Like passing a police officer on the way home from the pub, meeting Lord Sugar makes you a little nervous, even though you’re convinced you’ve done nothing wrong. Despite not checking my contract, I’m pretty sure he’s not allowed to fire me from my job as BBC Economics Editor. Then again, he is Lord Sugar. Not a man short of an opinion or seven. Maybe that famous finger will raise against me if I ask something disobliging.
I meet the man most closely associated with the BBC’s highest-rating business programme, The Apprentice, at Amshold House, his empire’s headquarters in a business park near the eastern end of the Central line in Loughton, Essex. Two Range Rovers with private number plates sit in the car park, but there’s no sign of the “TV-famous” Rolls-Royce that picks up the winning candidate. “No, it really is his,” one of the programme PRs reassures.
As I walk up the stairs, I check that my tie is straight.
“Hello, hello,” Lord Sugar says as he walks into the boardroom. (No, not that boardroom. That’s actually part of a set in west London, near the famous “losers café”, which really is a café.) “Are we taking a picture?” he asks, in his instantly recognisable “Laandon” rasp. (Lord Sugar is from Hackney in the East End, from a time before it was full of bearded hipsters.) No. “Great, let’s get on.”
Lord Sugar and the series 12 contestants
This is the 12th series of The Apprentice, a programme that, although audiences have been declining slowly from highs of more than ten million, can still pull in more than six million viewers. In these times of reality television flux (yes, we’ll get to The Great British Bake Off controversy in a second), Lord Sugar insists he’s as committed to the programme as ever, showing me framed Apprentice covers of Radio Times, like a father proudly revealing photographs of his children.
“I enjoy doing this, and I’ll continue to do it as long as I enjoy doing it – and, of course, as long as the BBC is prepared to run it,” he says. “Prepared to run it” is a rather pregnant phrase, given Bake Off ’s move to BBC rival, Channel 4. I ask Lord Sugar about the decision by the makers of GBBO to make the present series of soggy bottoms and tart scripts the last on BBC1. His facial expression, which can resemble a man chewing a wasp even when he’s telling a joke, changes to what I’d describe as “double wasp”.
“I think it’s going to be a total disaster,” he says. “I think they [the BBC] are getting a raw deal these days. I mean, because they make something successful like Bake Off or The Voice, then suddenly a commercial channel comes along and just goes and buys it off them, and greedy production companies sell it to them. I don’t find that morally correct.”
Allies of Love Productions, which makes GBBO, would beg to differ. One told The Guardian the move to Channel 4 was nothing to do with greed, but with strained relationships with the BBC. Negotiations had been conducted for a year and there had been clashes with the corporation over other programmes amid dark mutterings that the BBC was trying to copy Love Production formats.
Nevertheless, Lord Sugar says the move is risky. “Think about their personal credibility as the production company, if this thing bombs on Channel 4. I mean, the difference between 15 million viewers, right, which Bake Off got, to possibly settling down to about three million on Channel 4, surely that’s got to mean something to them, hasn’t it? It’s not always the money, you know.”
“It’s not always the money,” says Lord Sugar
I ask if the makers of The Apprentice have ever been offered the chance to move to the commercial sector? “No.” And if they wanted to move, would he move too? Or would he be like Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins who said they wouldn’t be “following the dough” to C4? “My loyalty is with the BBC,” he says. “I don’t wish to sound too much of a big head, but the rights owner would need to run it past me first of all, because they’d need to sound out whether I’d go with it, and then would be told no.” Paul Hollywood, who is moving to C4 to be “with the bakers”, may now not be on Lord Sugar’s Christmas card list. “I wouldn’t do it,” he says.
In fact, he has advice for anyone thinking about attacking the BBC over anything from payments for top stars to buying a cake to mark the 80th birthday of Sir Bruce Forsyth (“So what?”). Critics should, Lord Sugar believes, “keep their nose out of it”.
“I really do sympathise [with the BBC]. It’s £12 a month. That’s all it costs us to have our BBC licence. Look at what you get for £12! It is fantastic value for money. Your mobile phone costs you, I don’t know, £20 quid a month..?”
Watching a preview of the new series of The Apprentice – and speaking as a fan – I note that all the classic ingredients are in place. The quips (Lord Sugar tells one candidate the best chance he has of winning the £250,000 business investment “is to buy a scratchcard”); the sweetly preposterous claims of the candidates (“I am an emperor, the continent is not enough – I’m AFTER THE WORLD”); and the ever odder names of the teams (the women this year are Team Nebula, to which Lord Sugar looks initially nonplussed, before responding, “You might as well have called yourself smog”).
