Perhaps more than its executives would care to admit, British mainstream television throbs with the thin-blooded pulse of nostalgia. Top Gear reminds viewers of a time when it was all right for minor public school types to talk about cars and make feeble jokes about women and foreigners. Once or twice a week, there will be a drama series, usually with a part for Dennis Waterman, which brings back faces from the past, only with less hair and more midriff. Occasionally a cunning format like that for the series Life on Mars provides nostalgia but renders it respectable with a veneer of contemporary irony and knowingness.
But occasionally it is difficult to judge whether programme-makers are knowingly travelling back in time or are simply stuck in the past without realising it. It may well be, for example, that the team responsible for the hit show The Apprentice thought that getting Sir Alan Sugar to set tasks for a group of gauche, eager would-be entrepreneurs and then fire them one by one, provided an insight into the ways of modern business.
In fact, what is reassuring about the series is that it brings back memories of the 1980s as surely as a re-run of Dallas or Dynasty. With its burly chairman in his tight suit and the two slightly sinister mom-and-pop grey-hairs who are his sidekicks, the grabby obsession with money and the trappings it brings, the show might more accurately be renamed The Dinosaur.
It is primarily mass entertainment, and that these days tends to involve the embarrassment and humiliation of contestants. Each week, one or other of them is revealed to be too soft, too nice, too lacking in the killer instinct or simply – in Sugar’s favourite catch-all phrase – “out of their depth”. It would relatively harmless sado-TV were it not for the fact that reality shows have begun to present themselves as semi-educational. They take themselves seriously. While viewers are laughing at some poor sap on the screen, the thinking goes, they are also learning important lessons about how to be married, bring up children, dress, cook or decorate.
In this context, The Apprentice is doing a disservice to those it presumably hopes to instruct. The message it conveys every week is that, in order to be a success in business, it is essential to be nasty, disloyal, greedy and selfish. A team leader foolish enough to take responsibility for a task that has gone wrong is writing her own dismissal notice. A contestant who defends a colleague, or admits to his lack of confidence or experience, will be presented as a failure. Interest in areas outside money-making – particularly science or art – is deemed to be a weakness. Sugar sneers at sympathy, scoffs at doubt. All that matters, it appears, is closing the sale, doing the deal.
That played rather well in about 1985 but surely, without seeming like the sort of wimp for whom Sugar has such contempt, one could argue that we have moved on since then. The employee who is prepared to blame those who work with them, who will do anything to shift responsibility away from themselves, is hardly an asset. Salesmanship is not everything. An awareness of a world outside business can actually be rather an advantage. An ethical sense is not only desirable but also good business.
More thoughtful programmes about entrepreneurship, such as the series in which Sir Gerry Robinson visited companies or organisations that were in trouble, have pointed up how out-of-date and counter-productive the mindless aggression and competitiveness of the sell-at-all costs 1980s mentality can be.
Tapping into what seems to be the most televisual aspect of business – its ruthlessness and nastiness – producers are not only trading on a cliché that is out of date but are choosing to celebrate and reward the very attitudes which, away from the office, are deplored as anti- social or yobbish.
In the normal world, a person who placed a lolly she was trying to sell in the hand of a small child, knowing that the child’s parents would feel obliged to buy it, would not be held up as an example of dynamism. Another woman’s concern about the morality of what she was asked to do would be commended rather than mocked by her boss. Those who sneered at the work of their colleagues, and attempted to get them into trouble, would be regarded as business versions of the kind of people about whom politicians of all parties have taken making solemn speeches, invoking civic responsibility.
Selfishness, a lack of personal accountability, a ruthless aggression towards others are, in everyday life, regarded as social problems. How odd it is that a successful TV programme suggests that they are so desirable in business.