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Hirings, firings and boardroom rows: The rise and fall of Ireland's version of The Apprentice

We take a look at the good, bad and the bizarre of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday in The Tube.

apprentice-winners Bill Cullen (left) with The Apprentice winner Steve Rayner (second from left), Jackie Lavin and Brian Purcell (right) Source: Mark Stedman via RollingNews.ie

THIS YEAR MARKS 12 years since The Apprentice Ireland hit our screens for the first time. 

The original Donald Trump-fronted Apprentice originally aired in the US in 2004, and since then has been franchised out to dozens of countries around the world. 

Three years before the Irish season first aired, BBC began airing the UK version, starring businessman Alan Sugar. This was aired on Irish television, and the nation soon became familiar with the show’s concept. 

In 2008, TV3 (now Virgin Media Television) and the Shinawil production company sought to recreate the global success of the reality show in Ireland. 

Similar to the established US and UK formats, the Irish series centred around a group of young hopefuls who competed in a number of challenges set by ‘the boss’ – in this case, businessman Bill Cullen.

While contestants initially vied for a chance to work with the former market-seller turned motor dealer, in 2011 the format was changed and instead participants competed for an investment in their business idea.

During each task, the candidates were observed closely by businesswoman Jackie Lavin and PR expert Brian Purcell. 

Then, following each task they faced a grilling from the trio in the boardroom before Cullen ultimately uttered the famous phrase “You’re fired!”, sending one of the contestants home.

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 11.26.21 Bill Cullen, Jackie Lavin and Brian Purcell at 2012 Irish Film and Television Awards Source: Sasko Lasarov via RollingNews.ie

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Purcell said the filming was great fun – but in the same breath described it as “gruelling”. 

“We did two days [of filming] for a task and one day for the boardroom,” Purcell explained. 

“The actual boardroom, that was the toughest part because we started at 9am, we had pre-production meetings up until lunchtime, a quick bite of lunch, into makeup … and then we’d start filming at 2pm.

The typical boardroom scene would take about five to five and a half hours of filming, but you only saw about 18 to 21 minutes of that.

While the days of filming were long and tiring for the judges the contestants were under even more stress, as they had to face hours of being quizzed on their performances during the tasks. 

“They were really, really under a spotlight or a microscope. We asked about every single thing that was going on and the thing was, myself and Jackie, we were there at every minute of the filming [of the tasks] … so they couldn’t pull the wool over our eyes.”

The candidates

While the Irish version of The Apprentice only lasted four seasons, there were a number of candidates who stood out above the rest. 

A candidate that became a familiar face on Irish television for years after his stint on the show was Harvard University graduate Breffny Morgan, who appeared on the second season. 

While he didn’t win the season and was eliminated on week nine of 13, Morgan made a name for himself on the show with his charismatic personality and memorable one liners, such as this: 

Source: Darren Maracara-Byrne/YouTube

He went on to appear in Celebrity Salon and Celebrity Bainisteoir after his time on The Apprentice. 

Reminiscing on his other favourite contestants, Purcell noted Steve Rayner, winner of season two. 

“He was just an incredible salesman. I’ll never forget we had to sell nasal strips to gyms and to people who were in the leisure industry. I mean, how the hell can you sell nasal strips? But he went out and he cold called all these gyms and all these outlets and went out and sold a couple of hundred boxes.

The guy was amazing. He’s still the standout candidate for me out of the four series, just an incredible character. 

Success

While there was some initial criticism of the Irish version of the show, it soon gained a steady audience. 

“Unfortuantely, a lot of the Irish people jumped on and said it’s just another rip off of an English programme and how could Ireland do something as good as the production in England,” Purcell said. 

Shinawil brought “professional and brilliant” production values, he added. 

“When you saw the production values that they brought … they did an unbelievable job and it looked incredible. When Irish people saw this, [they] went ‘Jesus, this is good’.” 

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During the tasks, candidates headed out and filmed at locations around the country, from local Spar stores to the Cadbury factory in north Dublin.

Purcell believes the familiarity of the filming locations helped to draw in an audience.

“I think a lot of people saw people they knew on The Apprentice, we’re such a small country, but then they saw all the places, all the locations, they went ‘There’s Henry Street’ or ‘There’s downtown Mullingar’.” 

That’s a wrap

The UK version of The Apprentice continues to air to date, and just like the US version, which last aired in 2017, has had 15 seasons to date. 

The Irish adaptation, however, didn’t experience similar longevity and only aired for four seasons between September 2008 and December 2011. 

In May 2012, TV3 announced that The Apprentice Ireland would not be returning for a fifth season.

No reason was given for the decision to cancel the series at the time but viewing figures had slipped..

The broadcaster said in a statement announcing the show’s cancellation: “TV3 would like to take this opportunity to thank ShinAwiL for four successful years of The Apprentice. TV3 looks forward to announcing a raft of new programmes at its autumn launch in August of this year.”

Despite the show’s cancellation in 2011, TV3 and the producers rebooted the series for a one-off celebrity season in 2013. 

And now, it’s been seven years since an Irish version of The Apprentice has hit our television screens. 

Would another series of the show be viable in Ireland?

“I think there’s probably room for it again, definitely, maybe a re-skinned version of it alright,” Purcell told TheJournal.ie. 

It’s still lasting the test of time in England. There’s still a hunger for these kinds of things. I think that people love being inspired by these types of programmes and getting ideas out of them. 

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