Britain’s most famous businessman tells it straight: he doesn’t like shmoozers, or frummers, or Israel much for that matter. And as for critics of The Apprentice…
SIR ALAN SUGAR is not afraid to speak his mind. But the wannabe entrepreneurs on The Apprentice, his hit BBC business-based reality show, should not take his bluntness too personally. Sir Alan, 61, is just as forthright on many other matters — his Jewish beliefs, for instance , and how he plans to challenge critics, or what he calls “ k’nacker commentators”, of the show. In his first interview with a Jewish publication, Sir Alan, sitting behind his desk in his office in Brentwood, Essex, takes just a few minutes to confess: “I don’t go to shul at all. In fact, I can’t stand it. I find it boring. I am an atheist as far as I’m concerned. I don’t believe in God and all that stuff. I am a scientist and can explain most of what is written in the Bible.”
And as Israel approaches its 60th anniversary, the East End-born tycoon says he does not feel allegiance to the Jewish state. “I am English. I don’t have any loyalty to Israel. Obviously, I sympathise with them, and from time to time disagree with them.
“They have their own problems, but to be perfectly honest with you, I am English and England is my country. I am conscious of Israel, but I am not one of these paranoid people that are constantly worrying about the State of Israel. I am more worried about the state of the streets in England —– that my grandchildren will be able to walk around safely, as I did as a child.”
He does, however, consider himself “very strongly Jewish”, and expresses concern for the future of British Jewry. “There is a Jewish culture, whether you like it or not. There are Jews and there are non-Jews, and I do believe that it is important that the culture remains.”
So how would Sir Alan, one of the world’s most recognised entrepreneurs, ensure this happens? “I don’t think dragging children to shul and making them do something does it, really,” he responds. “I don’t think that has anything to do with the culture. If anything, it can be counter-productive.
“Culture comes from listening to your mother and father and understanding what it means to be a Jew. It doesn’t necessarily come from standing up for six hours every Saturday, or starving yourself on Yom Kippur, or observing every single thing. And I know this might fly in the face of a lot of readers, but that’s how I am, and I think everybody’s got to have their level.
“I look at my family and they all married Jewish people. It wasn’t because we were so religious. I look at some of these so-called pious people, who preach to others about their lesser observance of the tradition, and you look at their families, and some of their siblings didn’t marry Jewish people.
“It goes to prove that forcing people into shul is not really the way. Although, if they get comfort in it, good luck to them. I don’t like to turn anyone away from their comfort.”
Sir Alan has never been one to mince his words. And with an estimated fortune of £830 million — ac- cording to last weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List — he can afford to ruffle a few feathers. His next target is critics of The Apprentice.
Sir Alan is challenging them to take part in a special “ k’nacker’s version” of the show. This is “something your [the JC’s] readers will like,” he confides. K’nacker derives from the Yiddish expression gantzeh k’nacker, meaning a big shot or know-it-all.
He says: “So many people sit in their armchairs at home saying what a bunch of idiots these people [ Apprentice contestants] are, but nobody understands the pressure these people are under and how serious they take it. Of course, there are those that come on, thinking they are going to be movie stars, but I get rid of them pretty sharpish. A majority really believe they can do something.
“I would love to get a team of these k’nacker commentators and put them up against a team of former apprentices and see how well they would do at a very simple task. If I had a bet with Ladbrokes, my apprentices would win. I am going to put this to the BBC and see if they are interested in a k’nacker special.”
By now, the man known for his abrasive manner has loosened up. In fact, Sir Alan — dapper in a crisp white shirt and royal-blue tie, and noticeably trimmer than he appears on TV — is far less intimidating in person than his on-screen image would suggest.
In fact, he becomes positively twinkly when talking about next week’s episode of The Apprentice — a must-watch for every Jewish viewer, he says.
“I think it’s perhaps one of the best episodes ever. I believe this particular programme will become a cult programme. It brings a whole new meaning to the word kosher, and it is certainly going to be of interest to the Jewish population.”
In the episode, the remaining contestants are sent to Morocco to barter for goods in a Marrakesh souk. One of the items is a kosher chicken. “What unfolds is beyond belief,” says Sir Alan. “You cannot make it up.”
The Apprentice, now in its fourth series, shows no sign of losing its popularity. Last week’s episode was watched by eight million viewers. The programme has made Sir Alan probably the UK’s most recognisable businessman and may have contributed to his being asked to join Gordon Brown’s business advisory council. He rejects, though, any suggestion that his fame has won him more attention from the opposite sex. “I wouldn’t say that, no,” he insists. So, no women throwing themselves at him? “No, no, no, no, no, no, fortunately not, no. That’s not been one of the things.”
He contrasts the positive reaction he receives now to his former experience in a high-profile position, when he was the much-criticised chairman of Tottenham Hotspur football club. “It’s a difference of night and day. [As Spurs chairman] it was difficult sometimes to walk in the streets. You would get totally abused by thugs. In this case, it’s all compliments and that type of stuff.”
He is particularly proud of the show’s following among younger people, so much so that he is considering creating a version for teenagers, although he acknowledges that this might be difficult in practical terms. He attributes much of the show’s success to its authenticity. “ The Apprentice is not a scripted thing. I am not an actor. What you see is how it is. Everybody knows exactly that that is me.”
He does, however, have at least one regret. It concerns his catchphrase, “I don’t like shmoozers”.
“It’s funny, I was the first one to use the word schmoozer, but now you hear it being used by lots of people. Everyone knows I can’t stand shmoozers.”
But as a result, people close to him are reluctant to compliment his performance on TV for fear of be-
Sir Alan Sugar: “Forcing people into shul is not really the way. Although, if they get comfort in it, good luck to them”