The Apprentices are basically why the world went wrong and you’re working for a jargon-gibbering loon

Patrick Freyne: Lord Sugar’s swaggering go-getters believe they can turn their hand to anything, no specific knowledge required

This week I’m going to review “capitalism”, a popular television trend from the noughties that, much like its real-world iteration, is on the way out to make way for (depending who you talk to) “fascism”, “feudalism” or “celebrities dancing”.

In the United States The Apprentice led to the rise of sentient orange crayon, song-and-dance fascist, national-security risk and cut-price Eye of Sauron Donald Trump. It did not survive this. In the UK, rather weirdly, The Apprentice is still on the air as a light-entertainment fixture. For Americans this must be like discovering that the Unabomber’s manifesto is a popular children’s musical in Australia.

In Tory Britain, the show is now one of the more reliable vocational routes for large adult sons and daughters. You know the gist of it: the oldest gets the farm, one becomes a priest, one is pressed into service for local gentry and the rest enter The Apprentice (also being pressed into service for the local gentry).

Each year, the roundy-headed comedy millionaire and Scrooge McDuck thinkalike Lord Sugar needs a new apprentice because he’s lost the last one. He’s left the door of his mansion open and they’ve wandered off. Now they’re roosting on the roof or they’ve have been snatched by a hungry fox or they’re making their way home like the pets in The Incredible Journey. This is problematic, because this sort of businessperson is an invasive species. They roam the land, grazing on environmental regulations and worker protections while emitting their distinctive calls into phones held horizontally up to their faces. “Action this!” they cry, and it echoes across the valley.


Luckily there are more where they came from (business wonks, not worker protections) and a new herd of goons are currently striding across my screen dressed in olde-tyme 20th-century business costumes – stiff ties, pressed suits, hoof-like shoes. Since Covid-19, it’s a novelty for me to see trousers, never mind a tie knot, so I find these historical business re-enactors delightful.

Unlike the business folk of Adam Smith’s day, who typically operated on a solid base of artisan specialisation, these business bobble-heads believe they can business any old business businessfully with no specific knowledge whatsoever

These precrash cosplayers are also obsessed with quaint olde-tyme business ways. They are here to business up a business because it is business time. They still believe that there is a future in privately owned companies that aren’t the property of four or five Silicon Valley sociopaths. And unlike the business folk of Adam Smith’s day, who typically operated on a solid base of artisan specialisation, these business bobble-heads believe they can business any old business businessfully with no specific knowledge whatsoever. You name it – pharmaceutical manufacture, fishmongering, heroin distribution, taxidermy, Paw Patrolling (emergency services staffed by dogs) – these swaggering go-getters think they can do it all.

This attitude is also what’s literally taught at Harvard Business School. It’s basically why the world went wrong and why you are probably working for a jargon-gibbering loon. These econo-imagineers all believe that they can undertake any task in any sector and business the hell out of it. They’re not like those poor suckers who spent years learning a specific craft or concerning themselves with a community. No, these big bouncing business boys can be airdropped anywhere – London, the Amazon, the frozen tundra, Hobbiton – in the optimistic belief it will soon be awash with PowerPoint presentations (their way of marking territory), networking events (how they breed) and hot-desking open plan offices (how they nest).

Each week, Lord Sugar sends his bright-eyed business babies off to do whatever the hell his heart desires. Last week he dispatched them to Brighton to source nine (mystical?) items for the best possible price. This week he’s got them marketing electric motorbikes. Next week he’ll take them all on an aquatic voyage to harpoon a whale he dislikes. The week after that he’ll get them to crush his detested enemies, the Smurfs. If that’s the type of can-do spirit you want in your workplace instead of someone who knows accounting or computers or kung fu, then these are the employees for you. You can probably get a job-lot of them from McKinsey for a few Bitcoin or some sheep (whichever is viable currency when this article comes out).

My favourite bit is when in each episode a sad-eyed graphic designer must try to keep their professional dignity as someone who looks like an AI’s drawing of an executive directs them to commit an aesthetic atrocity. One logo this week was so overwhelmed by text-obscuring graphics that it gave off the reality-distorting effect I associate with the dreaded Cthulhu. I wanted to set fire to my television while screaming “kill it!”

My second-favourite bit is when they line up in front of Lord Sugar to laugh at his jokes. Much like how, for the royals, everywhere smells of fresh paint, Lord Sugar has figured out that he’s the funniest man alive. He’s just going on the evidence of his ears. He emerges from beyond a glass door where he presumably swims in a huge vault of gold coins and lets the zingers fly.

Lord Sugar says: ‘As motorcycle branding goes, it’s hardly a, and excuse the pun, Triumph.’ The apprentices kick their heels in the air and projectile vomit with chortling delight

“It’s about as cool and sexy as one of Alan Partridge’s jumpers,” says Lord Sugar of one of their terrible TV ads. The apprenti sense from the cadence that this is a joke and they laugh as though they have never heard a joke before. This is possibly true.

Later he says: “As motorcycle branding goes, it’s hardly a – and excuse the pun – Triumph.” The apprentices kick their heels in the air and projectile vomit with chortling delight, but politely, not so you’d notice. “Triumph”, they deduce from the fact he told them, is some sort of pun.

He regards the contorted and profane logo of which I spoke earlier. “It’s got more going on than the roof of the Sistine Chapel,” he says, chomping an invisible Groucho Marx cigar, and some of apprentices almost expire from pure happiness at this riotous jape. They suspect that whatever the Sistine Chapel is, it’s humorously relevant. It’s probably an NFT or something.

Each week those who fail to laugh enough must leave. They now roam this world alone, their wheelie suitcases filled with broken dreams and their Power Point presentations littered with sad-face emojis and jagged arrows pointing towards heartache.

I may be misunderstanding how The Apprentice works. I was distracted by Gunther’s Millions (Netflix), a documentary series about a dog who inherited a fortune from a countess in the 1990s. “A lot of people don’t really realise that this is Gunther the sixth,” says one of Gunther’s servants. Many people apparently believe that dogs live into their 40s. There’s footage of Gunther by the pool, on his private plane and on his yacht (“Gunther loves boating!”). Of course, it’s all a sleazy hoax concocted by an Italian pharmaceutical heir named Maurizio Mian. Just another boring rich man.

But all I could think of watching Gunther at play was how much better the world would be if all our millionaires were dogs. Having wealthy people leave their money to dogs would be much more sensible than leaving it to their stupid children, who will just use that money to become tech tycoons or TV producers or celebrity memoirists or worse. We should bring in taxes that incentivise dog bequests.

Or wait a minute ... maybe, and I’ve just thought of this, maybe we could redistribute the wealth and use it for things people badly need. We could call it “socialism”. That’s it, then, that’s the choice facing us today: “dog millionaires” or “socialism”. And I thought I was just writing about telly.