The Apprentice: a great shame

Great TV? These cuff-linked cuthroats cannot have a thought, put it into words and have it understood – it's not great, it's sad

It's great television. How many times do we hear that, as if greatness in television implied an order of merit entirely distinct from other areas of human endeavour. We know where we are with Alexander and St Gregory, with Mithridates and Tamburlaine, even with Greater London and the "great unwashed". But with the phase "The Apprentice is great television" I, for one, find myself all at sea.

I am clear about something though. If The Apprentice is great television, the breed of greatness in question – like that pertaining to the Norfolk village of Great Snoring – is not one from which our culture stands to reap any great reward. And at least Great Snoring can reasonably bid to being greater in some verifiable respects than the village of Little Snoring, some two miles distant as the Great Tit flies. Certainly, though, snoring of any kind seems to me distinctly preferable to The Apprentice.

Why? Because no one on the programme seems to have taken the trouble to learn how to speak. And in a medium whose principal form of expression is verbal, and where good script-writing has always been at a premium, it strikes me that a television show focused on a group of youngish professionals, each vying to outdo the other in their abject failure to make themselves understood, cannot in all conscience be called "great".

I don't mean by this that the contestants should all be given elocution lessons and made to speak the Queen's English. I welcome the diversity of regional accents to be found on our airwaves as much as the next man. That said, I must admit I couldn't quite understand what it was the next man was saying when I quizzed him on the subject, such was the intractability of his Scottish drawl. What is objectionable, however, is the fact that not one of these amply cuff-linked cuthroats seems to be able to have a thought, to put that thought into words, and to have that thought understood by anyone else.

Take the example of Lorraine, describing herself to her fellows. Given that what passes for thought in this woman's brain seems for the most part to have had nothing other as its object, you might think she would have something to say. But she didn't. Rather she issued some garbled phrases about "not having 'pmed' yet" and explained that her "thinking has to come from some inside gut feeling". This isn't speech. It's the rhetorical equivalent of a road kill even vultures would leave to dry in the sun.

And take her nemesis Philip, whose back all right-thinking people will have been pleased to have seen this week. Here, clearly, is a man who took his lessons in grammar and syntax from Vicky Pollard. "A gateway suggests a gate to somewhere," he reasoned en route for the London Gateway service station. "Do you know what I mean?" For once we did.

One might argue that the range of abilities now grouped dubiously under the term "language skills" are a mere optional subset of the "communication skills" Sir Alan's contestants are required to demonstrate. But in arguing thus one would be wrong, and painfully so. For as the desultory progress of the teams demonstrates all too painfully, the same cliche-ridden, repetitive, indistinct jibberish spouted in the attempt to save face in the boardroom is deployed to similar ill effect in sales pitches and planning meetings.

None of this is helped by the fact that, in contradistinction to the Candid Camera genre of "great television", in which failure and embarrassment become richly won rewards, The Apprentice is filmed and edited in a manner that places great emphasis on what is actually said. With very little action to shoot, the sequences consist by and large of spliced "quotations" from the live footage. We zoom in and out of glimpsed arguments, misunderstandings, hamfisted sales pitches and absurdly ill judged bartering.

Worse still is the emphasis placed on the pearls of wisdom offered by Sir Alan and his two cronies. I am sure Mr Sugar is an excellent businessman, perfectly able to make himself understood when the cameras aren't buzzing round his grisled chops trying to suck up every gobbet dispensed by this former scion of Amstrad. King of the mediocre PCW9512 he might have been, but king of pithy one-liner he is not. Time and again the visual drum roll prepares the gallows moment, our stretched sense of justice aching for satisfaction. Time and again, the hangman's knot comes untied in a malapropistic muddle. Even the show's catchphrase just gets it plain wrong: surely you need to hire someone before you can justly fire them.

If you want evidence for the theory that linguistic ability is the key to other cognitive capacities such as thinking and imagining, The Apprentice is a good lesson. If its contestants are representative of the brightest young sparks in British business we should also be clear that we have reason neither to expect nor hope for renewed commercial success in a country whose education system long ago abandoned the effort to instruct its students, let alone its teachers, in the art of language use. Learning to "express yourself" is well and good, but the selves finding expression here are so unfortunately cut off from the machinery of reflection and imagination – so starved of food for thought by overreliance on a diminishing stock of approximated cliches from which all traces of thought have long ago been sucked dry – that their articulation would be better served by the dull howl of a newly bereft gibbon. This would at least be moving, if similarly unedifying.

One often learns of the damage done by television to the English language. With The Apprentice we witness the waste similarly laid to the English imagination. The sight is not "great" however. It is simply sad.

Comments here

Popular Posts