Most of the people who step into an interview with The Apprentice’s chief interrogator, Claude Littner, end up leaving in tears, in disgrace, or both. In last year’s series of The Apprentice alone, one candidate was turfed out of Littner’s office after his business plan was described as “a bloody disgrace”. Another hopeful had his interview terminated before it even began. “Frankly, you’re a parasite,” thundered Alan Sugar’s henchman.
So the prospect of an audience with The Apprentice autocrat, who is replacing Nick (Countdown) Hewer as one of Lord Sugar’s two on-screen sidekicks, has a reporter reaching for their hard hat, rather than their notepad. Is it possible to put tough questions to someone vying for the title of TV’s angriest man and come out alive?
It was with some trepidation, therefore, that Radio Times set out to meet the veteran businessman at the west London production office of the BBC1 show. Having passed his £140,000 Bentley Continental, numberplate L177NER, parked proudly outside the front door, we were ushered into the presence of the man described by one TV critic as a “Rottweiler in human form”.
In person, however, Littner, 66, is a bafflingly calm, slightly shrunken figure. Effortlessly polite, genuinely humble, he exudes an almost Zen-like sense of tranquillity. This is not the smouldering tyrant that I expected. “I am delighted you say that,” he smiles, “because if you had met me ten years ago, you would have thought that I was a complete nutcase.
“My problem:’ he adds, with only a slight hint of menace, “is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde character. I mean, I am a very nice bloke, aren’t I? But if you put something in front of me that isn’t right, I will get angry. What’s that guy who turns green when he gets upset?”
The Incredible Hulk? “Yes, the Incredible Hulk. It’s a bit like that. I mean I am very calm, but if somebody starts talking absolute rubbish or trying to pull a fast one, or puts out a business plan that’s just… I find it an affront, I take it personally.”
The anger that we have seen directed at hapless Apprentice candidates since the show’s first series, in 2005, is in part a legacy of his bullish business background, but also, he admits, a construct for the cameras, after an unmemorable initial outing. “I told my whole family I was going to be on televisision, and they all watched it excitedly,” he recounts. “But I only got one nanosecond of screen time because I’d conducted it like it was a real interview. I realised then that you have to be a little bit sharper.”
Littner with Lord Sugar and Karren Brady
After ten years of torturing Apprentice hopefuls in the final stages of the show, Littner, who also chairs Sugar’s companies, was reluctant to step into the shoes of Nick Hewer, alongside West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady. “I wasn’t keen on taking on the role, because I like doing the interviews. I didn’t see this as a step up. But they persuaded me that I’d be excellent at it, and Alan wanted me to do it, so that was a done deal.”
Littner’s first meeting with the man he calls Alan, but whom everyone else must address as Lord Sugar, provided no clues that the pair would go on to have a long-term friendship as well as a business association. Twenty-five years ago, Littner was called in for an interview with the then plain old Mr Sugar.
“He had my CV in front of him. We sat at a table and he didn’t look at me at all. He didn’t ask me any questions, so after a few minutes I said, `Would you like me to tell you a bit about myself?’ He just looked of the window and started whistling. Then every so often, this is absolutely true, he would look at my CV and go, ‘huh’. I realised this was probably not going to work out, so I stopped talking. He got up and walked out, and as he went, he just said, ‘Bored’.
“I had another job lined up, so I didn’t care, but I wondered why I’d even turned up – he obviously had zero interest. Within a few minutes the marketing director came running in and said, ‘Alan likes you, you’ve got the job; and that was it. I didn’t know where the job was, I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t imagine that Alan Sugar had liked me, because he hadn’t even looked at me.”
It turned out that the role was fighting fires in Amstrad’s Paris subsidiary, a post that suited the bilingual Littner, who was educated at the French Lycée in London’s Kensington. For the next few years he travelled the continent, fixing Sugar’s European companies.
“I have never really seen him as a boss, to be honest with you,” he says. “Throughout the periods of time I have worked for his companies, I’ve worked alone. I probably couldn’t have worked with him because we would clash, but if he lets me get on with it and gives me a job to do, and trusts me enough to get on with it, then that works out perfectly well for me.”
The pair worked more closely after Sugar bought a majority interest in Tottenham Hotspur in 1991, installing Littner as chief executive. Rather than it leading to them tearing lumps out of each other, the experience brought them closer together. “Our families became friendly because we began to go to games together,” says Littner. “There was a lot more contact between my children and his children, my wife and his wife. I think from that point on we became friendly.”
In 1998, he resigned from Spurs to make his own way in the business world. “I made a lot of money running companies, floating them, doing all kinds of things. So then when Alan asked me to come back, it was on a very different basis – more of a marriage of equals. Alan wasn’t responsible for me making a lot of money, and I came back to him not because I wanted to make a lot of money, but because we were friends.”
The pair also share a Jewish heritage, although he says, “It’s not something we’ve ever talked about, other than him occasionally making fun of me. Alan is less observant than I am. I go to the synagogue more often. I keep kosher.”
Littner’s adherence to his faith is linked to his incredible family history. His father, Harry, was a young man when the family fled Austria as the Nazis rose to power. After studying in Brighton, he travelled to Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942 to visit his father, where he was caught up in one of the infamous round-ups of the Jewish population and interned in the city’s velodrome.
He managed to escape, “or bribed his way out, I don’t know,” says Littner, before fleeing to Portugal. “From there they got forged papers to show they were Cubans. So my father went to Cuba with his father and mother. They stayed there for a few years, then made their way to New York. There my father met my mother, who was American, and became a US citizen.”
Littner Senior trained as a chemical engineer, and Claude was born in 1949. The family then relocated to London, where his father got into the carpet business. Littner himself retains dual US/UK citizenship. He would like to renounce his American passport, he says, “but I can’t, because it’s too expensive. Not a lot of people know this, but there is a wealth tax. If I were to give it up, I would have to pay a large percentage of my wealth to the US government.”
The transformation from snarling, thrusting executive to the genial, softly spoken figure who sits talking of his love of “chilling out and playing Scrabble” was precipitated by a health scare in 1997, at the age of 48. “I had an argument with Alan Sugar, which never happens. He was wrong, by the way, but there was no way of persuading him. I had had enough; we were exchanging insults. I knew I was right. I just walked out and switched my phone off so Alan couldn’t call me, and I went to the doctor because I had a hernia. It turned out it wasn’t.”
In fact it was non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare blood cancer. “It was life-changing,” he says, meekly. “I was a young man, at the height of my career, and I could have died, I really could.”
Beating blood cancer proved a reality check. “Today, my life is completely different, I barely recognise myself. For many years I was absolutely obsessed with being successful, and successful doesn’t necessarily mean money; it meant feeling good about myself, knowing that I had achieved whatever I could. But I’m now comfortable with what I’ve achieved and I’m happy. Financially, I’m secure and I’ve made sure my family is completely secure. So from that point of view, I have nothing more to achieve.”
While he has spent decades boxing the ears of fellow executives in boardrooms around the world, Littner is now more comfortable in the peaceful surrounds of his relatively modest detached home in north-west London, where he has lived for more than 30 years. His two sons live close by, with the next generation of Littners.
“As a result of the passage of years, my experiences have all made me very calm,” he admits. “I’m very grateful for what I have achieved. I’m happy to be alive, I’m very happy that I have a wonderful wife, great children and wonderful grandchildren.”
Whether he manages to maintain that inner peace after three months of overseeing the new crop of Apprentice hopefuls is an entirely different matter.
The Apprentice series 11 begins on BBC1 tonight (Wednesday 14th October) at 9:00pm