Lord Alan Sugar: ‘Celebrities are always humbled in front of me…’

The Apprentice star speaks his mind on Baftas, Brexit — and why he and Celebrity Apprentice candidate Rachel Johnson just couldn't agree on her brother, Boris...

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It pays to remember that Lord Sugar is the boss. Whether greeting a new consignment of wannabe entrepreneurs on The Apprentice or a batch of hapless celebrities for a charity special, one thing remains the same. “I’m in charge,” he asserts. “And you know, all of those celebrities get a bit humbled when they’re sitting in front of me.”

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Celebrity Apprentice for Comic Relief returns this week after a ten-year absence. Those gamely taking part are TV/radio presenter Rylan Clark Neal, talent-show judges Amanda Holden (Britain’s Got Talent) and Ayda Field (The X Factor), broadcasters-cum-journalists Rachel Johnson and Richard Arnold, football manager Sam Allardyce, EastEnders’ Tameka Empson, designer and former Dragons’ Den star Kelly Hoppen, and comedians Omid Djalili and Russell Kane.

“At least four or five” of the stars who are taking part were his suggestions, Sugar explains – but not everyone he wanted on the show is taking part. “There’s a lot of people I asked to do it and they didn’t want to. You know, it takes three or four days of a person’s time to dedicate to making the programme. I think it would be unreasonable to mention people who couldn’t come on because of their time constraints,” he says, firmly. “That would reflect poorly on them, particularly with a charitable event.”

Although he’s a little coy about how the teams fare in the task, which involves putting on a glamorous cabaret event, selling tickets to both the public and their celebrity contacts, and making the canapés, what he does disclose is that there’s “a big argument in the boardroom” (isn’t there always?). He’s clear, too, about how much he enjoys filming these specials: “It’s always fun, and for a very good cause.”

Which invites the question of why it’s been a whole decade since the last celebrity special aired in 2009, with comedians Alan Carr and Jack Dee facing off against the likes of Ruby Wax and Carol Vorderman in the boardroom.

Sugar, 71, says he didn’t actually approach the BBC himself during that decade to ask for them to do another one: “I never brought it up, actually.” So why the ten-year hiatus? “Well, it’s not my call, really, is it?” Isn’t it?

“It’s the Comic Relief people. It’s the BBC. I’ve always been happy to do it. The thing is, you have to understand that the production company, the BBC, they’ve got budgets and all this type of stuff. It’s always really down to those things. It’s whether they can afford the time to do it – because it costs quite a bit to put on.

“One can see that that BBC is under pressure on costs, and they have to be very careful what they do,” he continues. “I don’t think they’re throwing the money around. They’re continually being scrutinised by the BBC Trust to ensure that money is well spent and spread over. But obviously the BBC have to realise that they have to put on the entertainment, and so they fight for the funding to be able to do it. But over the last few years they’ve lost The Voice, they’ve lost Bake Off, simply because they couldn’t afford it, because they had to draw the line somewhere.”

The Apprentice (BBC)
The Apprentice (BBC)

That line was previously drawn on one of Sugar’s shows, too. Young Apprentice was a junior version of the main show that began in 2010 and ran for three series. In typical Sugar style, he announced the news of the show’s demise himself in 2013 on Twitter. Replying to a fan who asked whether there was going to be another series, he tweeted back: “NO BBC HAVE DECIDED TO STOP IT.”

Six years on, he still doesn’t sound happy. “Young Apprentice was my idea. We did it for three seasons, and then the BBC – they couldn’t afford to do two, really. It was Danny Cohen’s decision at the time when he was the controller. I think he was under a lot of pressure to cut costs. That was one of the programmes that got chopped. A lot of people liked the junior one. They loved it.”

He adds that there aren’t any other Apprentice spin-offs he’s wanted to do over the years, before unexpectedly seguing to talk about Bafta. He takes umbrage over the fact that, despite The Apprentice winning several gongs, he isn’t in direct possession of a single award.

“The Apprentice has won two Baftas. The first season, it won a Bafta, and the second time they won was for Celebrity Apprentice. I was the one that brought them the idea. I was the one that brought it to the BBC. And I’m the only one that never got the gong, that never got the mask. Unbelievable… I went up there and made the acceptance speech and all that stuff, right? And I was told, no, they’re not for me, that’s for the hard-working backroom people in [production company] Boundless – one of whom was an accountant, believe it or not.

Meet the celebs in Celebrity Apprentice

“So I think it’s about time that Bafta started to recognise the show as a major contributor to business on television – in a similar manner to Simon Cowell [he received Bafta’s Special Award in 2010]. I think Bafta should recognise me for my great contribution to business, and give me one of these awards.”

