Page last updated at 08:11 GMT, Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Sir Alan Sugar holds court

Margaret Mountford, Sir Alan Sugar, Nick Hewer
Sir Alan with his "eyes and ears", Margaret Mountford and Nick Hewer

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

At a screening room in central London, Sir Alan Sugar is holding an impromptu conference with his associates Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford.

Heads bowed, voices hushed, the trio converse animatedly until Sir Alan leans back and announces: "Butterkist. That's what it was called."

Presumably, the multi-millionaire isn't planning a hostile takeover of the esteemed popcorn manufacturer - he just wants something to eat while he watches his hit reality show, The Apprentice.

He studies the programme intently, his head cocked to one side, legs crossed and hands clasped firmly around one knee.

This year's batch of candidates

His body language gives little away but, in conversation later, the entrepreneur professes to be proud of the programme.

"It has certainly increased an awareness of enterprise in young people, which is quite satisfying," he says.

"Do I think the CEO of Tesco learns anything from it? No, but most people would see a few scenarios in there which will wake them up to reality."

Fish fiasco

In the opening episode of this year's series, it is the 16 eager young candidates who get a rude awakening, as they are sent out on their first task before introductions have even been made.

Sir Alan Sugar
I do what I want in the board room and if they don't like it, they can clear off
Sir Alan Sugar
The boys square off against the girls, with each team given two van loads of fresh fish and ordered to shift the lot by the end of the day.

Fans of the series will instantly recognise the patented Apprentice mix of over-privileged city boys, steely-eyed lawyers and plucky wannabes who "work in sales".

As usual, they all seem to have been trained in giving moronically self-aggrandising sound bytes.

"I rate myself as the best salesperson in Europe," squawks 27-year-old marketing consultant Jennifer Maguire.

"There are two types of people in the world," declares Ian Stringer, a software sales manager from Bedfordshire. "Winners and...

"I don't know how to say the word. I can't say it."

All of the candidates promise to give "110%", oblivious to the fact that this leaves them 10% in debt - hardly an auspicious start for a budding entrepreneur.

While the contestant's insane rantings make perfect shouting-at-your-telly entertainment, the harsh reality is that one of them will have to take on a serious, responsible job in one of Sir Alan's companies.

He has been critical of the calibre of the candidates in the past, accusing them of chasing celebrity over a career.

Katie Hopkins
Katie Hopkins became the first candidate to step down last year
Among those who have drawn his ire, one suspects, is Katie Hopkins.

The mother-of-two famously walked off last year's show - and turned up on I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here nine months later.

"The fact of the matter is that within a week or so, newspapers paid her the amount of money she would make working with me for a year," Sir Alan admits.

"But now," he adds, "nobody will touch her with a bargepole."

The businessman says he now warns applicants not to be seduced by "seeing themselves on the big screen" in his endearingly gruff style.

"I say to them at a very early stage: "If you're here for the wrong reasons, stick your hand up and clear off.'"

Children's show

However, the Amstrad boss is no stranger to the spotlight himself these days.

"The public reaction is much better than it was when I was chairman of a football club," he grins.

It is mainly children who approach him on the street, he adds, prompting the idea of a special edition of The Apprentice for teenagers.

Sir Alan Sugar
Sir Alan is offering a six-figure salary for his new apprentice
"I think it would be an absolute one-off blockbuster.

"I've even gone to the extent of saying you don't fire anyone. God knows what they would call me if I fired an 11-year-old child!"

But the Acne Apprentice, as it could be called, may never hit TV screens. In what may be a first for Sir Alan, he put the idea forward "and nobody noticed".

One area where the BBC and the businessman do agree, however, is on how to continue the success of their reality show.

"In America, this programme was a tremendous hit and the mistake they made was that they ran three series back-to-back.

"People got sick and tired of it, the standards started to slip, and you ended up with a pile of rubbish."

"You have to take your hats off to the BBC because they've made this programme an annual event."

Sir Alan is currently signed up for just one more series, but insists that The Apprentice format has "longevity".

But the golden question is whether it really delivers the top-flight employees his business needs.

Last year's winner, the fresh-faced Simon Ambrose, is "doing okay" working in real estate.

"He's had a rude awakening," says Sir Alan, "he's amongst some sharks out there."

"He's got to learn, but he's an apprentice.

"He hasn't sold Canary Wharf yet, but he'll get there."

The Apprentice begins on Wednesday, 26 March at 2100GMT on BBC One.

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