Archive for the apprentice

The Apprentice’s Apprentice

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, British Shows on American TV, Reality TV, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2015 by Tom Steward

‘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.

Watching Telly with Americans

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Americans watching British TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2011 by Tom Steward

Over the past few weeks I’ve had a taste of my own media medicine. I’ve been watching British TV with an American and absorbing rather than catapulting those oh-so-clever anthropological field notes about the bizarre idiosyncracies of a national TV culture. And what’s even more humbling is that I’ve been doing it with someone far, far better at it and more succinctly expressive than me (see-that sentence only needed one ‘far’). G stayed with me in July and from time to time we embarked on the daunting prospect of sitting down to watch British TV. I say ‘daunting’ because I want G to move here next year, and it felt like the onscreen lack of Real Housewives after their most recent divorces and Kardashians sporting the previous week’s surgical alterations might set back the emigration propaganda campaign several ages. G found a lot of British culture in catch-up mode, especially when it came to fashion, so finding programmes on TV we had watched together in the states months before weren’t too much of a surprise for her, though it was pleasantly for me. I thought we were at least three or four years behind. Turns out we are on the meat (great drama, comedy and reality) but not on the gristle (celeb fucking and shitcoms)-thanks ITV2!

 

Keeping up with the Kardashians...barely.

 

 

But we had a bigger problem than an out-of-date hat. British TV was ‘weird’, ‘so weird’ and ‘weird’. For G, it was as if Britons had collectively decided to substitute a working TV set in the corner of the room for a 19th Century ventriloquist dummy with its mouth sprung to repeatedly gawp the word ‘Mummy’. I vigorously protested this as a case of cultural alienation but didn’t exactly have the backing of the TV stations themselves, who throughout the month defected to G’s side by broadcasting footage of old men arguing with Simon Cowell about the existence of a Worzel Gummidge musical before Pertwee-lisping through pop hits or swapping their tried-and-tested flagship mobile spectacle reality shows for season finales where half, quarter and minus wits get berated in four rooms by several regional accents. Round One to G.

The Apprentice Indoors

 And Round Two to her as well. It was through G that I realised something that had never before occurred to me; that American TV, even the rough stuff, is by and large far more innocent and sanitary (I mean this more than sanitized-you’ll see why when I tell you what show made me realise) than British TV. What was the breakthrough programme? Why-eye, Geordie Shore, the Return-to-Oz style dark sequel to Byker Grove. An identically-designed British re-make of MTV reality hit Jersey Shore, it eschews the likeably harmless original premise of laughing at mutantly muscled, beboobed and tanned buffoons for an exponentially grotty and lewd indoor dogging video and creepily crass cock-size discussion show. All the lovably hare-brained schemes and dopey catchphrases of the original sunk  sewage-like into ruthless dirty-dicks campaigns of professional fornication and fuck-punctuated verbal cesspools. I initially thought this was just censorship differences but it’s also about our predilections as a nation for sleazy Sodom-and-Gomorrah docs set in seventh circles like Ibiza and late-night town centres. Why we want these on TV baffles me just as much as why we want them in reality. G said all that in one word: ‘nasty’.

Byker Grove was never like this...

Some of G’s confusion derived from how British TV was scheduled and broken down. She found the advert breaks interminably long, which at first I refused to accept from an American, until I realised that US TV commercial interludes are short but frequent, and just because UK TV is covertly irritating in its spread of adverts doesn’t mean it’s any better, worse in its sneakiness possibly. US TV timings are rigorously routinised-all programmes begin on an hour or half-hour. We’re far more casual with our timings, at least on terrestrial TV-a 10-minute documentary on bees here, a 10 no 12 minute news spot there, oh look, there’s an independently-made short film that’s exactly 3 minutes long for some reason. I can see how it would irritate someone brought up on regimented TV time, but I was left feeling rather proud of our irregular randomness.

There were some notable successes. G was an instant addict of Come Dine with Me, proving that it is a faultless universal formula (something like ‘Idiot + House + Cooking x4=Compulsive Sneering’) and that the world is brought together by its response to the show’s contestants with the global chant ‘Where do they get these people?’.

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