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Srallen’s pain

The Apprentice (BBC1); The Passions of Vaughan Williams (BBC4)

21 May 2008

12:00 AM

21 May 2008

12:00 AM

I used to have one of Alan Sugar’s old Amstrad computers; in fact I wrote two books on it. The great advantage it had over modern computers was its slowness; you could literally make a cup of tea while it saved a page of text, and prepare a three-course meal while it saved a chapter. Modern computers don’t provide that luxury. They’re like dogs after you’ve thrown the first stick; they just sit there panting eagerly, demanding more and more words.

Amstrad stood for A.M. Sugar Trading, though these days the company makes nothing except money, being devoted to property deals. The owner has become ‘Sir’ Alan, a fact of which he is clearly very proud, though frankly, looking at some of the riff-raff who get knighthoods these days, I wouldn’t be too thrilled myself. Either way, everyone calls him ‘Sir Alan’, or rather, ‘Srallen’. If he marketed a new computer it would presumably be called the Samstrad. Once he famously signed a card for his wife ‘Sir Alan Sugar’, explaining later that it had been a busy day in the office. Don’t they give you a little booklet at the Palace, explaining that you never use the title of yourself? The correct form is: ‘Alan Sugar here’. ‘Is that Sir Alan?’ ‘Why, yes, as a matter of fact it is.’

None of which explains the extraordinary popularity of his show The Apprentice (BBC1, Wednesday). It is the second most watched programme on the BBC, after EastEnders. Srallen himself is no beauty; he has been compared to a well-worn bog brush. The contestants are worse. They are trying to elbow each other aside to earn what is breathlessly described as ‘a six-figure income working for Sir Alan’; at £100,000 it’s the lowest six-figure income possible (Calvin Trillin used to claim the Nation paid him a four-figure sum per article, the four figures being $67.45 or thereabouts). None of them is what you would call a nice person, with the possible exception of Raef, who has a dry wit few of them share. If they don’t detest each other, the BBC has made a good job of making them pretend to. We certainly detest them, because, even if they don’t all have egos the size of Canary Wharf, they have been razzed into behaving as if they have.

So the joy of the programme is watching them make idiots of themselves. Tough, ruthless, determined and hard-working they might be; clever they rarely are, and socially sensitive they are not. This week they had to market germ-resistant tissues, naming the product and making a 30-second television ad. One of the two teams at least had the sense to call the brand ‘Atishoo’ and put it in an eye-catching yellow box. The other called it ‘I love my tissues’, which was just weird. You might as well call a bath scourer ‘I love my bath scourer’. They also decided to market it as a family product, so they recruited weatherperson Siân Lloyd — in spite of the fact that tissues have nothing to do with weather, and she doesn’t yet have any children. You might as well get Rio Ferdinand to market bath scourer — why?

Srallen glowered in a pained way at most of them, and they looked stricken, like heifers who suddenly realise they’re about to be turned into veal. It’s what Hollywood calls the ‘money shot’, the moment that these inflated egos are destroyed as swiftly and completely as that Ming vase in the Fitzwilliam Museum, though with less chance of being reassembled later. There are now only six of them left, which means five more deeply satisfying sackings.

The Passions of Vaughan Williams (BBC4, Friday) was also deeply satisfying, but in an entirely different way. It was, of course, about his love life, but since this dominated and helped inspire much of his music, that was entirely right. The description of how his wife, suffering from terrible arthritis, came to accept his mistress was poignant. The programme was crammed with memories of people who had known him and loved him, including the mistress, who became his wife and outlived him by almost half a century. Best of all there was stacks of music. Too often arts programmes eschew the art itself, on the grounds that viewers will be bored. But this was thrilling to hear and entirely complemented the narrative. This is the kind of experience we can only get from television, blending words, images and sound in a way no other medium can. Thank heavens some people — in this case, John Bridcut — are still making such programmes. He deserves thanks and very hearty congratulations.

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