The Apprentice

Recently Mrs M went to stay at her parents’ house for a week or so, which gave me the chance to watch some proper English telly for the first time in well over two years. After Adam Curtis’ excellent The Power Of Nightmares, I moved on to something a little more frivolous, namely Series 7 of The Apprentice (that’s the UK version with Alan Sugar, as opposed to the US version with, er, Ozzy Osbourne), which I happened to have worked on during my previous incarnation as a sound recordist.

The call time for my first day’s work on the show was at the ludicrously early hour of 2.30am, and the place a rather swanky house in which the contestants were to be staying for the duration of the shoot – or at least until they got fired, anyway. With fifteen or so technicians, twenty or so production crew and four or five chauffeurs milling around outside their front doors in the early hours, I can’t imagine the neighbours were particularly pleased with the arrangement, and given the contestants’ relentless schedule – that morning we barged into their bedrooms at 3am to film them getting dressed, putting on their makeup and basically looking dazed and confused – I’m amazed that more of them don’t quit the show due to nervous exhaustion.

Having reconvened in the dining room, the contestants were shown a DVD of ‘Lord’ Sugar telling them what today’s task was to entail: in this case, making some kind of food and / or drink item for sale to hungry and / or thirsty office workers. We then fitted them with radio mics (tiny personal microphones with transmitters that enable a sound recordist to pick up what someone is saying even when they’re out of earshot), and filmed them being driven off in a mini-fleet of people carriers, at which point you could almost hear the sound of twitching net curtains from the surrounding bedroom windows.

Particularly in the early stages of the series, these people carriers get very crowded, as four contestants, a production assistant, a camera person and a soundie all pile into the back of each one, although because everyone is sitting down in confined and relatively quiet surroundings, technically speaking this is the easiest part of the day. It is the point at which everyone piles out of the people carriers that things get more hectic.

Today this happened at New Covent Garden Market – hence the early start – where the contestants were supposed to shop for ingredients for whatever snack-like fayre they had decided to concoct, and we were soon haring around after them in an effort to capture a) roughly what was going on and b) any televisual magic that might happen to materialise along the way.

The basic principle of filming The Apprentice (OK, so when I say ‘filming’, what I really mean is ‘videoing’, or more recently, ‘recording onto hard disk’) is to leave as many cameras rolling for as long as possible, on the assumption that sooner or later the contestants will make fools of themselves or get into an argument. So as opposed to a conventional film or TV shoot, rather than filming something a certain number of times until your director is satisfied with the result, on reality shows like The Apprentice, more often than not the cameras are rolling almost continuously, and the crew has no time to rest or recuperate between takes – in this case, our few precious moments of relief came at about 8am, in the form of a breakfast break for bacon and egg sarnies.

By this point we had relocated to a nearby industrial-sized catering facility, where it was time to capture the undignified spectacle of a group of youngsters – who between them had barely enough catering know-how to make a Pot Noodle – attempt to produce something edible for sale to the masses. Once the girls (Team Venture, no less) had made a job-lot of fruit salad (their so-called ‘healthy’ pasta dish was eventually cobbled together using no-brand tomato sauce from the Sainsbury’s next door), our next destination was Canary Wharf, where the sales part of the task began, and where my cameraman and I were relieved at the end of our shift by a replacement crew.

So while I was heading home on the Jubilee Line for a well-earned siesta, the contestants simply carried on, as did the production assistants, whose responsibility it is to take a note of when something interesting happens, thus making the editor’s job easier. (An assistant later explained to me how The Apprentice is so gruelling that once you have those two magic words on your CV, further employment is a lot easier to come by, the assumption being that if you can survive this, you can survive anything.)

I went on to work on two further episodes (2 and 11 – the phone app and restaurant tasks), and because Mrs M and I moved to Japan before the series was broadcast, eventually tracked it down on YouTube, which leads me on to my second – and secondary – reason for wanting to watch the show, namely that it makes for fantastic television.

No matter how hard it may be to film, and no matter that so much footage ends up on the cutting room floor (yes, I know, in reality it ends up in the trash can on a PC desktop), the end result is thoroughly gripping. Long-time viewers of The Apprentice may disagree with me here, in a ‘the earlier series were great but it’s really gone downhill since then’ kind of way, but in my defence, I would like to point out that I never even watched it until Series 6, and have yet to catch up with Series 1 to 5 or 8 and 9.

