- The Guardian, Wednesday 25 March 2009
I've been waiting outside for a while, biting my nails, when the woman behind the desk says Sir Alan is ready to see me - I can go in now. This is all feeling quite familiar, and not in a nice way. I'm hearing that music in my head: da, dur-dur, dur-dur, dur-dur, da (it's the Apprentice tune, for anyone who doesn't read music).
Wait though! It's only me, there's no one else coming in, no one else to point the finger at. It can only be me who gets fired. A couple of minutes from now, I'll be trundling my little wheelie suitcase out of the door, stepping into a taxi for one last interview while being driven back to obscurity.
But it's not the boardroom inside, there's no big table. We're in a small room in the television production company that makes The Apprentice. Sir Alan Sugar is here, but he's not flanked by his generals, Nick and Margaret. He sits in the corner of a sofa, looking slightly awkward. He hardly looks at me, seems more interested in the tape recorder that I put on the table.
Well, he did used to be in electronics before he became a reality TV star, and his contempt for journalists is well documented; maybe I shouldn't be surprised.
Anyway, the tables are turned; I'm asking the questions around here. And for a start I want to know what he does. You know, for a living. It's not such a daft question. Everyone knows what he used to do - aerials out of the back of a van, then Amstrad, East End boy done good, Tottenham, those funny emailing machines - but what about now?
Real estate, that's the answer - or "boring kind of real estate" as he calls it. There is an electronic signs business too, and Viglen, his computer company which makes and provides IT systems. But most of his money is tied up in real estate. That's surely not good news is it, in these times of tumbling property prices?
"Well, it is and it isn't," he says. "It is if you're a cash-rich company, you can go and pick some bargains up. We are a cash-rich company, and the nervousness is: what's a bargain? When you make offers to people which start off as tongue-in-cheek and they accept them, you think to yourself: bloody hell, you know, what's going on? We're kind of a bit nervous."
What about these stories that he has lost £100m? "Well, I haven't lost it because I never had it."
I don't think anyone is really suggesting he's lost £100m in cash, but that his assets are worth £100m less than they were. Is that fair? "Well, I don't know really, I mean someone made it up. What do you fancy me being worth today? You can't stop people printing what they want to print. When you're talking about millions, no one's actually got £800m in a bank account. That's the only way you can say a person is worth £800m. You have to look at the assets they have and value them."
So was it fair to value them at £800m, and now to value them at significantly less? "Yeah, I think it's a very fair comment. If you had to re-bullshit my wealth, then you best bullshit it down by £100m at the moment, why not? And then, suddenly, when we pull out of recession, we can bullshit it up to £900m or something like that. It makes no difference. Do I care if I lost £100m? I tell you what, give me £600m cash, and we'll shake hands."
The other thing Sugar does, of course, is reality TV that is OK for people with degrees to watch. The Apprentice begins its fifth season tonight, and he does concede that whereas once he was Amstrad's Alan Sugar, and then Tottenham's Alan Sugar, he is now The Apprentice's Sir Alan. Perhaps it was no accident that the Jewish Chronicle last year omitted him from its list of the 100 most powerful Jews, and then sought to make some kind of amends by declaring him The Most Entertaining Jew on TV. "Well, it's not hard to be number one entertaining Jew," he says. "Some of them are quite bleeding bloody miserable, really."
He also says he is dead proud of his Jewishness. "Not in a religious way - I don't believe in God and all that. But I am Jewish, and very proud to be so, very proud of the culture."
Does he actually need a new apprentice? Sugar says he's always looking for bright young people, that he's happy with the last two winners, and he's confident he's going to get a good player out of this next lot. Having seen the first episode, I would say they were a bunch of freaks chosen purely for the purposes of TV entertainment, and that any sane person wouldn't let any of them near a serious place of employment, but then I'm no businessman. It's also very entertaining, maybe funnier than before, and I don't believe the fact that thrusting money-grabbers aren't exactly flavour of the month will do anything to lessen its popularity.
Sugar won't tell me what the winner can expect to be doing, but tells me that last year's winner, Lee "That's what I'm talking about!" McQueen, is currently working in the digital signage business.
Hmmm, digital signage in Brentwood ... can that really be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow these thrusting young people who won't take no for an answer climbed all over each other to get to? Is it surprising that the first two winners of The Apprentice, Tim Campbell and Michelle Dewberry, no longer work for Sugar?
