Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 12:39 UK

A job spec for the new Margaret Mountford

Sir Alan Sugar, Nick Hewer
Sir Alan's search to find an apprentice Margaret is on

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The big news from the final of TV's The Apprentice was not who was joining Sir Alan Sugar's team, but who was leaving. So what sort of person could replace Sir Alan's loyal sidekick - the formidable Margaret Mountford?

Eye-rolling has never been performed with such expertise.

Exasperation, shock and even pity were belied in one perfectly-executed arc of Mountford's pupils. But no more.

Her departure from The Apprentice to study ancient Egyptian manuscripts leaves a vacancy in Sir Alan Sugar's right-hand chair.

As one of his two trusted lieutenants, Mountford accompanied a team of candidates each week as they grappled with - and invariably bodged - their tasks. Her job, along with fellow sidekick Nick Hewer, was to advise Sir Alan in his role to pick a worthy apprentice to serve in his business empire.

So what qualities are required for Mountford's successor?

A classic Margaret Mountford moment

It's a hugely significant role and the first criterion is to be incredibly judgemental, says Daily Telegraph television critic Mary Evans.

"You get the feeling that Alan Sugar makes his own mind up but he can be very influenced by them. Early on, he had the knives out for Debra [a contestant in the most recent series] because Nick and Margaret didn't like her very much.

"So you have to be able to form instant, superficial judgements. Margaret manages to be extremely snotty about people but does it in a charming, elegant way."

Her interventions are rare but withering in impact. "I think Edinburgh isn't what it used to be," was her response to the news that a Jewish candidate who failed to understand what "kosher" meant had studied classics at university there.

But someone who likes the sound of their own voice will not succeed in the role, believes Tim Teeman, arts and entertainment editor of the Times. The communication of Mountford and Hewer is mostly non-verbal.

They never ingratiate themselves with the contestants, which I think is admirable
TV critic Tim Teeman

"You have to be brilliant at eye-rolling, arched eyebrows, cocked heads, mischievous smiles, sometimes looking away in sheer horror.

"We make light of their role but in fact, Margaret and Nick have been very committed to it. Imagine having to watch so much back-stabbing and mismanagement while keeping your mouth shut."

Their assessment of the candidates is absolutely accurate, he adds, but they remain detached from the action.

"With Sir Alan you sometimes wonder if he's made the right decision but with Nick and Margaret, they are spot-on. They are the tribune of the viewers.

"But they never ingratiate themselves with the contestants, which I think is admirable. They're sitting a distance away from the contestants, taking notes, like bird-watchers."


PR man Hewer and lawyer Mountford had both worked for Sir Alan for many years, but were unknown to most television viewers.

Margaret Mountford
"Never before in the history of car washing have so few cars been washed by so many people in such a long time"
"Alex, you stepped so far back from it you were practically out of the room"
"One's enough, thank you" on tasting one team's chocolates

That mystique has to be maintained with the new appointment, says Teeman. The worst thing would be if the BBC went for a very glamorous figure, he believes.

"I hope they don't go young and 'babe-tastic'. The Apprentice is one of the few programmes where people who aren't blonde and CBBC-type presenters are allowed to be on primetime.

"Margaret is a star now by default because unless she's exceptionally cunning, she has not set out to be a TV star.

"She hasn't hammed it up. The eye-rolling and arched eyebrows are natural. Nick and Margaret are two natural land forms amid so much artificiality on television."

The same can't be said for Mountford's overseas counterparts, in countries which have equivalent versions of The Apprentice. They appear to have been picked for more televisual reasons.

Jackie Lavin and Margaret Mountford
The Irish 'Margaret' meets the original

In the Republic of Ireland, Jackie Lavin (pictured on left) is a former glamour model who went on to run a chain of fashion shops. She is also the partner of the show's Alan Sugar, Bill Cullen.

And in the US, where the format was born, Donald Trump's sidekick was a striking blonde businesswoman called Carolyn Kepcher, until he fired her as his chief operating officer.

If the UK followed those examples, Ms Evans says she would be horrified.

"It's quintessentially British to have the slightly older woman. We don't do glamour in Britain, we do sensible, regal and sound. We have the candidates for eye-candy and it's important that they are looking across the boardroom at the craggiest faces.

"It would take a lot of the intimidation out of the boardroom if any of them were faintly attractive."

Those eye-brows or Claudia Schiffer, says Mrs Evans. Which is more terrifying?

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Margaret Mountford's skills have been honed for years. At the London law firm where she worked she was known to be able to wither the strongest investment banker with a stare and an eye-roll!
Bernie the Bolt, London, UK

I think Ruth Badger should step in to Margaret's shoes - she is no nonsense and would be perfect!
Abby Ratcliffe, Warwickshire

I shall be very sorry to see Margaret going. She and Nick bring an extra dimension to the show. Her facial expressions tell a thousand words & say exactly what we the viewer is thinking.
Ian Davey, Swindon

I really hope they don't go glam on the replacement, or young. But Margaret is a hard act to follow.
Gillian, Cambridge

It was interesting to know that there is such a popular show (I didn't have the opportunity to watch the series, but have an idea as have seen some similar Donald Trump episodes) on television in Britain, which is not focussed on beauty but brains. This is also assuring news to many ordinary looking citizens of the world, that somewhere in this glitz and glamour ridden universe there is a possible public platform where one's mettle is recognized more.
Anuradha Shee, South Kensington, London SW7

Would the question of looks have come into the discussion if Nick's replacement was being discussed instead - I doubt it.
Jules Richardson, Bristol

He will pick Karen Brady - brought her in to interview after she was a big hit on the Comic Relief Apprentice a few years ago. Sir Alan seems to love her
Matt, Warwick

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