The aerial shots of London used to knit the programme together are particularly stunning, but regardless of its technical qualities, the key to The Apprentice’s success lies in its combination of concept and characters. The former is pretty simple, and the kind of thing that when some development producer came up with it in a meeting room (or while he was sitting on the loo, or wherever it is that development producers come up with their ideas), no one had a clue if it was any good or not. Like any great invention, though, when something works, it makes you wish you had thought of it yourself. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Play Your Cards Right, The Crystal Maze, Blind Date, Countdown: even if you don’t actually watch shows like this, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the ingenious simplicity of the concepts behind them.

Like Dragon’s Den, which is another one of my favourite programmes from the past few years, The Apprentice has the added draw of offering its contestants the incentive of cold, hard cash, as opposed to Generation Game-style standbys like food processors or foot spas. While some of the contestants may well be more interested in fame than fortune, they do, therefore, have to demonstrate at least some aptitude for the world of work in order to make it through to the final sixteen, and it is this that raises The Apprentice above the level of certain other reality shows I could mention (Big Brother, come on down!), whose contestants merely need to demonstrate how handsome, glamorous, annoying, retarded or shamelessly self-promoting they are. (Having said that, contestants on The Apprentice frequently display an almost spectacular lack of business acumen, which if I was being charitable I would put down to fatigue, or to the deer-in-the-headlights feeling that must come with having one’s every move captured for posterity.)

Of course, characters on screen aren’t necessarily characters off it, and I have to admit that in the time between working on and watching the show, my memory of the contestants had almost completely faded. For example, I had no memory whatsoever of Tom, the eventual (spoiler alert!) winner, or of Helen, who was effectively co-winner (each of the final two ‘fakes’ a moment of victory for the cameras, and Sugar only decides which one to employ when they have worked with him for six months after filming is complete). Rather, I remembered Jim’s Northern-Irish charm, Natasha’s annoying habit of pronouncing the word ‘ultimately’ as ‘ootimately’, (a habit that to my astonishment never made it into the completed programme), and Suzie, who I have to confess I had a bit of a crush on.

The other characters on the show are of course Lord Sugar and his minions, Nick Hewer and Karren Brady. Nick tries, I think, a little too hard to cultivate his skeptical-yet-baffled persona, whereas Karren – who is, I can reveal from first-hand experience, a thoroughly nice person – tends to come up with the more perceptive nuggets of advice for her boss.

Sugar himself is a veritable production line of one-liners and ‘working class’ straight talking, and would arguably be good enough to front a prime-time show even if he didn’t happen to be a multi-millionaire. I defy anyone to watch twelve episodes of The Apprentice back-to-back and not go around for the following fortnight prefixing every single utterance with the word ‘bloody’, pronounced in a semi-Mockney market trader’s bark to sound more like ‘bladdy’ – eg. ‘That was bladdy awful!’ / ‘I should bladdy well think so too!’ / ‘Well you should have bladdy thought of that, shouldn’t you?!’ – and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Sugar is just as curmudgeonly in person as he is on screen. On the day that I was working with him, and even after years of appearing on the show, he still couldn’t understand why it was he had to do bladdy re-takes or shots from different bladdy angles.

Conversely, the episodes in which Sugar’s opinion alone decides who should return to the boardroom for further grilling are much less effective than the ones in which Nick and Karren reveal which team made the most money on a task. It is the boardroom, in fact, and not the tasks themselves, that takes up the majority of screen time per episode: allowing for the introduction-stroke-title sequence, a re-cap of the previous episode, a preview of the next episode and the closing credits, the former gets about twenty-five minutes, while the latter gets more like twenty, so in effect – and in a post-modern kind of way – the contestants spend more time talking about what they did than they did doing it.

My conclusion after getting to the end of episode 12 is that no matter how tempting it may be to mock the ineptitude of the contestants, if by some unlikely chain of events I were to appear on the show myself, I can say with absolute conviction that I would fail miserably, for like hapless accountant Edward, fired in Episode 1 for failing at the foodie task, I have no leadership skills whatsoever, and would crumble into a gibbering heap of uselessness under pressure.