‘The Apprentice highlights the meaningless buzz phrases of modern Britain’

The contestants in this year's BBC1 programme, The Apprentice
The contestants in this year's BBC1 programme, The Apprentice
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IT’S pointless getting too vexed about this because it is, after all, a programme produced for entertainment purposes only, as we used to say – but if Britain is really to survive independently of Europe with business people of the calibre of the contestants in this week’s Apprentice, I give the country five years before it sinks into the Atlantic.

The show returned on Wednesday for its 13th season, which means that there should now be 12 alumni at the top table of our business community. Can you name any of them? Nor me – save for Katie Hopkins, heaven help us, and she didn’t even win.

One of this week’s contestants said he was “opinionitive”; most appeared to believe that the more meaningless buzz phrases you could utter, the better at business you were: get your ducks in a row and cascade the details – punch a puppy and keep me in the loop.

It’s not a new phenomenon. I en­countered it first in 1989 when, sitting in at a board meeting in Sheffield, someone said “Let’s task this to Phil – there’s a window in his day”, when what he really meant was “Phil has a spare hour – let’s ask him to take care of it”.

Does this go on elsewhere in the world? I can’t imagine the French, somehow, mangling that florid language of theirs in a vain attempt to appear more eloquent.

They probably also don’t arbitrarily jettison entire components of the language, as this week’s contestants did with the letter T. “Ge’ a move on”, “shu’ up” and “make more pa’ies” were among their distillations of estuary English.

The last of these referred to the patties of minced meat they had been told to produce. One of the candidates should have felt completely at home because her role model, she said, was Colonel Sanders, the businessman and not-an-actual colonel who created the fried chicken franchise.

No disrespect to the not-real colonel, but if someone asked me to tell a TV audience of perhaps 10 million who my hero was, I would not name someone who made me appear the intellectual equivalent of Donald Trump.

Trump was the original presenter of The Apprentice in America, and if you wanted proof that television eventually reduces everything to its level, I rest my case.

But there is another way in which this and all the other reality shows have lowered our cultural benchmark, and it is by creating the expectation that you get on TV today not by being good at something but by being appalling.

The reverse used to be true, as I was reminded this week at an event in Ilkley celebrating the 50th anniversary of television production in Yorkshire. Even the talent shows of that time – Opportunity Knocks from Manchester and Junior Showtime from the City Varieties theatre in Leeds – relied on getting the best acts they could find. The last thing they wanted was to embarrass someone who wasn’t really up to it.

Today, the very purpose of some television is to do exactly that.

At least we can take comfort from having banished one or two anachronisms from those days. I had quite forgotten that the earliest editions of Junior Showtime included minstrel shows with children in blackface make-up.

The actor Russell Crowe was at the City Varieties this week, performing with his band and donating money for a seat named in his honour. They probably didn’t tell him about the minstrels.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the past Apprentice winners: a few were brought back for this week’s programme, and they have gone on to careers that are successful and profitable – both of which are more bankable than fame. Tim Campbell, the first winner, sits on London’s education board and was appointed by Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor, as an “ambassador for training and enterprise”.

Yet his main role, according to his website, is as a “motivational speaker” – in which capacity he exhorts that “business is the catalyst of modern day paradigmatic change”.

I spent a few minutes trying to distil what that actually meant, but I don’t honestly think it means anything. Yet so many people now talk this way that it has become the lingua franca of corporate Britain. Business Intelligence used to be the process of studying data and drawing from it wisdom; now it’s merely a contradiction in terms.