The Apprentice has been criticised for encouraging a jaundiced view of business, that the worst types of behaviour are deliberately encouraged – a cat-devours-dog environment with everyone on the edge, shouting over one another in a stream of baffling non sequiturs (even Lord Sugar admits at one point with a shake of the head that one of the candidates is “coming over as a bit thick”), before everyone bursts into tears and tries to stitch up the other up in the famous boardroom firings.
It’s all a bit, well, unpleasant, isn’t it? “I don’t think it’s that nasty,” Lord Sugar says, looking a little hurt at the accusation. “At the end of the day no one holds a gun to the head of the18 people [the competitors]. They’re told up front what it’s all about. They’ve seen the programme.
“Look, there’s a £250,000 life-changing prize at the end of this. They’ve seen these guys making loads of money, and so they’re thinking to themselves: ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime.’ And that’s why it gets a bit competitive in there.”
Lord Sugar and Apprentice winner Leah Totton launched her skincare clinic in 2014
So far, Lord Sugar has invested £1.25 million of his own money in five businesses that were proposed by the five most recent winners. And, given that one in every four new businesses fails in the first two years, the fact that all five are still going – most profitably, Lord Sugar says – is a testament of sorts to “the process”.
Of course, all I want to know is how do you win The Apprentice, in case I decide to apply, because I am AFTER THE WORLD?
“Focus on the task in hand,” he says. “If you’re watching your mother-in-law drive the Ferrari over the cliff, in other words one of your project managers is going wrong, step in and say: ‘Look, you’re doing it wrong.’ Because it’s very simple. If your team wins, you don’t get fired.”
If he were a candidate, would Lord Sugar win? “I would win hands down!” Why? “It’s my show.” And, in the hard-nosed world of business, you cannot say fairer than that.
There have been some changes to the format. Last year Lord Sugar said he wanted to “mix it up a bit” and launched mixed teams from the start. This year it’s back to men versus women for the opening episodes. I wonder whether that is all “a bit 1970s”, playing to stereotypes of how people approach business.
“No, it’s not. It’s been explained to me by these geniuses in TV production – we need to get the audience engaged. The audience need to recognise that’s Team Solo and that’s Team Charlie, or whatever they call themselves, right, and they do that easily by the women and men [teams].”
The programme starts differently as well. We are now, viewers are portentously warned, in “a time of economic turmoil”. Presumably, the vote for Brexit is bothering Lord Sugar, who said before the EU Referendum that voters would be “mugs of the world” to plump for Leave. Well, they did, and many believe the economic fallout following the referendum has not been as calamitous as predicted – employment rates remain strong, consumer confidence has rebounded and forecasts of a recession have been revised.
Ah, says Lord Sugar, that is just the calm before the storm. “I know there are a lot of commentators out there at the moment saying: ‘Well, it’s not bad, is it? I mean, we’re three months down the line, nothing seems to have changed.’ Exactly! Nothing has changed yet. When it does change, that’s when you’ll start to realise, wow, the real implications, the ramifications of Brexit may start to hit home. As sure as I’m sitting here and Bake Off is going to be a disaster on Channel 4, I’m telling you that in five years’ time, when we’ve finally hammered out all these new rules, it’s going to be an absolute disaster.”
There is a new prime minister who, at least, Lord Sugar rates as an “excellent choice” for leader. So excellent, that if the former Labour peer had a vote (he doesn’t as a member of the House of Lords), he would vote Conservative?
“Most probably, yes.”
So, Jeremy Corbyn has yet to convince him as leader of the Labour Party? “I’m out of the Labour Party at the moment while that nutter’s around. That Corbyn fellow. He’s just a nightmare. I mean, he’s destroyed the party, and it looks like he’s going to be re-elected again as the leader, and I don’t know what his game is. I think they [Labour] have got to get rid of him.” Or face, Lord Sugar says, almost certain defeat at the 2020 election.
As a “borderline wally” when at school, Lord Sugar says that he doesn’t agree with one policy resurrected by Theresa May – “Grammar schools, in my opinion, seem to segregate people at a point in time [saying] you’re either a boff or a wally. But you know, many wallies turned into boffs afterwards. So to actually say: ‘Well, you’re in a grammar school because you passed this boff exam at 11, well, I think that’s wrong.”
After one episode of The Apprentice, it’s too early to segregate “boffs” and “wallies”, but rest assured, as the series progresses, there’ll be plenty of evidence of both.
The Apprentice begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1