In September last year, ShortList's bravest staffer, Jimi Famurewa, spent a day with the man with the scariest finger in the west.
“Can’t be bothered with them,” barks Lord Sugar, shaking his head irritably. “It was too much aggravation and it’s not worth my time.” Is Britain’s most fearsome boss giving me a typically cheery response to an afternoon guest-editing ShortList? Thankfully not. It’s his explanation of why butting celebrity egos and people “who missed the spirit of the whole thing” have forced him to call time on Comic Relief Does The Apprentice. But the implication is clear. Waste his time at your peril.This could prove tricky as it’s very easy to be nervous in Alan Sugar’s presence. From the moment the waiting ShortList team glimpse his familiar figure striding past the frosted glass of our meeting room, paranoia seeps into the simplest tasks. Newly clumsy fingers fumble with coffee cups, phones are clammily switched to silent three times over and mouths are clamped shut for fear that something unwittingly daft will fly out. It’s enough to make you feel sorry for even the smarmiest Apprentice contestant.
But then the subject of Fabio Capello’s retirement is mentioned in the news discussion and an unlikely ice-breaker emerges. “I think he’s useless,” says Sugar, with a rueful shake of the head. “I heard him say he was going to retire at 2012 and I thought our luck was in.” He lets out a smile: “I thought that meant he was leaving at 12 minutes past eight that night.”
Relieved laughter follows, along with the realisation that Sugar may be an uncompromising business tycoon worth around £700m but he’s also, well, pretty funny. Not just in the way his snarled one-liners on The Apprentice suggest, but in a mischievous and playful way. At one point he suggests we tease Louis Walsh about his eye surgery. It may mean keeping the magazine’s lawyers on speed dial, but it also means we can relax a bit.
Flashback to 10am that morning and I’m awaiting my first encounter with Lord Sugar. He’s going to be present at the launch of the delayed sixth series of his Bafta-winning reality juggernaut The Apprentice. The self- made entrepreneur who turned an early career selling TV aerials into a multimillion pound success story strolls into a west London office. In person he’s not as diminutive as some would have you believe and confounds his slightly scruffy image in a sharply tailored suit that I suspect costs more than the average car.
During the screening of the first episode, I’m afforded the unique experience of watching The Apprentice with its star sat right behind me, occasionally muttering comments as the action unfolds. It’s very surreal. Like asking Simon Cowell to pass the Pringles during an X Factor ad break.
Later on at ShortList Towers, any impatience from Lord Sugar during his guest-editing stint is perhaps understandable. We’ve caught him at a particularly busy time. Not only is The Apprentice returning, he’s just released a hulking door-stopper of an autobiography called What You See Is What You Get. “There were 10s more stories I could have put in there but the book is big enough as it is,” admits Sugar.
Packed diary aside, our new boss is flinging himself into the challenge and discussion is ferocious as he swats away unwelcome ideas like midges. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are dismissed as “a bunch of buskers” and a classy piece of Spanish architecture gets particularly short shrift as “two-a-penny stuff you see in holiday brochures”. He’s a hard man to please, but quite a few things pass muster, he seems to be enjoying himself and his gruff brand of honesty is refreshing.
Not that he’s always right (he once claimed the iPod would be “kaput” by Christmas 2006) and he later admits to learning “from his past mistakes”.
He’s got plenty of passionate opinions about gadgetry and electronics too (see his comments about the BlackBerry Torch in our Tech section on page 28) and, when he’s not ruling the Amstrad empire, he reveals himself to be a big fan of a certain ShortList-approved Sixties television drama.
“I’ve been watching Mad Men for the last three years,” he says after a heated discussion about macho attitudes in the workplace. “It’s only in the last six months that it’s got very fashionable.” As the image of Lord Sugar devouring Don Draper box-sets in his monogrammed slippers flies into my head, it’s a glimpse of his life away from the boardroom bellowing.
Head this way for part two.