be pretty run-of-the-mill.

Week one: Scavenge for food. Week two: Experience new cultures (smuggling diesel across the border). Week three: trade with the river people (we need their healthy rats!). Week four: human resources puzzle – where’s Dennis? Week five: product development puzzle – what kind of meat is this? Week six: dispute resolution - enter the Thunderdome! Week seven: would you like another helping of Dennis? I admit now that the meat was Dennis; I shouldn’t have lied before. Week eight: spreadsheets!

This future season won't be on television, of course. The Tories will burn all the televisions in March 2019 to stop witches. Apprentice 2019 will instead be whispered by firesides as the people feast on curvy black bananas and chlorinated rat and worship a giant wicker Boris. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, aka Eiropa, everyone will work for Google and be in the 'Ra.


But let's take a step back. It's still 2018 and the BBC has just launched the 14th series of The Apprentice. Sir Alan Sugar, looking like a wise old basketball, just can't get enough apprenti (this is the plural). He's got 13 of them already but he wants more. He's the Benny Hill of apprenti. "I can't wait to have me another apprentice!" he says, tucking his napkin into his shirt and smacking his lips.

A buffoonery of apprenti

Enter 16 crisply-suited wasp-chewers striding purposefully into the void. It is, yet again, a veritable buffoonery of apprenti (buffoonery is the collective noun) with their wheelie suitcases and outrageous boasting.

A third is in denial about a serious medical condition. "I've got so much self-confidence oozing from my skin"

One says she’s “the Beyoncé of business”, apparently unaware that Beyoncé herself is “the Beyoncé of business”.

Another prides herself on being a “mumpreneur”, which, now that I think of it, would make an excellent title for the next instalment of the Mummy horror franchise.

A third is in denial about a serious medical condition. “I’ve got so much self-confidence oozing from my skin,” he says. The poor man.

A fourth has worse problems but is also in denial: “I’m like a cash machine,” he says with delight. “If you press the right buttons I will give you money.” (Imagine waking up emitting money like a cash machine, readers – terrifying.)

A fifth utters a warning for posterity. “I’m an extremist,” she says, matter-of-factly. “My goal is worldwide domination.”

A sixth breaks my heart. "I'd rather cry in a Ferrari than in a banger," he says, apparently clear that his future involves crying in some sort of car.

A seventh has an interesting plan that involves manhandling livestock. “I don’t just grab the bull by the horns. I put him in a headlock and squeeze every opportunity that comes out of him.”

You get the gist. They're a pile of swaggering clockwork cocks, their skins slick with "confidence", their eyes brimming with tears, money spurting from slots in their glossy heads, their lips gently humming Crazy in Love as they massage the glands of a confused bull.

We first see Lord Sugar sitting in a fancy car near a plane. It’s implied that he’s been on the plane, like some sort of king or wizard, but then we see him walking, using his legs like a peasant. “If you’re so rich how come you’re using your legs?” I shout.

Funny by accident

Laughing at Lord Sugar’s “jokes” is the first test. Lord Sugar has many jokes, though he utters them joylessly, as though he’s being funny by accident, and he seems a bit annoyed when people laugh.

For example: When one of the apprenti describes herself as a nut enthusiast, he says, “You’ll find out that there are a few nutty people here.” The apprenti laugh like fools, happy gurgling fools, laughing with the scowling peanut man who they love like a crinkled money-Christ.

“Make me money and don’t piss me off,” says Lord Sugar eventually, tired of their guff. “If you are unhappy with my process you can go tell it to my HR firm Diddums and Don’t Care.”

This is presumably a real HR firm, otherwise he’d be risking a lawsuit.

He splits the apprenti into male and female herds, much like the deer in the Phoenix Park, and then dispatches them to Malta ("while we're still welcome") with a list of items to procure. The list is so fickle and random – some wine, a model of a boat, a quantity of salt, window blinds – it would make a more curious group insane. Not this lot, who take to their respective roles with the zeal of Brexit negotiators, by which I mean they do little useful research and spend the day shouting English loudly at baffled foreigners.

Like most adults in the workplace, they're all terrible at their jobs

“It turns out that everyone just sleeps all day around here, they don’t bother opening the shops,” says a man named David, who is at least trying to understand the culture.

One of my favourites so far is Jackie, a Canadian woman who tricks another woman, Jasmine, into being project leader just so she can spend the rest of the programme sniping at her. I also have a soft spot for Alex because, on purchasing some wine for €59, he successfully haggles with the phrase: “Would you do it for €58.99?”

Toy unicorn

It makes me think of the Cadbury’s ad where a child grifter pays for chocolate with some buttons and a toy unicorn. She’d wipe the floor with Alex, the mad bitch.

Like most adults in the workplace, they’re all terrible at their jobs. They shout over each other, steal credit and apportion blame. They go to the wrong parts of Malta. The girls’ team accidentally procure two of the same item. The boys’ team spend time measuring an octopus corpse when what Lord Sugar was actually looking for was a confusingly named diving apparatus.

At the end of the episode, facing the wrath of our favourite sucrose-based aristocrat, it turns out the boys’ team have beaten the girls’ team. The boys are treated to a slap-up Maltese feed, much like the Bash Street Kids might have scoffed circa 1950 when Britain was great. Meanwhile the girls are treated to derision from a crusty old patriarch, much like women received circa 1950 and, also, today.

Anyway, we're under no illusions anymore that these shows are designed to find people who will be anything more than boastful footrests for his lordship. But The Apprentice and that other business-lauding programme, Dragons' Den, were developed in an era when "entrepreneur" was still an aspirational term and not, like nowadays, an entry in the DSM. These people take themselves very seriously.

In Ireland we’ve safeguarded our nation from reality TV businessfolk by creating the consequence-free, pretend role of “president” (not a real job) of “Ireland Inc” (not a real country) as a distraction. Over in the UK and America, however, reality TV business values now shape policy. So remember, while it’s fun to snipe from the sidelines, at the end of the day snarky take-downs are no match for shameless ambition.