Watching Baron Sugar of Clapton descend the steps of the Radio Times office airkissing BBC bigwigs as he goes is a sight to behold. Not least because in the course of a day with RT he has given the impression that you don’t amass a personal fortune estimated at £730 million by wasting time saying hello or goodbye.
Up to this point the thought that he might scrape his badger’s beard across a perfumed media cheek has appeared as far-fetched as his lordship returning to sell aerials out of the back of a van in Hackney, as he did when he embarked on his business career in 1967. Bristling with the pent-up energy of a teenager, the 64-year-old lord clearly means business as he attacks the day.
At hand is a task that would no doubt defeat the hapless among his latest crop of potential Apprentices – knocking into shape an edition of Radio Times. But although he may be the acerbic antithesis of a media luvvie, he is, without doubt, media savvy.
“Radio Times is an honest journal,” he growls, pointing the best-known index finger in television at a picture featuring a line-up of his latest recruits, who will be revealed in the latest series of The Apprentice on Wednesday. “But when this same picture appears in The Sun next week… they’ll print ‘If you know any of these people we’ll give you £50 for smut’. They don’t actually say smut. But that’s what they mean.”
So his lordship hands out pastoral advice alongside the on-screen bollockings and brusque firings?
“Oh, they all get indoctrination before they start. I give them a personal talking to… none of them realises that the day their face appears on television they are hounded from then on. Friends who are either jealous or went to school with them see £50 and get on the phone to The Sun… that’s when we look after them, but we warn them about it at the start.”
What does he say to them?
“I tell them that if they have any skeletons in their cupboard it is not a case of ‘it may leak out’, it is a case of it will leak out, 100 per cent guaranteed. “I tell them that if they have not been honest with us about things that have gone on in the past, it will come out. They get this talk of doom, and then, to be fair, most of them say, ‘OK, now you’ve asked me to honest and frank about it, I’ll tell you about this and I’ll tell you about that.’
“The worst thing is the surprise element. Everybody’s got something, even getting drunk once in a restaurant. That’s good enough for a paper. I learnt that long before The Apprentice as I was involved in football, but these people are naive and don’t know about the media.”
So how does the BBC choose the cast of characters for a reality show that lives or dies by the mix of personalities, some more colourful than others?
“We don’t try to replicate the types of characters that you’ve seen before, as that is the mistake that some programmes make. They’re a good bunch. Every single one of them is a different character; like last year we had Tom.”
The winner of last year’s Apprentice, inventor Tom Pellereau won with the help of a newfangled nail file. In a format change, he walked away with a £250,000 investment in his own start-up rather than a £100,000 a year job in Sugar’s company. Does he think he’ll get his money back?
“I hope so, ’cos he’s not going to get a second chance. If he’s blown it, he’s had it. Then he can come and work for the Radio Times. But it’s given me a new lease of life, an enthusiasm I needed. We need to do it. The BBC needs to do it. They need to set an example that you can start up a business with a quarter of a million pounds and some ideas. That’s the exciting bit rather than giving someone a job.
“We need to show that people can start their own business. Too many young people think you have to be another Zuckerberg, or whatever his name is… it’s either billions or nothing. That’s not the case. He’s a one-in-a-trillion example, and while it’s worth aspiring to be him, the reality is that you are not going be able to do that. Forget it. Youngsters need to focus on more practical things… starting a business from scratch.”
Who should young people aspire to be?
“Well, they should look up to people like me, or Richard Branson, who started their businesses from scratch… people who built them up in commodities and marketplaces, like Sir Philip Green. The entrepreneurs who started from nothing.”
Born in 1947 into a poor Jewish family on a Hackney council estate, Sugar moved from flogging aerials to making millions at the helm of his electronics giant Amstrad, floating it in the 1980s, before he sold it to BSkyB in 2007 for about £125 million.
Along the way he saved Tottenham Hotspur, where he spent nearly ten years as chairman until 2001. His fortune today is mainly wrapped up in property, but he continues to have an interest in television and it’s not all to do with his on-screen persona.
As chairman of new TV platform YouView he is part of the digital revolution. A joint venture between the BBC, ITV plc, Channel 4 and Channel 5, YouView aims to shake up the way we watch television.
“It will change the face of viewing,” says Lord Sugar. “It’s catch-up TV brought together in one box so you don’t need computers. Anything you want or missed, you can play it at your leisure.”
But it has been dogged by technical nightmares. Has he banged heads together to get the project back on track?
“Before the Olympics we hope. That’s what we’re trying for.”
But such ambition requires commitment, the kind a Tottenham regular might describe as 110 per cent. On his way round the offices Lord Sugar spots two YouView malingerers taking a break at the BBC coffee bar and he can barely contain himself.
“I didn’t stop to say anything but I know who they are,” he chunters. Lord Sugar didn’t get where he is today by stopping work at 11am to sip cinnamon-dusted mochaccino.
As he flicks his way through the magazine layouts, talk turns to being an entrepreneur in a time of austerity and it becomes clear that he’s as keen on excuses as he is on coffee breaks. Don’t, for instance, try to suggest to the man who was once Gordon Brown’s enterprise tsar that entrepreneurs aren’t getting a fair deal from the banks – unless, that is, you wish to invite a minor explosion from the other side of the guest editor’s desk.
“It’s all bollocks, that is! It’s total rubbish, a big excuse, political garbage! Why should a bank give you some money? If I’ve got a great idea you’re not going to give it to me, just like that are you? If you have a whim of an idea, you have to put your own money in it, or seed it from somewhere, or carry on working where you’re working… till you’ve got enough money to fund it.
“The banks were villains by acting irresponsibly, but now they’re trying to act responsibly, they’re getting chastised for not lending irresponsibly again… It is a total joke, a complete and utter political joke.”
Not that he’s laughing. If anything he fears for the future of UK plc, and he’s pointing the finger again, not at tight banks but at over-generous parents.
“In this day and age the kids have got Nike trainers, an iPod, PlayStations, all handed on a plate to them… the parents have got themselves to blame. And then when the kids get to the age of 21 and they’ve done their gap year, and done all that usual s**t and it’s ‘Errrrr what are you going to do for a job?’ ‘I ain’t got one.’ ”
And with that he’s off. Mwah mwah-ing down the stairs and into his Bentley. He’s calling the shots from the back seat, insisting on the quickest route to the House of Lords and another appointment. There’s a country that needs reviving and he thinks he has the answer.