The odds are stacked against the Apprentice candidates from the moment they drag their suitcases through the streets of London. Describing themselves as hard working rats and promising Lord Alan Sugar a life-changing business to invest in, their hope is quashed pretty quickly when faced with a mammoth task and next to no resources. From being sent to Antigua to become tour guides to creating cartoons for preschoolers and sourcing the increasingly bizarre items in the annual shopping task, the candidates have all manner of tasks chucked their way. I don’t know what a desert rose is either, Denisha!
Those who do make it through the quests to make dog food or men’s skincare or a lunchbox (with an accompanying app, for some reason) get closer and closer to the series’ most terrifying task: the dreaded interviews.
The penultimate episode, in which the remaining candidates present their (often woeful) business plans to Sugar’s henchmen and women, is usually a highlight of every series. Who can forget the time Claude Littner lost his rag with Solomon Akhtar in series 10, ripping up his plan for a logistics business and asking if he was “taking the piss” by even entering the competition? And what about Pamela Laird’s embarrassing moment in 2019, when interviewer Mike Soutar revealed he had ordered products from her beauty brand over a week previously and they still hadn’t arrived? Last year, Mike surprised pyjama entrepreneur Kathryn Burn by buying all of the website domains her business could use. TV gold.
But this year’s interviews felt different: more cruel, less substantial and, crucially, less fun than ever. Candidates Victoria Goulbourne, Rochelle Raye Anthony, Dani Donovan, Megan Hornby and Marnie Swindells sat in the lobby of a skyscraper like ASOS-clad lambs waiting for the slaughter, knowing they – and their business plans – were about to be ridiculed and belittled on national TV.
It went about as well as expected. Marnie was forced to admit the finances for her boxing gym idea rested on the idea of not paying its employed trainers, Rochelle was mocked for wanting to open a salon in the swish area of Belgravia and Dani became the latest in a long line of candidates to commit the cardinal sin of mixing up the meanings of profit and turnover. But while there’s little excuse for not knowing your numbers or – in Megan’s case – presenting a 14-page leaflet instead of a well thought out business plan, it wasn’t the candidates who came off badly. Rather, it was the interviewers themselves.
“Have you ever seen a mermaid?” asked Linda Plant of Dani, whose hair extensions brand Mermane claims to give customers “a mane even mermaids will envy”. Suitably dumbfounded, Dani was forced to admit that no, she never had seen a mermaid. “Because they don’t exist!” Linda retorted triumphantly. Well, sure, but I’d argue it’s a well-known fact that mermaids, did they exist, would have beautiful hair. Tigers don’t eat cornflakes, but Kellogg’s seems to be doing alright.
The interviews are a perfect place for constructive criticism and pointing out errors, but most of the comments were below the belt. Linda told Victoria to return to her previous job as a cabin crew member for an airline, Karren Brady reprimanded Megan for forgetting her title – “it’s Baroness Brady to you. My friends call me Karren” – while Mike was needlessly offended by Dani’s inclusion of a confidentiality agreement at the start of her plan (“It was in the template,” she pleaded).
With its ridiculous tasks and Lord Sugar’s forced one liners, The Apprentice has proved itself to be more of a comedy than a serious business competition. I have no problem with that – in fact, I much prefer it. So why does the series still put these poor candidates through the ringer, knowing that no-one is taking them and their business plans that seriously? These people are cast not for their impressive business prowess, but precisely because they might muck up their numbers or turn on the waterworks. That’s what makes good telly.
This year, I’m on the candidates’ side. Let’s get rid of the interview round. Not only is it purposeless and stale, but it also jars with the current ethos of The Apprentice. The interviews hark back to a time when the show was taken as a serious competition. Now that sincerity has been lost and the show has embraced its silly side, the nastiness feels gratuitous. I’d much rather watch the candidates narrowly avoid sexist stereotypes when advertising a cleaning brand or creating a cruise ship logo that looks like a poo than break down in tears in front of Claude and the gang.
If an interviewer spoke to me the way these lot speak to the candidates, I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.