Apprentice finalist Chris Bates discusses Lord Sugar and theology over a pint with Thomas Pascoe…
I am sat in a Surrey pub with one of the most revered theologians of our generation. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can take his, as well as his assurances that he is “very funny, extremely intelligent [and wishes to be] recognised universally as a pinnacle of excellence”.
The Apprentice runner-up Chris Bates grins at the memory.
“If I had ever thought that was going to see light of day on national television, I probably wouldn’t have written it, but the thing is that filling in an application form for The Apprentice, you have to make yours stand out from about 50,000 other people and as you’re being chosen by people who make TV shows, you have to put down something which is shocking or controversial or otherwise sounds like you would be good entertainment. Unfortunately when you do reach the interview stage at the end, a lot of the things that have helped you get there start to count against you, like claiming to be a revered theological scholar.”
Bates was at the centre of many of the most dramatic moments of the most compelling series in years, a victorious project leader whose team smashed all Apprentice records selling heat sensitive baby clothing to trade and gambling successfully, to the evident consternation of his teammates, by putting together an unconventional package which won crucial business from the London Tourist Centre in the tour bus task.
The moment which resonated most with the viewing public, though, occurred in Trafalgar Square as he squared up to Stuart ‘The Brand’ Baggs, the circular Manx telecoms magnate whose imaginary calculator and circuitous ramblings about bringing Lord Sugar fields of unicorns gambolling happily towards sunlit uplands inexplicably saw him reach the penultimate round at the expense of pouting, doe-eyed Liz Locke.
The two were pitched on opposite sides trying to tempt unsuspecting Scandinavian tourists to purchase two hours in an open decked bus where they would learn that, “the Thames is the second largest river in London” and sing Knees Up Mother Brown. Bates had successfully bounced two women into the ‘Ghosts & Ghouls’ offering that his team had assembled when Baggs appeared offering to undercut him. “Why don’t you just fuck off?” wondered Bates aloud, “I’m going to hit you in a minute”. He would have done, too, had fellow contestant Joanna not appeared and started screaming at everyone involved. It transformed Bates overnight into one of the most popular men in the country.
Is it still the public’s abiding memory? “Probably”, he concedes, “We all behaved in that task in a way we weren’t proud of. Stuart’s method of trying to get customers was intriguing and somewhat unexpected, but I actually get on quite well with Stuart and that was something which was a momentary lapse in something which was otherwise quite a fond relationship.”
One of the most impressive traits Bates exhibited on the show was a refusal to resort to personal taunts in the boardroom, maintaining a dignified silence in the final as Stella launched a needless assault on his perceived lack of passion. A conscious strategy?
“Yeah, if you watch previous years, Lord Sugar has never responded well to attacks on a personal level. You have to have a different strategy in the boardroom to what you have in the tasks. The best chance you have is to analyse what Lord Sugar, Karen and Nick have to say and go with their opinions. You’d be amazed how many people go in there, have half an hour of being told who was responsible for the failure of the task, proceed to ignore everything that was said, bring different people back and then act surprised when they are fired”.
Bates was smart enough to avoid such pitfalls, but then he ought to have been, boasting First Class Honours in Politics and American Studies from Nottingham, a fact which seemed to induce an unfathomable loathing in Sugar’s old assistant Margret Mountford who interviewed him as part of the selection process for the final. “I expect he stays in at weekends just looking at his certificates”, she huffed.
The implication that he is a bookish sort more at home buried in a mound of papers is strikingly at odds to Bates’ actual persona which is gregarious, witty and assured. The focus on paper qualifications was simply a way of emphasising the standards which he had set for himself and achieved on the relatively undeveloped CV of a 23 year old applicant to the show, he argues.
“The editing has a lot to do with it [the dry on-screen persona]. In all honestly as someone who had recently graduated from Uni, I’d like to hark back to a wealth of business experience, but I don’t have it. In an interview, because of this it’s something which gets focused on, unless you are going to simply ignore the questions you will spend a lot of time talking about the academic side of things. Having said that if we could wrap this interview up in the next ten minutes I am supposed to be taking my certificates out for an afternoon walk.”
What next for Bates? The Regus Chair of Divinity at Oxford is open, surely he will be putting in an application? He thinks not. “I maybe somewhat foolishly poured heart and soul into getting the job, so much so that I never really considered what would happen if I came second…I’m considering a number of options, but it’s the only time in life when I’m unemployed and people will approach me, as a result there are a number of opportunities and I’ll have to weigh them up and see what’s best”.
In the meantime, Bates, walks out of the pub blinking into the fresh air, striding out from a crowd of stooping, potbellied middle aged check shirts, distinguished in a grey army coat.
In real life, as in his televisual incarnation, he has the air of a man apart.