Reality TV is a bit passé. Watching wannabe D-listers pottering around a house for three months was once a pastime for millions – now Big Brother has been relegated to a slot on Channel Five. In the early noughties, a raft of shows offering instant fame to anyone prepared to behave disgracefully for a camera were gobbled up eagerly by a celebrity-obsessed public. Now, tired of repetitive formats and a little wiser, culture seems to have moved on.
One fly-on-the-wall show, however, has survived that wind change impressively. Like Big Brother, it invites a group of strangers to move into a house full of cameras; like I’m a Celebrity… it puts them through gruelling challenges for our macabre viewing pleasure. Yet the BBC’s The Apprenticeis marked by a couple of differences: first, it aspires to have at least a little class, and second, the prize on offer isn’t simply fame for fame’s sake – it’s a genuine business relationship with Lord Alan Sugar. As a result, while other ‘reality’ programmes are having the plug pulled, The Apprenticeremains one of the most talked about shows on television.
Pursuit of Victory
Now in its seventh series, the show’s prize of a chance to become Lord Sugar’s apprentice has now morphed into the opportunity to become his business partner although the popular format has remained intact. We still have 16 candidates, drawn from a limited cross section of society (ethnically diverse yes, but mainly degree-holders with a business background); they still divide into two teams each week, and compete in tasks for the chance to avoid a boardroom date with Lord Sugar. And of course, if you end up on the losing team, ‘one of you will get fired’.
The relentless pursuit of victory seems to bring out the very worst in the contestants, and that’s saying something. Even in their opening statements – filmed before the series begins – we catch them offering such bizarre sentiments as ‘My first word wasn’t “Mummy”, it was “money”’ and ‘Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.’ As they begin the process, the candidates seem so highly charged with self-important impetus you half expect one of them to start pronouncing themselves the messiah. And as each series plays out, we see the same behaviours emerging time and again: name-calling, back-covering, sometimes even barefaced lying.
In the last series, one-man pompous quote machine Stuart Baggs famously claimed to run a ‘fully licensed telecoms business’ in the Isle of Man. Far from being the influential media magnate he had wanted to portray, Baggs was actually offering simple Internet services on a limited licence. The lie was to be Baggs’ downfall – they caused Lord Sugar to realise that his trust of the young man had been misplaced.
Moments like this transform a process-based business show into must-see TV. We are compelled to watch because we know every show will produce a handful of genuine water cooler moments, springing from the pratfalls of the hapless contestants. We laugh not only because the pressure of their situation causes them to make ridiculous mistakes, but because of the contrast between the glorious version of themselves which they proclaimed at the start of the show, and the error-ridden reality.
Kevin Shaw, a contestant in Series Four, was one of the most eager to discuss his wealth and achievements as the show began. Aged 24, he already had the country pile and the Porsche, he smugly pronounced in his initial statement, but his money had clearly gone to his head. On a foodbased task, he insisted on being his team’s head chef on the grounds: ‘I regularly eat at Italian restaurants.’ He was fired soon afterwards.
The people who succeed on the programme, such as Series Six winner Stella English, have demonstrated that they have the skills to match the sales patter; the business mind that moves them from reality TV star to bona fide Sugar acolyte. Ultimately, the self-promoting, back-stabbing desperation for success at any cost leads nowhere – which is, of course, a kingdom principle. The show is a perfect illustration of Paul’s assertion in 1 Timothy 6:10 that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’.
Having said that, The Apprentice does reward those who are motivated by money, with the chance to earn lots of it. Its message that wealth, power, and career success are traits to be admired seems to stand in stark opposition to what Jesus said and modelled. ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’, he said (Mark 10:25). When we look at the cut-throat world of the City, where ethics and justice are most definitely not priorities, it isn’t hard to see what he meant.
Under the Microscope
Central to The Apprentice and its enduring appeal is Lord Alan Sugar, the ultimate barrow-boymade- good. Acting as judge and jury not only over the candidates’ business performance but also their ethics and character, he is straight-talking, firm, but also remarkably fair. His one-liners are often so quick-witted they could be scripted. And while we may sometimes disagree with his final verdicts, the audience is always with him, this strange, fearless and genuine millionaire everyman. He is devastating in his assessment of failure, but he is also generous in the light of a job well done.
As each series progresses towards a conclusion, we are able to join with Lord Sugar in affirming those moments of quality from the contestants – a great presentation, a brilliant winning idea – which demonstrate positive aspirations. The cream rises to the top; the more arrogant candidates have either changed or long been fired.
Yet these later stages are not the reason why The Apprentice is enduring where other reality TV shows are flagging. We – and by this I don’t mean Christians – love the show because it puts warped modern values under the microscope and exposes their folly.
It is about dismantling arrogance; replacing self-obsession with teamwork; exposing backstabbing and punishing deceit. ‘I haven’t got room for someone like that in my organisation’, Lord Sugar often says, and we are with him – there is no room for these values in the world we’d like to live in.
This article first appeared as part of the culture column in Christianity magazine. You should all read Christianity you know. Get a free copy here now.