Helen Martin: Sugar left with a lump or two

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FOR those days when you feel as if all hope for the country’s future may be fading, when you wonder if the world’s going to hell in a handcart, when you wrinkle your middle-aged brow in concern that some young people have learned a lot about talking a good game and nothing about the game itself, I recommend watching The Apprentice.

It will confirm that things are even worse than you thought. It will also reassure you that you are not losing your marbles – yet. If these are the business people of the future, we really are in the poo.

I would say that the only thing wrong with the show is that it’s broadcast at all, but then that would be to deny to so many the ultimate master class in how not to organise a p***-up in a brewery, let alone a project to sell T-shirts.

The new series began last week with yet another clutch of mostly pretty or handsome young specimens. That’s my first problem. They appear at least to have been selected on looks. It certainly isn’t ability, or even charm.

Between the backstabbing and cat fights, they hurled around references to “margins”, “strategies” and “risk assessment”, none of which were demonstrated and none of which would have stood a chance of being adhered to anyway amid the shifting blame and screaming tantrums. On your marks, get set, squabble. And don’t stop till the credits roll.

Apprentice candidates are never short of confidence, conceit and completely delusional self-belief.

This is probably the one aspect of the show that bears any relation to reality. Think Donald Trump, who was the US equivalent of Lord Alan Sugar when it first aired there in 2004. Narcissism may not be a prerequisite for business success, but we all know some people for whom it’s been a great advantage. Then again, no-one wants to deal with a narcissist if they can avoid it.

Not even Lord Sugar. The winner of The Apprentice used to become . . . an apprentice. They were given a job in the Sugar empire with a year’s contract. Now the old man seems to have had enough of these talentless and ungrateful upstarts. Instead, they get paid off with an injection of £250,000 to squander on their own business rather than getting in his crinkly hair, on his nerves and hacking off his other, genuine, employees.

His temper seems to be getting shorter, too. It’s as if he started off the first series in 2005 with the sympathetic, fatherly attitude that they were young and didn’t know any better. Thinking back, they didn’t seem quite as childish, ruthless and ill-mannered, either.

Can the standard of young business person really have plummeted so much in seven years? Or is there some X Factor-type, TV ratings manipulation going on? Perhaps the production team are slipping psychotic drugs into the cocoa, or poking the contestants with cattle prods to provoke them and make them more aggressive.

Most of them struggle to complete basic tasks – especially the boys who, last week, were faced with a primary school-level screen printing challenge. Armed with their disastrously boring, badly splotched products, they sold them at massively inflated prices – and won.

The girls produced decent goods, then went on to kybosh each other’s efforts to such an extent that their sales fell into disarray, they petrified a retailer by all screaming at her at once and it was, for most viewers, a satisfying and happy experience to watch the very beautiful but nauseating Bilyana Apostolova being given the boot.

In truth, you wouldn’t employ any of them to do anything. It must be so hard for Lord Sugar to decide on only one to fire at a time.

For me, The Apprentice has run its course, with the modest differences between one set of smug, selfish, ruthless, short-sighted, juvenile go-getters and another being so slight that each series is like a repeat of the last.

I don’t know if a spin-off, where middle-aged managers who had been made redundant in the recession were the contenders would be any better. They could hardly be worse, but it’s got to be worth a try.

Away match

IS it not moral madness to say we can’t advertise or promote cigarettes (bad though they are) in sport, yet Noel Biderman, boss of US firm Ashley Madison, “a match-making service for married lovers”, appears to be in enthusiastic talks with Rangers, having been rebuffed by several American TV stations and sports teams?

Despite jokes about “playing away” (ho ho), this is a serious business. Well, it’s football and it’s Rangers, but it’s still serious. Infidelity and marital breakdown cause anguish and distress, families get broken up and single parent households are created.

I sincerely hope Rangers – no matter how desperate they are for his money – have more pride and conscience than to get into bed with this man.