The Apprentice’s Apprentice

‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…’

I’m quoting Joni Mitchell not (only) because I’m reading Morrissey’s autobiography and have the urge to paste song lyrics into prose when I’ve run out of things to say but rather as a description of the way I feel about The Apprentice. It’s rare in our culture to prefer the re-make over the original but even rarer that we admit to preferring another country’s version of an idea to ours, regardless of which came first. It’s this paradoxical thinking that draws me to the BBC adaptation of The Apprentice and makes me resent the NBC original. Now that I live in America, the latter is my bread-and-butter and the former feels too distant from my daily existence to be relevant viewing anymore. As I sit writing this on a winter’s day with the sun beating my back, I don’t ask for sympathy. But I do rather feel like the person who bought the last painting before they discovered perspective.

From the arse's mouth!

From the arse’s mouth!

Like most shows sold overseas, the format remains largely unchanged. But there’s something about the translation of American corporate-speak and aspirational diatribe into the laughably misjudged self-esteem of Britain’s business classes that gives The Apprentice on the BBC an ironic quality which bends a celebration of capitalism into a critique of the ideology. Goebbels once said that no-one could watch an Eisenstein film without becoming a communist. Well, I severely doubt anyone could sit through an episode of UK version of The Apprentice and still think capitalism is going to last. It’s not hard to believe we have economies based on nothing because The Apprentice UK tells us the people who front it are never less than vacuous. While the American original has the product placement and commercial saturation of a major US network in its arsenal, the BBC version is broadcast on a British public service station which prohibits advertising. The former is mired in a web of cross-marketing, while the latter seems inhospitable to the idea of a TV programme as a commodity.

Go waste the President's time instead...

Go waste the President’s time instead…

This is not to say that The Apprentice UK is some sort of subversive attempt by the imagined leftist conspiracy at the BBC to undermine British entrepreneurship. It’s more accurate to call it ‘private service television’, a mode of broadcasting addressed to a society dominated by privatised industry and designed to make the best of it (even that is being a touch generous!). But neither does it use its airtime to consolidate a corporate empire through media exposure, like its forbearer. The Donald Trump Apprentice never misses a chance to tell you how powerful and glorious the various business enterprises of the Trump family are, whereas the Alan Sugar counterpart (which sounds like the greatest 80s garage band that never was!) makes his company look like a loosely connected network of 1940s-style spivs and barrow-boys. The tasks assigned by Trump are publicity-centric busywork (especially in the current Celebrity variant) but Sugar’s are about the hard graft of street selling and face-to-faces with customers. You’re the apprentice of a swindler learning how to avoid being swindled.

Sugar doing my job for me!

Sugar doing my job for me!

Perhaps this is because ivory-towerism doesn’t sit so well with the British public, while it taps into the ultimate aspirations of many Americans. The British version is certainly not intended as satire (though the directors do like to puncture with visual gags anyone who takes self-assessment as business elites too literally) but it is playing to a crowd who like sarcasm, wit and darkly awkward comedy. Sugar and his associates are fans of linguistically inventive cruelty, the directors eek every ounce of uncomfortable voyeurism out of the documentary filming (in a style borrowed from pioneering UK sitcom The Office), and the show itself is framed as a sadistic prank played on those who applied to appear. It’s marginally better now the prize is a sizeable investment in a business venture a la Dragon’s Den/Shark Tank (delete monster and monster holding cell as appropriate) but I remember when winners were rewarded by an internship at a digital signage company amid the electro-magnetic subjugation of Tottenham Court Road. Somnambulist losers of Touch the Truck have it better. No-one expects Donald Trump to say anything intelligent, funny or creative (even his racist metaphors lack flair) and the verbal garbage emerging from the Ridley Scott-alien mouths of his children is a generation stupider. Mavericks are praised not parodied and the mere act of aspiring is deemed worth the risk.

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