The latest series of The Apprentice (BBC1, Sunday) had, I gather, its best ratings ever. God knows why. All those ghastly people! Lord Sugar! His sidekicks! The stupid, infuriating, boring contestants!
The last episode in the current series consisted of interviews with the four finalists, all of whom, in their own different ways, were barking. One young man was asked how he answered the criticism that he always talked in clichés. His reply, delivered without obvious irony, was, ‘I am what it says on the tin.’
The winner was a courteous young chap (called a ‘nerd’ in the popular press the next day, but that accusation is made against anyone wearing glasses) who has come up with a series of batty inventions, such as a biscuit to eat in emergencies, and a chair that might or might not prevent backache in a distant time. His only successful invention was a curved nail file, which is a good idea when you think about it, but he talked about it in the way that Joseph Smith probably discussed the Book of Mormon: ‘I am absolutely committed to making the nail file happen!’
Lord Sugar — they seem to imagine that this is a real peerage, and not one invented in a distrait moment by Gordon Brown — told them all that they were useless. He was particularly rude about the winner, telling him that no commercial enterprise would allow him into their premises to be told that they ought to buy his chair because it might prevent someone getting back pain later. He pointed at the losers, declaring, ‘You’re fired!’ but they went on grovelling to him because they hadn’t learnt anything different. ‘Thank you, Lorrshugger,’ they said.
You yearned for one of them to say, ‘Right, you miserable bastard, you can’t be bothered to shave, you haven’t flogged a real product for decades, and you made possibly the most self-serving speech ever heard in the House of Lords.’ But they don’t, because they are cowed, which is why we never hear about the winners of the past, and won’t hear anything more about this one. Whatever his name is.
The show is popular because it features people we’re permitted to despise. Much modern television is built around this notion. The Only Way Is Essex was a huge hit, because we could look down in contempt upon well-to-do cretins, obsessed by themselves and their fake jewellery and their appalling parties. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding invited us to laugh at gypsies, a fact which they easily spotted and which brought many complaints to Channel 4. Come Dine with Me takes the piss out of the aspirant middle classes. Strictly Kosher also featured a wedding, but a Jewish one, and it was kind, warm and celebratory. I’ve been to loads of Jewish rituals, and they really are funny and joyous and life-affirming. But some groups aren’t allowed to show that on television. Their job is to make us smile a sardonic smile and congratulate ourselves for not being them.
Fish Town (Friday) was a strange beast. Why was it on Sky Atlantic, the channel devoted to American television? Maybe because the Atlantic used to be called ‘the herring pond’ and this was very herring-intensive. It was set in the Devon fishing port of Brixham. And it wanted to be a modern ‘Under Milk Wood’, as rewritten by the chaps at Hallmark Cards.
For example, ‘these empty streets will run like rivers towards the sea, carrying shoals of tourists…’ And ‘spring morning rises over distant dreams…’ Many of the gorgeous images, of shipping vessels against the dawn sun, or the town from the sea at evening, could have been on chocolate boxes, or turned into jigsaws. Yet in between they had shoved in all kinds of banalities — too many people hauling in fish, selling fish and frying fish. Now and again there was an illuminating moment. The landlady of an old pub declaring that people didn’t stay with her because she didn’t have en suites, and it was a listed building, so she wasn’t changing it for anybody. The cry of the British hospitality industry down the ages: ‘You’ll take it and you’ll like it!’
The climax was the visit of Princess Anne to open the hideous new fish market, which has clearly wrecked the appearance of a lovely old town. As festive occasions go, it was not exactly a Jewish wedding. And it rained.
As part of the hype, The Hour (BBC2, Tuesday) has been lazily called the British Mad Men. It isn’t. It is set in the Fifties, not the Sixties, and it’s about television news, not advertising. So the relation is unfair. But it was a strange hybrid programme, which took an interesting look at the way the BBC dragged itself into the modern world (it had ignored many stories, such as the arrival of the first West Indian immigrants, in favour of society weddings) and yoked it to a by now routine blood-drenched paranoid spy thriller.
When did you last see a deb — later hideously murdered in a hotel bathroom — mouthing ‘they weave a web of deceitful lies …you think you live in a democracy…they will kill me if they know I’m talking to you!’ Oh, please. Whoop, whoop, cliché alert!
But there is a comparison with Mad Men, that other retro series. The American series draws you in; you want to be with them, to enjoy the glamour, the cocktails, their easy women and their easy confidence. This is Fifties London: dour and grey. And whereas Don Draper is cool, poised, evil yet adorable, Freddie Lyon is just deeply annoying.