Junior Apprentice: taking yoof seriously

Watching young people being forced to account for themselves in the boardroom was strangely exhilarating.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

Television is often accused of being youth-obsessed, with its constant dumbing down and sexing up of previously serious, adult shows, its ‘yoof’ channels such as E4 and BBC3, inane wall-to-wall reality TV, and the ruthless ditching of stars (even newsreaders) when they get to a certain age. Worse still, the complaint goes, older people are ghettoised: portrayed as feeble victims of abuse or bodily malfunction, patronised with bland light entertainment or relegated from prime time to past-the-midnight-hour (when the poor dears have nodded off).

All of which is, broadly speaking, true. So it was refreshing that TV went with a ‘youth and age’ theme this week, really pushing the merits of cross-generational bonding.

It started badly, however. On the news all week, there was the sad spectre of a confused, failed and utterly spent old man being put out of his misery by a braying mob, none of whom appreciated what he had done for them in the wars. Then he was replaced by that lovely young gay couple who revoltingly banged on at great length about nervously trying new things, fumbling around for each others’ rooms in the dark of the night, and how much they had in common whilst looking inspiringly into each others’ eyes. Once again, it seemed, we were faced with the sight of TV execs rubbing their own modern, liberal cosmopolitanism in the faces of their older, more traditional viewers.

After a while I banned myself from casting a leery eye over the wall-to-wall election porn, and reminded myself that Gordon Brown isn’t that old (but by Christ he seems it) and that Dave’n’Nick were actually the leaders of a new coalition. But actually, the new Cabinet had a healthy mixture of youth and experience, with the familiar faces of comedy granddad Vince Cable and naughty uncle Ken Clarke sitting down with ‘fresh-faced’ newcomers George Osborne and Baroness Warsi.

But even better was BBC1’s Junior Apprentice. As you might expect from the title, it’s the spin-off from the hit show The Apprentice, in which entrepreneurs battle it out in various business-related tasks and are kicked off, one by one, by businessman Alan Sugar. This new show took on the format, but with 16- and 17-year-olds.

Despite ostensibly being a reality TV show, fans will know there is a strong element of artifice and pantomime in the format: various deluded wannabes big themselves up using lots of stupid motivational speak before failing miserably and viciously blaming each other. The losers then get called in to Sugar’s boardroom and get told off like naughty schoolchildren, before he polishes them off with the catchphrase: ‘You’re fired!’

Pleasingly, the programme-makers realised that repeating this process with actual teenagers, instead of overgrown ones, is ripe with potential. The show relies on the fundamental conceit that there is something infinitely pleasurable about watching smarmy and cocky young guns being knocked down to size, and within the first few minutes we already heard that magical phrase, ‘As a senior prefect…’ What a bunch they are. You have Jordan, a camp and fatally aloof Irish internet guru; Tim, a sheep farmer who’s frightened of wind; Adam, a cocksure market vendor straight out of the EastEnders school of loveable rogues; the pretentious and eminently villainous Zoe (who runs a vintage clothes stall); Hannah, whose sole contribution to the episode was to shout ‘I ate a pig’s ear!’; and Hibah (who was the first to cry).

But the potential stars in any series of The Apprentice are the quietly confident but unlikely-looking underdogs. Rhys looks like a Dickensian urchin who may drop dead of consumption any second but he seems to possess a gobby inner steel, making sarcastic jibes at Jordan throughout and damning him in the boardroom. Arjun, the aforementioned senior prefect, also looks prepubescent and carries his hands behind his back like a proper grown-up businessman even when he’s trying to sell cheese on the street. Finally, there is the sociopathically cute Kirsty Cleaver, a chirpy but plain-speaking Scots girl who really does look like she might bite your legs off if you crossed her.

The highlight of the episode, as is always the case, came in the boardroom cross-examination at the end. Beforehand there had been much talk from Sugar about going easier on the kids than he would on the adults, instead focusing on accentuating the positive. This could have been the worst bit, a horribly patronising exercise in esteem-building and worthiness… but in fact it was exhilarating. Because what got stripped away was not the savagery of the criticism, but the histrionic performance aspect. These kids were visibly shaking as they sat explaining themselves; their voices were cracking with fear and embarrassment. Rather than the entertaining spectacle of adults acting like children, here we were treated to the sight of children being asked to act like grown-ups: to listen to blunt criticism from someone more experienced, and to explain their choices and account for their mistakes.

It was excruciating, but mesmerising, too. Cocky Adam was reduced to a whimpering child trying not to burst into tears; Jordan looked murderously at his mutinous teammates; Rhys looked like there was no snitching he wouldn’t do to get out of it; Tim shrugged it off with the manful character of a schoolboy whose surname is ‘Ankers’.

Yet none of them looked damaged or traumatised by the experience. They looked as if they’d actually learnt something, and if they haven’t they’ll probably be back in the boardroom again next week. Even more surprisingly, Alan Sugar – with his carefully considered words but frank honesty – managed to seem like he was filled with wisdom and authority, as opposed to the puffed-up, ex-Spurs chairman, New Labour lord absurdity that he is. What a brilliant idea of the BBC to realise the thrilling possibilities of televising the mental processes inherent in somebody actually learning something: now, if only somebody can tell their other producers, we’ll be in business.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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