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‘If I come across as being tough… it’s because I don’t think they can take the pressure’

By Danielle de Wolfe

Fifteen years after business-meets-reality show The Apprentice first graced UK screens, the Lord Sugar-fronted series continues to attract audiences in their droves.

“Someone who was two or three years old when the series started is now 18,” remarks Lord Alan Sugar.

“I said last year that I wanted to do 20 years. We would have been doing series 16 this year and I was happy to do four more. But of course it is the BBC who will decide if they wish to do it,” says Lord Sugar, 73.

Now, with filming for the show’s sixteenth series postponed due to Covid-19, viewers are set to relive some of the most impressive – and disastrous – television moments of all time courtesy of new six-part series The Apprentice Best Bits.

And, as the name would suggest, there are plenty of memorable moments to look back on.

The UK version of the hit show followed close behind the original US Apprentice format – hosted by a now-US President renowned for his hiring and firing – guiding a carefully selected group of candidates through a series of tasks that test every ounce of their business acumen.

“If you recall initially, the prize was to work for me,” recalls Lord Sugar. “After series six, I said it wasn’t working out properly because it was very difficult to find a position for someone where there weren’t any positions available. I changed it to going into partnership with a winner and that has been very successful.”

Yet, aside from the prize, it’s a format that has remained largely unchanged over the years. So, what is it about The Apprentice that keeps the viewers coming back for more?

THE VIEWERS KNOW BEST

“We all have an idea for a business – or we all think there’s a secret businessman in us – and we like to see the decisions that people make and how they make them,” declares Lord Sugar’s loyal boardroom adviser, Baroness Karren Brady, 51.

“Most of us spend lots of time shouting at the television and saying, ‘I would have done it differently!’. I think it’s the prize, it’s the process, it’s people really enjoying watching the candidates make their decision.”

Together with fellow hawk-eyed adviser Claude Littner, the business-minded pair act as Lord Sugar’s eyes and ears throughout the gruelling 12-week interview process.

“The Apprentice captures buying, selling, tough negotiations, interviews – a whole host of things which I think play into what today’s young people are aspiring to,” says Littner.

“Nowadays – because jobs are hard to come by and because of advances in technology – I think more people are deciding that the best way forward is to actually start their own business.

“The show is a combination of great fun and the fact everyone thinks they can do better than the apprentices.”

THE GRUELLING INTERVIEWS

“The last five people go into the interview process and the purpose is for those to go through their business plans with my experts,” says Lord Sugar.

Nearing the final hurdle of the competition, this stage is known for sending even the most confident candidate into a blind panic.

“It’s also the only time the candidates aren’t in a team, can’t hide behind someone else, can’t blame someone else – they really are incredibly exposed,” notes Littner.

“Whether they’ve got the strength of character, the overall willingness to start a business, get the investment and work with Alan Sugar. For me that’s the most defining moment really, because people can talk the talk but that doesn’t mean to say they can walk the walk.”

Offering cringeworthy sequences and laugh-out-loud moments in equal measure, it’s no wonder this element of The Apprentice has remained unchanged for so many series.

“It must be the most terrifying job interview process on television,” says Baroness Brady matter-of-factly.

“There’s this classic one where Solomon (Akhtar), one of the candidates, comes in for his interview with Claude, and Claude sends him out because all he’s done is issue pictures of sail boats.

“There’s no information in the business plan. And he gets so flustered that he tries to leave through a window because he can’t find the door. There’s only one door in the whole room but he couldn’t find it, so he’s just sort of banging. And honestly, I was literally laughing out loud.”

THE INTERNATIONAL TASKS

The Apprentice’s diverse range of tasks – from selling goods on market stalls through to creating and promoting luxury events – have become a mainstay of the show.

“The tasks are designed to see a person’s organisational qualities, sales technique, presentation ability, creativity and logistical qualifications. You’ve got all those elements – that’s what all the tasks are about and what I am looking for,” says Lord Sugar

However, it’s the show’s international travel element that proves the biggest draw for many viewers.

With candidates packing their bags and heading off to far flung corners of the world, the international tasks plunge candidates into high-pressure situations in alien environments.

“The foreign tasks are one of the things that make the programme exciting for the candidates and viewers,” notes Lord Sugar. “Last year, they went to South Africa. It was a great task and it was to celebrate 15 years of The Apprentice. It was one of my favourite tasks.”

“They cover everything,” seconds Baroness Brady. “We’ve been from Winston Churchill’s bunker in Dover through to the Tower of London; we’ve been all over the world – from New York and Dubai.”

THE COMEDIC (AND OFTEN CRINGEWORTHY) CANDIDATES

The Apprentice’s diverse range of candidates and their constant desire to stand out from the crowd never fail to entertain. So much so, The Apprentice Best Bits dedicates an entire episode to the show’s larger than life characters.

“We sat down and looked at which outstanding characters we needed to bring in,” says Lord Sugar.

“Paul Torrisi rolled straight off my tongue! Ruth Badger was another one. In later years, we had last year’s candidate Thomas Skinner. If you sit down and think about it, there have been some great characters.”

“It’s the people that make this show great,” remarks Baroness Brady. “It’s incredible how many boardroom shockers there are – and how many unforgettable candidates there are.”

“I don’t back anybody,” asserts Littner. “I remain completely neutral. I might admire some of the things they do on tasks, but I’m very focused on giving Alan the best possible guide on who should be the winner.”

“So, if I come across as being tough or not so tough with someone, it’s basically because I don’t think they can take the pressure, so there’s no point in putting them under more pressure than they’re under already.”

The Apprentice Best Bits launches on Thursday October 1 on BBC One.

(PA)