Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Calder on Air: The Apprentice, Kibworth and international football

My Calder on Air column from last week's Liberal Democrat News.

Appalling apprentices and fearful football

There is, of course, nothing real about television – and that is doubly true when it comes to ‘reality’ television.

Take The Apprentice (BBC1), which has just started a new season. The premise is that what we are watching is the country’s brightest and best young business people striving to win the glittering prize that is a position with Sir Alan Lord Sugar’s company.

But is that a job to get so excited about these days? Sugar’s greatest achievement in business is the part he played in making the personal computer a consumer product. That keyboard with the integral tape deck his Amstrad machines boasted was a masterstroke. And the fact that now makes us smile is a sign of how long ago his finest hour was. Most of us would be hard put to say exactly what his companies have sold since.

Whatever the answer to that one, we know what Sugar has been doing outside the world of business. Because last year, in a clumsy stab at populism, Gordon Brown asked him to join his government as ‘Enterprise Tsar’. His most memorable contribution in that role was to swear at a BBC interviewer and then say: “Can't we get off this bloody recession kick once and for all? I don't think we're in one now, OK?”

If Sugar is not the figure the programme likes to pretend, what about the contestants? Here it is impossible to get past the paradox at its heart: if these are such high-powered young thrusters, why have they got all that time on their hands to take part in The Apprentice?

Perhaps the earlier series did feature people with genuine business ambitions, but you suspect the latest crop is more interested in a career on television. It is all great fun to watch – this is the contest where you wish everyone could lose – but all the reality has gone out of this reality show. Because contestants know what is expected of them. Hence the soundbites about “everything I touch turns to sold” and “I’m Stuart Baggs: The Brand”. You suspect they are here only because Big Brother has been cancelled.

Worst of all, though, is the picture of the world of work that The Apprentice paints. Everything, from the gruesome Alan Sugar jokes that everyone feels obliged to laugh at (“I've read your CVs and you look good on paper. Then again, so does fish and chips”) to the bullying and bitching among the contestants, is calculated to put decent people off the idea of a career in commerce.

Look into it closely, and you will probably find that the whole thing is funded by our competitors.


Things are much more pleasant on Michael Wood’s Story of England (BBC4), where the fortunes of one village over the centuries are being used to illuminate the history of the whole country.

And that village is Kibworth, where in an earlier life I once acted as agent in a local by-election – a task made more difficult by the fact that everyone in the village seemed to be called Iliffe. I am afraid we did not make history.

The photography here makes the south Leicestershire countryside look ravishing and Wood has already explained the presence of all those Iliffes. Their ancestors were Vikings.


These days the England football team resembles the England rugby team of the 1970s. You do not so much support them as suffer with them.

Even before Tuesday’s bleak draw with Montenegro, ITV’s decision to devote a whole evening to the game seemed odd. A few years ago, when they had won the rights to show Premiership highlights, they proudly announced that they would plan Saturday night’s schedule around them, only to abandon the idea when they realised how few people were watching.

The truth is that a small number of people are passionate about football while the bulk of the population is quite uninterested. And if England go on in their current style then that number will so be a lot smaller.

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