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The Apprentice review: The contestants, as comically inadequate as ever, don’t let us down

The great attraction of The Apprentice – charm is too strong a term for it – is the always vast gap between the Bezos/Musk/Gates level-aspirations of the competitors and their dismally limited abilities. The unspoken foundational irony of The Apprentice has always been that if any of these characters had any real entrepreneurial instinct, they’d be doing the equivalent of what the young Alan Sugar was doing when he started out in the 1960s, and selling car aerials up and down the Charing Cross Road. They’d be too busy slaving away on their new website, chasing orders and “encouraging” their staff to work harder, to muck around with some superannuated reality TV show.

Which is my way of welcoming series 17 (yes, it’s been dragging on that long) of the Alan Sugar show. And the contestants don’t let us down. The show’s producers seem to be engaged in battle against the law of diminishing returns. To keep the viewers still interested, they have to make the contestants more and more grotesque, and stretch that chasm between their self-perception and reality ever wider. It’s a battle they are winning, even though I suspect that there was a little bit of coaching required to make the young wannabes sound as ludicrous as they do.

Thus, I’m not entirely sure that even someone as galactically vain as Joseph Phillips could spontaneously claim to be “the James Bond of business”, which would actually mean he murders his competitors, shags their wives and has an ejector seat fitted to his Passat. In reality, he’s a tour guide from Worcestershire. Nor am I entirely convinced of the originality of Rochelle Anthony’s aim to be “the Kim Kardashian of the business world”, glam as she is. In real life, she’s Rochelle who runs a “hair salon and academy” in Bedfordshire. Meanwhile, Simba Rwambiwa declares himself one of life’s “disrupters” – presumably before Liz Truss made it unfashionable and Glass Onion made it a joke – but he has to backtrack when Sugar reasonably asks whether that state of mind makes him an ideal candidate for a competition mostly involving teamwork. Sugar looks more and more like Sid James with each passing year, but his humour remains as caustic as ever. Poor Simba, the “senior sales representative” from Birmingham, isn’t really the same after Sugar ridicules him.

As ever, the task that the “boys” and “girls” teams – a sexist and dated set-up, surely – are given is incidental to the usual spectacle of juvenile greed, vaulting ambition and human frailty. In an act of rare kindness, Sugar sends the wannabes off to lovely Antigua where they are charged with setting up a couple of tourist guide businesses – historical monuments, rum tasting, dancing, that sort of thing.

Astonishingly, both groups turn a profit. However, the genuine Antiguan small business people they meet running their bars and craft shops prove to be much more effective entrepreneurs than their amateurish British visitors. This is confirmed in the boardroom session when Karren Brady, Sugar’s henchwoman, reveals that the Antiguans told her afterwards that the young thrusting Brits could have gotten much better commissions than they manage to secure. Red faces all round.

Both teams bicker, but the “girls” – women well into their twenties and beyond – much more so than the boys. Don’t ask me who’s backstabbing who – it’s all a bit of a blur because they’re all dressed in identical pastel-coloured pantsuits and all look to have had lip “enhancements”. They are a mouthy bunch in all senses, and more worried about covering their arses than covering their costs. In the end, the tactic fails for Emma Browne, who is fired by Sugar for continually trying to construct her alibi for failure. Emma should have a bright future as a politician, though.

The “boys” are kitted out in the kind of “business with a twist” suits that mark them out to any potential client as mugs – think poor-fitting, showy waistcoats and boring ties. The oddest fellow is a Liberal Democrat councillor and antique dealing swot named Gregory Ebbs. He looks a potential series winner if only because he’s got more intelligence than the rest combined.

The formula for The Apprentice is much as before, then, with Claude Littner returning as Sugar’s other sidekick (but only for one episode due to medical problems), and Mark Halliley doing the understated narration, but I miss the old classical theme tune by Borodin. Anyway, it’s the contestants who make the show and they remain comically inadequate. The series has been running for 18 years now and it’s telling that none of its generally unpleasant, gauche, preening candidates have become Sugar-grade tycoons, and are more likely to be found scraping a living as professional right-wing “personalities” (qv Katie Hopkins, Michelle Dewberry). Reassuring, that, in its own dispiriting way.