Don’t knock it – Sugar’s a winner for our times

With its unashamed pursuit of money and multi-ethnic contestants, The Apprentice holds up a mirror to our city today

Published in the Evening Standard

So the Londoner won. Last night Alan Sugar, the self-described ?bloody old fool,? chose Simon Ambrose, native son of Hampstead Garden Suburb, to serve as his newest Apprentice. If the cold calculus of the balance sheet alone had been decisive, Sugar would doubtless have plumped for the super-capable, steadily competent Kristina Grimes. Instead sentiment got the better of him: he liked Simon?s quirkiness, his risk-taking, the gleam in his eye. For three consecutive series, Sugar has been looking for a surrogate son, someone he could groom as a possible successor. Last night,

the fondness of his smile suggested he had got his man.

Of course the real winner is the BBC, which has a certified hit on its hands. Summer after summer, the Apprentice has risen above the rest of the reality TV chaff and emerged as genuine water-cooler television: these last weeks, I heard it talked about everywhere. Even the spin-off show, The Apprentice: You?re Fired over on BBC Two, acquired a cult following.

Last week?s shock withdrawal of pantomime villain Katie Hopkins was

debated in pubs and offices, on online talkboards and radio phone-ins and across the quality press. The freakshow ringmasters of Channel 4?s Big Brother can only look on with envy.

Yes, I know the criticisms. Sir Alan ? forget the new egalitarianism,

Sugar is only ever known by his full title ? is far from the business

genius claimed by the programme. The naysayers note that his Amstrad

operation is worth less than a tenth of the value it commanded at its

peak, its computers now remembered as a fond joke. Compared to the likes of Terry Leahy or Stuart Rose, Sugar is distinctly minor league. What?s more, add the carpers, Sugar?s confrontational way of doing business ? all raised voices and jabbed fingers ? went out with red braces and shoulder pads, if it was ever in. The true titans of business are softly-spoken consensus builders, their work a world away from the adrenalin-filled shout-fests that make up the Apprentice.

All of which may be true, but none of which much matters. The show is

great television, Sugar a natural TV star. And it has a more enduring

value too. For the Apprentice provides an irresistible snapshot of this city at this time, capturing the London of 2007 as precisely as any novel or movie.

There are the pictures for a start. Those aerial shots of the capital, the camera swooping over the river, lingering by Canary Wharf and the Eye, either in the first sunlight of early morning or in the shimmering glitter of evening, reveal a London that has never looked lovelier. You don?t see the sweaty crush on the Tube or the choking fumes of the bus, just the gleaming sparkle of a city in its 21st century pomp.

That fits the tenor of a programme that is unashamedly Londoncentric.

While other parts of the BBC?s output have to apologise for featuring the capital so centrally, always conscious of the obligation to include the regions, the Apprentice begins and ends in London. Sugar sets his tasks in London Zoo or at the top of the Telecom tower; the teams sell coffee in Islington or art in Cork Street. The loser is shown leaving, suitcase in hand, in the back of a black cab.

Last night?s show was yet another extended tourist promotion for this

city. Sir Alan asked Kristina and Simon to design a replacement for the IBM building he owns on the South Bank. He wanted a new ?landmark for London.? Research took the duelling rivals to the London Aquarium, the Science Museum and Kew Gardens. They presented their designs to property?s movers and shakers at the old Billingsgate Market ? now, like so many old working areas of London, swanked up as a party venue and arts space.

But in the Apprentice the capital is never just the backdrop. The unstated message of the show is that making it in Britain means coming to London. Mancunian Adam or Scottish Ghazal all compete for a job in the big city: indeed, Katie came unstuck last week over her inability to relocate from Exeter. Sugar told her straight: ?I ain?t got no businesses in Devon.? It was London ? or nothing.

The faces arrayed around Sugar?s boardroom table reflect something real about the capital too. They are as diverse a bunch as you would find on any morning train. In the first series, the final four consisted of black Londoner (and eventual winner) Tim Campbell, Asian motormouth Saira Khan alongside candidates with Italian and Jewish roots. Syed Ahmed was a stand-out performer last year, while Tre Azam ? with a line in four-letter invective that gloriously defied his Islamist-style beard ? won hearts this year.

Better still, this diversity is taken for granted on the Apprentice, as it is in much of today?s London. The contestants abuse each other routinely, but not (as far as we?ve seen) on grounds of race or sexuality. Here, too, Sugar deserves credit. When each week he weighed up which of the three luckless souls before him should be fired, he gave no hint of bias: white candidates lost out to black, and vice versa. As an employer, Alan Sugar appeared as colour-blind as every modern London boss should be. (Though after he grilled Katie on her childcare arrangements last week, but not Tre on his, the same cannot be said of Sugar?s attitude to gender.)

Above all, the Apprentice deals in the golden substance that makes

London?s wheels go around: money. The weekly tasks have only one aim, to make the most cash. That suits a city which, even New York concedes, is fast becoming the world?s financial capital. London is throbbing with money just now ? and the Apprentice captures the moment exquisitely.

In Alan Sugar, London has found its embodiment. The Hackney boy made good, the Jewish market trader whose rags have turned to riches, his is the quintessential London tale. That his fortune is no longer derived from manufacturing but from property could be a parable of the London economy of 2007.

Now Sugar has a new sidekick, in the form of Simon Ambrose. Lets hope his apprenticeship works out. But lets also hope he is under no illusions. Simon was not the best thing about the Apprentice. Nor, even, was his new boss. Make no mistake: London is the star of this show.