He’s on a roll. “Honestly, it was really frustrating – more so for my wife than myself. She couldn’t understand it. She knew how hard I fought to get the junior [Apprentice] done. And then we go to the ceremony, it wins, and she goes, ‘Where’s your award?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t get one.’ Unbelievable. Unbelievable,” he states, with a mix of despondency and incredulity.

So, I ask, after all these years, no one who’s in possession of one of these Bafta gongs has taken pity and handed one over to him? “No! Not at all. They keep it to themselves. In fact, on one occasion the BBC, after we won the Bafta in the first series, said they’d like to come and interview me, and asked, can I have the award with me? I said, ‘Hold on a minute, I haven’t got a bloody award. They’ve given it to all the production people.’ They said, ‘Can’t you borrow it?’

“So I borrowed it from one of these people that won it, and they had a motorbike sitting outside my house in case I stole it. They wanted me to give it straight back. It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable,” he says again for emphasis.

He may not have ownership of one of the famous Bafta masks, but Sugar is in possession of an estimated £1.15 billion fortune, as stated in 2016 by the Sunday Times Rich List. His rise from a council house in Clapton, east London, to being one of the wealthiest people in the UK is well documented: leaving school in Hackney at 16, selling radio aerials from the back of a van and forming electronics company Amstrad, before becoming one of the most recognisable faces on TV with The Apprentice.

Although the prize may have changed (candidates used to win a job in one of Sugar ’s business ventures, but winners now receive a £250,000 investment in their own company) and the number of contestants per series fluctuates, The Apprentice remains very similar to the programme that began on BBC2 in 2005.

The final of last year’s series attracted nearly six million viewers, which by today’s standards is rather good. Although Sugar, ever the businessman, puts it slightly differently: “The Apprentice still pulls in a remarkable amount of viewers – bearing in mind the massive change in viewing habits like catch-up. I mean, when you add the catch-up figures and the live figures together, we’re holding up, you know. It’s more than when we first started.”

Although somewhat unusually for a businessman, he says he “doesn’t have much to do with the financial negotiations with the production company. Other than, of course, being a member of the public and a licence fee payer. “But I’ve often said that the day I don’t enjoy doing it is the day that I will say to the BBC: ‘Look, I’d like to give it up.’ But I’m happy to do it, because I enjoy it. I enjoy getting these young people in the main Apprentice to change their lives, you know? It’s a great thing for the public to see. And a lot of people aspire to it.”

He doesn’t know when, or if, the current contract between the BBC and The Apprentice runs out. “I don’t think it ever runs out. I think they’ve got the rights to it in perpetuity. The rights owner is MGM now; it was originally Mark Burnett. We are the only country in the world that do it now.”

The American version of the show also ran for 15 seasons. It morphed into a celebrity series before being axed in 2017. “They tried to do silly things with the format in America and people just got fed up with it,” is Sugar’s verdict. “And we’ve got to be careful what we say here, but Donald Trump was not asked to do it any more by NBC over some alleged remarks that he made about certain things. So they got what’s-hisname to do it… Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was absolutely diabolical. I think he was the final nail in the coffin that killed the thing off.”

He’s equally despondent about the B word. With 29th March looming, it’s mandatory to ask such a prominent business mogul about his latest thoughts on Brexit. “Oh, it’s a total disaster, I’m afraid to say. I hope that the sensible people accept the deal that’s on the table that the Prime Minister has got, because there’s no alternative, I think, at the moment.

“I’ve given up worrying about it, to be honest with you,” he adds. “Obviously, the big error was made when people voted to leave. We can’t turn that around. So I’ve given up worrying about it. The thing is, from my point of view, I think it’s going to take ten to 15 years post-Brexit for it to settle down and for us to see the real ramifications, and whether it was a good idea or a bad idea. But life will go on, and it will have to go on.”

Formerly one of the Labour’s biggest donors, Sugar quit the party in 2015 – the same year Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader. He’s previously said that if Corbyn becomes the prime minister, he would leave the country, and likened him becoming PM to like “watching the motherin-law drive the Ferrari over a cliff”. Today, he says: “The only thing we have to make sure is that that idiot – what’s his name? – Corbyn doesn’t get into power. That’s all. The Trotskyite. Otherwise, we’ll have statues of pseudo-Lenin in Trafalgar Square.”

Although no politicians are taking part in Celebrity Apprentice for Comic Relief this year, one candidate is Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris Johnson. Sugar has previously labelled her sibling “a clown”, so did the two of them come to blows over Boris?

“Well, obviously, the sister is very protective of her dear brother. You know, we might have had a little heated discussion about him.” What did he say? What she did reply? Suddenly, Lord Sugar’s back to being coy.

“Oh, you’ll have to wait and see.”


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Celebrity Apprentice for Comic Relief airs Thursday 7th and Friday 8th March at 9.00pm on BBC1