I want to know if he thinks The Apprentice encourages ganging up and backstabbing. "I don't know, it brings it out. But I think in general life it goes on. In corporate life it does go on. In newspapers, you quite often see people taking people to tribunals, asking for large financial awards for being treated badly or being allowed to operate in a backstabbing kind of environment. I don't think The Apprentice promotes that, no. It's an entertaining programme, it definitely shows a kind of competitiveness when people are under extreme pressure."
Sugar accepts that he can be seen as intimidating; I think he actually quite likes it. Is he a bully though? "I don't think so, no. Again, it's a nice headline: 'Bully Sir Alan Sugar was seen the other day coming out of The Ivy'; 'Bully Sir Alan Sugar was watching Tottenham Hotspur playing Aston Villa'; 'The Bully was in the boardroom ...' It's just a name that some of the journalists like to call me."
Is his wife scared of him? "No, of course not. She's the boss at home, I think. If you ask anybody [who knows us] they would tell you that. I mean, we've only been married for 41 years. I've told her to stop calling me Sir Alan now." That's a joke, though I don't believe it's the first time he's made it.
Sugar has also been accused of having an old-fashioned attitude towards women. Or, less euphemistically, of being a sexist. "That's very unfair," he says. "Not true. Not true. It started off with two journalists from the Daily Telegraph about a year ago. Totally untrue."
Bloody journalists again. I remind him it was about whether an employer should have the right to know whether a woman was planning on having a family when she was taken on. "Do we want to go there again?" he says, sounding cross now. "I don't want to start that debate again. No, I'm not going there, I'm not going there. Next!"
For the record then, Sugar has said that, as an employer, he would like to be able to ask a woman at interview whether she is planning to get married and have children. He has also been criticised for having few women in high-up positions in his company.
He will admit to being an old-fashioned person in general, and says he doesn't like the rudeness and crudeness he sees on television. "I thinking swearing's fine - don't swear in front of women and children. I do my share of lord mayoring but it's at the right time and the right place. I don't like this young crudeness now which is supposed to be comedy on Friday nights."
And he doesn't like jargon, or bureaucracy, or bullshit. Or newspaper stories about him that aren't true (him running for mayor of London is the most recent - he couldn't because of conflicts of interests, and anyway, he says, he's not interested in going into politics; he's too honest). And sometimes he doesn't like the way he's edited on television. A trail for Comic Relief made him look like a ranting, raving lunatic, he says. It was lots of clips all stitched together, "so you saw me screaming in a blue-striped shirt with a blue tie and then turning my head and screaming in a pink shirt and a yellow tie, simply so they could obtain this objective. My wife hates that, my kids hate that, and that doesn't help me want to do more of these lovely programmes. But they apologised - said sorry, we had nothing to do with it, you know, Comic Relief did it, it's not our fault ... Bollocks. Lying fuckers."
He seems to like having a moan about something, or someone. I think it would be fair to say Sir Alan Sugar is not one of life's great enthusiasts. If he praises someone on The Apprentice, it seems to be done with reluctance. So what is he passionate about? "Not a lot, really. I like to keep fit. I fly in my own aeroplane. I like flying aeroplanes. Cycling, I do a bit of cycling."
He's not as scary in real life as he is on the telly. That's probably that editing he's not happy about. But the editing is no bad thing, because he's less eloquent in person than he is on The Apprentice, less enigmatic. And less funny, too.
I was given a very specific time to interview Sugar, and I thought I had calculated it about right, but when he has answered my final question, there are still a couple of minutes to go. I can't really think of anything else to say.
It feels like a bad date - I'm on a bad date with Sir Alan Sugar.
So I ask him the first thing that comes to mind, which is: what's with the beard? He begins to talk about it, says it was more out of laziness than consciousness, and that the missus doesn't mind it. But then suddenly he realises what he's talking about, and he snaps into character, Sralan off The Apprentice.
"It's not very interesting talking about a bloody beard, is it?" he says impatiently. "Pathetic isn't it? Is that all you've got to write about in these economic times? Beards? Honestly. Right, where are we going to have this bloody picture taken?"
I think it's fair to say that I've been fired.
The Apprentice starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1. The Apprentice: The Best of Series 1-4 DVD is out on 20 April.