No, not a comment on the denizens of the beach at Clacton-upon-Sea on the August bank holiday, but an observation on the essential difference between the two great television competitions of our time: Lord Sugar’s ‘The Apprentice’ versus Gregg ‘n John’s ‘Masterchef’. As an aside, surely it would be better for a man named sugar to be presenting the culinary offering, but we’ll let that pass.
What has struck me about these two deservedly popular programs is that one celebrates excellence, while the other revels in ignominy. For the Apprentice, the whole point of watching is not to see who succeeds - I never find that I care that much for the last man standing - but to enjoy the death by a thousand incompetencies of the gradually discarded others. ‘Who will cock-up this week, and how?’ is the central question. Like watching sanitised gladiatorial combat, all the pleasure comes from the failures, the hopeless inadequacies of those whose egos are inversely proportional to their talent. And the producers not only know this (no surprises there) but cleverly serve up cuts of the action or inaction alongside comments to camera by the telly-fodder contestants that often leads to a delicious coup de théâtre when against all expectations the worst team somehow manages to squeeze in a extra five quids’ worth of sales to sneak the prize at the last moment. What joy as the super self-confidence of those who thought they had it in the bag morphs to the grim reality of defeat and the commencement of the ultimate denouement: the cat-fight in the boardroom. There is no question that I love watching the awfulness of it all, and yet…
And yet isn’t it sad that a program with a platform such as this is celebrating failure rather than success. Although ‘your hired’ is diminutive Lord S’s final flourish of each series, the show’s name and it’s central premise stem from failure. You can’t fault ‘em for trying (well perhaps you can) but we’re not really interested in what the contestants can do, rather in what they fail to do.
Which brings me to Masterchef. What a contrast. Although there are failures along the way and food is occasionally presented that I wouldn’t serve to my dog, the central purpose of this show is to find ordinary people who can do extraordinary things. The more each series progresses, the more I think about my own hopelessness as a cook. These guys really are remarkable. Week after week they rise to the challenge and produce ever more mouthwatering concoctions. By the end of the series I’m desperate to get to a Michelin starred restaurant and try something like it for myself.
This then is what TV should do more of: find and celebrate people who have real, useful talents (let’s ignore all the one-legged jugglers who can sing My Way on a kazoo for X-Factor et al) and accelerate their opportunity to make a genuine contribution to our society. Dragons’ Den, yes; Britain’s Got Talent, no. With Masterchef, the winner is the best of the best but we never forget that the runners-up are all worthy of high-praise for their achievements. What next? How about a program that celebrates volunteering? Now there’s an idea.