There are big changes on The Apprentice this year. The biggest perhaps being that it’s been nudged from its regular springtime slot into the autumn schedule after Lord Sugar’s government enterprise role was deemed a conflict of interest for the BBC during the general election. With the rest of Team ShortList departed and just he and I left in the meeting room, I ask how he felt about the schedule shift.
“Everybody was disappointed that it got delayed,” he says, nibbling thoughtfully on a ginger biscuit. “It was a big political thing and the BBC lost their nerve, simple as that.” But he thinks the new home might work in their favour. “I’ve got a funny feeling that the BBC will be pleasantly surprised with the results of scheduling it in the autumn,” he says with a smile. “They’re going to need very, very, very big balls to move it back to spring next year.”
It might have been affected by political controversy, but Lord Sugar is adamant that this series of The Apprentice is the best one yet. “The programme gets better each year because we get cleverer at producing it. All of the candidates there are credible. They’re not just recruited to be silly or just cause trouble.”
He’s clearly keen to sniff out the attention-seekers with one eye on a chat-show deal and says a contestant such as Series 2 loudmouth Syed Ahmed would never be considered nowadays.
While there are a few changes to the besuited bunfight, the old mysteries still remain. Is that really Lord Sugar’s PA? What’s with the eerie ghost café frequented by doomed candidates? And is there any truth to rumours about a booster-chair in the boardroom to make him look more imposing?
“The chair story was a total joke,” spits Sugar. “The chair was not constructed to make me look taller because anybody knows you can lift an office chair up and down if you want to. It was a load of b*llocks.” Mystery solved.
The general election might have derailed The Apprentice, but Labour’s loss also cost Lord Sugar his job as a government tsar. “There are no regrets. I’m still always there ready to promote enterprise and I do Q&As talking to young people,” he says. What are his thoughts on Gordon Brown? “I think he was very unlucky to have come into power at the time of the credit crunch but he’s a very good man. A very clever man and one of the best prime ministers we’ve had in years.”
He’s less complimentary about David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition government. “I think it’s too early to talk about whether they’re any good or not because they’ve only been in since May,” he says, thoughtfully sipping his coffee. “My initial instinct is that I can’t see it lasting too long. I think the biggest mistake that was made in the election was the TV debates.” Really? “Yeah, I think the Liberal Democrats and in particular Nick Clegg should never have been given the opportunity to confuse the public,” he says, jabbing the desk for emphasis. “That’s what happened — people got confused and that’s why we got a coalition.”
After being relieved of his services by the new government, the former Tottenham Hotspur chairman — who once said the club was “a waste of my life” — considered a surprise return to football as chairman of the FA. Is he still keen on the job?
“I thought it was a challenge I’d like to take on,” admits Sugar. “But then I realised that it’s impossible because of the way the FA is structured. It’s not for me and it’s certainly not for my culture.” But if he was in that position, who would he like to see succeed Fabio Capello?
“A lot of people are saying Harry Redknapp should do it, but Alex Ferguson would be great. My personal opinion is that this could be a funny year for Ferguson because he’s going to get to the stage where he can no longer compete with lunatics like Manchester City and Chelsea who just go out and buy a whole team,” he explains. “So therefore his skills and man-management won’t matter because he can’t compete with a team assembled with billions of pounds. So if he gave up and then took the England team, I think he’d be very successful.” Convince a fiercely proud Scot to manage England? We wouldn’t put it past him.
Don’t hold your breath for a return to football’s occasionally murky world, though. He’s not surprised at the recent rash of lurid tabloid headlines concerning players’ private lives.
“Some of them have got their brains in the wrong place and it’s become very fashionable now to get honey-trapped,” he says with a weary sigh. “It’s become kind of a business, hasn’t it? You get some girl to lure a footballer into bed and she goes and sells her story for £100,000.”
We’re approaching the end of the interview and Lord Sugar is starting to tend to the regular tinkling of his BlackBerry. How does he relax away from emails and business deals? He loves to keep fit and cycle, explaining that he used one of his three Pinarello bikes to complete a 111-mile bike ride from San Remo to San Tropez in August. “I fly my aeroplane on weekends too,” he says, acknowledging his full pilot’s licence. “We’ll fly over to France, have lunch there and come back. It’s great.” The BlackBerry goes off again. Earlier on, he was tracking the pre-order sales of his book in the Amazon chart. He’s clearly keen for the story of his life — from the money-spinning days brewing his own ginger beer for pocket money as a schoolboy to his triumphs with Amstrad — to be a success.
“I’ve been asked to do a book loads of times, he says. “But I decided that when I was made a Lord it was enough of a milestone to write the story.” Ah, yes, he’s a Lord now. I’ve been worried about mistakenly calling him ‘Sir Alan’ all day and he admits some Apprentice contestants still get confused. What rights does he have as a Lord? Can he lead his cattle through the streets of Clapton with impunity?
“Most probably,” he laughs. “But the best thing is that I can stand up in the House Of Lords, slag people off and they can’t sue me.” And now he’s genuinely laughing and I’m strangely proud that my daft cow joke has tickled TV’s grumpiest gazillionaire. Then he snaps back into tough boss mode, eyeing his expensive watch and hoping you’re not about to waste his time.
The Apprentice is on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC One; What You See Is What You Get: My Autobiography by Alan Sugar (Macmillan) is out now, priced £20.