TV

Letter From London: The UK Apprentice

Ahh...spring has come to London. We know this, not just because the lovely British gardens are in full bloom, but because of something far more exciting: the latest series of The Apprentice. Now in its fifth year, this series consistently shines on every level, somehow managing the tricky feat of crossing generational and class lines, as well as garnering both critical and popular acclaim. It is truly water-cooler television.
April 8, 2009

Ahh…spring has come to London. I know, not just because the lovely British gardens are in full bloom, but because of something far more exciting: the latest series of The Apprentice. Now in its fifth year, this series consistently shines on every level, somehow managing the tricky feat of crossing generational and class lines, as well as garnering both critical and popular acclaim. It is truly water-cooler television.

I’m not alone in thinking so. The premiere on BBC 1 drew 8.1 million viewers and a 33% share – significantly up from last year’s already impressive ratings. And the numbers are likely to stay robust over its 12 week run as viewers come to know the Apprentice frenemies as they are put through weekly challenges to be chosen as Sir Alan Sugar’s apprentice.

It has won a slew of awards and always receives acres of media coverage throughout its run. Last week you couldn’t listen to the radio, or peruse tabloid or broadsheet, without coming across fevered anticipations of the delights to come. So what are the secrets to the success of the UK Apprentice? Here are a few of them:

Sir Alan Sugar and co: While he happily admitted he wasn’t the first choice when the series launched in 2005 (that honor went, presumably, to Britain’s most successful entrepreneur, Richard Branson, the closest British equivalent to Donald Trump), ‘sirallun,’ as he is affectionately dubbed in the press, knows how to give good telly. In the boardroom he is generous with the withering dressing downs, and colorful turns of phrase (last week’s favorite: ‘I know the words to Candle in the Wind, but that don’t make me Elton John’). But Sugar’s two bespectacled sidekicks are the real surprises of the series. Silver-haired and sharp-tongued Margaret Mountford and Nick Hewer, who have both worked for Sugar for decades, have proved to be media stars, as they follow each team of hapless participants, and then report their antics back to the boss.

Sky-High Production Values: It is, quite simply, beautifully made. Talkback Thames is one of the biggest players in the land of super-indies, and here their expertise shines in the programs’ remarkable production values. Each episode is a visual love letter to London, with zooming aerial shots making it look like a gleaming, futuristic city, preening and sparkling under the attention. The editing and soundtrack are also sublime, as they ratchet up both the tension and the humor. The often excruciating boardroom scenes are filmed on many cameras, all posed to make sure that every expression is captured as the candidates are put through their paces.

Going Against Type: As a generally modest and self-effacing nation, the British cringe at characteristics deemed to be too American, like cockiness and hubris. Yet these qualities – and the ability to not blanche at the strong sell – are part of the DNA of Apprentice candidates. Much of the joy is watching the wannabes make astoundingly silly statements (this week’s doozy: ‘When I wake up in the morning I can taste success in my spit’) before bumbling through a task and being unceremoniously dumped by the big man himself.

At the end of the day The Apprentice, like the also popular Dragon’s Den, has succeeded in making business programming must-see television. But in the Apprentice world of business, often the most basic of principals – buy low, sell high – get lost in the panic, with comical results. In an era of grim news on many fronts, it’s an all too welcome diversion, and a promising sign that the long hard winter is over.

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