Juliet Dunlop: No sugaring reality TV’s harsh truths

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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TELEVISION reality show The Apprentice has always prided itself on not really being a TV reality show.

Yes, it is supposed to make the world of business look sexy and glamorous. Yes, it is set in an impressive-looking skyscraper. Yes, there are helicopters, limos and dramatic pauses. Yes, the contestants have been picked for a reason. Yes, Alan Sugar is really Simon Cowell. And yes, it is a competition.

Except no-one has to nail a Whitney Houston ballad or do back-flips while playing the spoons; all they have to do is dance to a carefully scripted tune. There is even a real job at the end of it. Yes, a real job. Nice one Alan – sorry, Lord Sugar.

But now the only real part of The Apprentice – the world of work part that happens after the hyped-up, top-secret, ratings-busting final – has come undone. And it looks decidedly shabby.

This week, Stella English, who won The Apprentice in 2010 and was hired by Sugar, told an employment tribunal that in actual fact there was “no job”.

As part of her claim for constructive dismissal, she described how she had no clear role at the self-made millionaire’s IT company and felt like “an overpaid lackey.” According to her, she was being paid £100,000 for basically answering the phone and making the tea. And to top it all, she was told she was doing another woman’s job.

English, who previously held a senior position at a Japanese investment bank, also accused Sugar of not taking her life and her future seriously, of treating the situation as if it were a “game show”.

Of course, her former boss sees things quite differently. Sugar told the tribunal that English was full of “conspiracy theories” and rather tellingly perhaps, that “the reality of work rather than the glamour of showbusiness was beginning to bite with her”.

Sticking to the TV format, he wielded the axe one more time saying, “her time in the limelight was beginning to fade”. In Lord Sugar’s eyes, it appears showbusiness is a business like any other business, and The Apprentice really is a reality show after all. So much for all the talk about life-changing opportunities, dream jobs and being “a winner”.

Clever editing has been at play.

But then again, did anyone really think that The Apprentice was anything other than reality television? The truth is, it’s the worst kind of reality television. It just so happens it has been dressed-up in a power suit. It has a hollow, corporate take on money and success, which are of course one and the same if the programme is to be believed. Greed is good as far as The Apprentice is concerned and the contestants are card-carrying members of the Gordon Gekko fan club.

Just look at the line-up of potential apprentices. They are a mix of caricatures: diamond geezer, posh bird, posh bloke, single parent, ice maiden and no-hoper. They are also usually scheming, totally lacking in self-awareness and frighteningly ambitious. It is a winning formula that has sold around the world. The US Apprentice, starring everyone’s favourite tycoon, Donald Trump, is a huge hit. The chance to bag a big job with a big salary clearly has universal appeal.

And while fans of The Apprentice describe it as compelling and addictive – which may well be true – to imagine it is some sort of business school has always been a step too far.

It is not a lesson in buying and selling, or hiring and firing, but a rather glossy, unrealistic take-off. This week’s employment tribunal is proof of that.

The Apprentice row has also highlighted the urgent need for a new TV series: When Reality Shows Go Wrong.

Contestants could be drawn from a long list of TV losers; the rejects who did not make the final, or the winners who made the final but failed anyway.

For example, English could be paired up with former I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! winner Kerry Katona. Stella could offer Kerry some financial advice and Kerry could give Stella some tips on how to tone down that ruthless ambition.

Then everyone’s a winner, Alan.