Andrew Vine: Sugar and spice with a dollop of schadenfreude

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THE last cake’s about to go into the oven, and the country’s water-cooler conversations will soon enough turn from baking to business blundering.

Saintly Mary Berry will give way to irascible Lord Sugar as the nation’s premier reality television star when audiences bid farewell to The Great British Bake Off and rub their hands in gleeful anticipation of The Apprentice.

Reality television rules, pulling in audiences who have become addicted to seeing the hapless, boastful or talentless fall flat on their faces. It’s a guilty pleasure, but we can only admit to it, even if it is slightly shame-facedly because we know it’s appealing to the worst in us.

Banana-skin television might be a better term for it. There’s nothing real about the circumstances in which its participants find themselves. They are entirely artificial, and calculated to cause slip-ups. And how the public loves it.

We’ve become an audience addicted to reality shows, whether essentially benign, as in the baking of cakes, or at heart cruel, as in the posturing and ritual humiliation of a bunch of sharply-dressed nincompoops with about as much business acumen as an investor boasting that he’s just scored a coup by taking a majority holding in Woolworths.

Today sees the announcement of when the new series of The Apprentice begins, and tomorrow brings the finale of The Great British Bake Off, whose winner – if they are lucky and find themselves a good agent – will embark on a new career as a minor celebrity.

Good luck to them. At least any fame or fortune they achieve is based on a real skill that those of us whose kitchens teeter on the brink of becoming disaster areas can only admire, even if it is with a touch of envy.

And at the end of The Apprentice, when all the twerps who describe themselves as things like “global brand innovators” and babble nonsensically about “giving 110 per cent” have been weeded out under the withering glare and heavy-handed sarcasm of his lordship, somebody with at least a modicum of business nous will emerge.

How much we learn about business along the way is debatable. There are those running companies who cringe almost as much at Lord Sugar’s brusqueness and apparent conviction that all commerce can be equated to selling from the back of a van as at anything his so-called “candidates” do.

If the show tells us anything, it’s that there are people out there convinced that fluency in talking gobbledegook about ambition, making money and entrepreneurship combined with a well-cut suit is all that is needed to set them on the way to becoming a multi-millionaire.

But then we’re not meant to learn what makes business tick from The Apprentice, any more than The Great British Bake Off can turn most of us into pastry chefs. It’s more about tapping into our enjoyment of seeing people lose as well as win. We’re watching as much for the mishaps as the triumphs.

That’s a very British trait. We’re at heart a reserved bunch, a little scornful of those hubristic enough to put themselves forward on telly as the next big thing, and when they find out they aren’t, there’s a quiet satisfaction in seeing them brought down a peg or two.

Even if the inanities and total lack of competence exhibited by Lord Sugar’s would-be sidekicks are so excruciating that we watch from behind our hands, they are the moments that we talk about with friends and colleagues the following day.

Equally, it was the sponges that didn’t rise, or the hooh-hah over whether a baked Alaska was sabotaged that made Mary Berry’s brood compelling viewing for millions.

The time was, of course, that programme-makers would have raised their eyebrows in disbelief at the idea that following a bunch of no-hopers around as they bought and tried to sell a load of old tat from a market stall, after which they were sent packing by a glowering tycoon, would count as entertainment.

Then, entertainment was the business of seasoned professionals who had learned and honed their craft, performers, scriptwriter and producers in tune with the public. That was the generation of Morecambe and Wise, or Fawlty Towers, or The Two Ronnies – real entertainers not reality flash-in-the-pans.

But in the absence of towering talents like that, it’s the public that entertains itself these days, the distorting mirror of reality shows pulling the big audiences, whether it’s putting buns in an oven or murdering a tune on The X Factor for the delight of the people wincing at home.

In its way, it’s a sort of anti-talent movement. The more talentless Lord Sugar’s candidates are, the better it is for the audience. We don’t really want to see the next Richard Branson emerge out of nowhere on the box.

We’d rather see somebody who couldn’t be trusted to run a whelk stall. But then that’s guilty pleasure for you.

Andrew Vine