Tune in, switch off - Playing with the fired

27th March 2009 at 00:00

This was The Apprentice (Comic Relief, BBC1, March 13), but not as we know it. We heard the usual theme music and the same disembodied "Sir Alan will see you now" voice. But the man in the chair was limp: sugar mouse rather than sourpuss.

The real Alan Sugar would have described his counterfeit as a bloody disaster. Jack Dee was spot on when he said that Britain's normally most belligerent businessman came across as a Thunderbird puppet.

Sugar's a single-shot sniper to the National College for School Leadership. You can be sure he'll never be invited to give their annual lecture.

Of course, we know in our hearts that it's wrong to abuse and humiliate your employees, but it doesn't half speed things up. And it's a lot more fun. While our teacher conferences are full of references to moral purpose, Sir Alan's M-word is money, making it.

The ladies may have won this contest to design a new toy for the five to eight-year-old market with Ruby Wax's ingenious idea of Velcro play suits, but I still think the adult party version is the one we'll see in the shops. Well, certain kinds of shop, anyway.

It goes like this: you throw the dice, touch the area of someone's body as directed and you find you stick to it. Are they serious? The toy manufacturers' reservation was that five-year-old boys don't like physical intimacy. Middle-aged men would be a whole new market, Ruby.

Although they lost, it was the male celebrities who stole the show. They were led by Gerald Ratner, whose comment about his jewellery being cheaper than a prawn sandwich and less durable cost him millions. So it's great that he still has a sense of humour.

Their concept was a belt on which children could collect, hang and then swap newly invented model space creatures. Ratner was responsible for the non-existent business plan that lost the team the contest in the face of Sugar's questioning about tools and margins. But the real leader was Jonathan Ross, whose compelling personality stole each scene.

That's why Alan Sugar was no longer cheeky chappy but cheeked chappy. It was like a class with a supply teacher who couldn't control them. Real apprentices would never dare to joke about the boss's suit and shirts: "Have you been working out, Sir Alan?" smirked Ross.

I'd have had the troublemaker out of the room and moved to another reality TV programme in a flash.

Even Margaret and Nick, the fiercely loyal duo who grass up the teams each week, were diminished. Was this the same Margaret whose comment in the last series about Edinburgh University "not being what it was" led to a 50 per cent reduction in Ucas applications?

For me there wasn't enough tension - just one argument between two ladies that looked a bit fake. The teams stayed in a smart hotel rather than the Big Brother-style house, so didn't have time to get on each other's nerves. We even missed those delightful dawn wake-up calls.

So next Comic Relief, I'd say: "Sir Alan, Margaret and Nick, you three form a team for a change. This is your task. And one of you will be fired."

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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