Back together again…and bickering like an old married couple! Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford on teaming up for the first time since The Apprentice
22:20 GMT, 22 June 2012
Rejoice! We may have lost Morecambe and Wise from our TV screens; George and Mildred are a dim and distant memory, and even Richard and Judy have sailed off into the small-screen sunset.
But one of our most loved (and a little bit feared) double acts is back. Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford – Lord Sugar’s original sidekicks on The Apprentice – have returned, and they mean business.
The pair, who had pretty much come out of retirement to be Lord Sugar’s right-hand-people-with-the clipboards, became two of the most unlikely television stars of our generation.
We mean business: Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford – Lord Sugar's original sidekicks on The Apprentice
No-nonsense, imbued with both boardroom
acumen and basic common sense, they provided a compelling, and often
hilarious, contrast to the hapless young Apprentice wannabes. Then they went their separate ways. Nick – he of the just-sucked-a-lemon expression and dry quips – discovered that he loved TV, did the rounds of comedy panel shows, and became a presenter in his own right, at the helm of that British institution, Countdown.
But Margaret – a formidable but rather bookish clergyman’s daughter from Northern Ireland, who had studied at Cambridge and become a corporate finance lawyer – seemed appalled at the idea of ‘celebrity’ and bowed out of The Apprentice, returning only to take part in the final-stage interviews every year.
She fled TV-land to academia, saying that the thought of finishing her PhD, in Egyptian papyrology of all things, was more appealing than a career rubbing shoulders with Ant and Dec. You can see her point. So why is she now back, fronting her own show with Nick It seems the old smoothie wooed her back. ‘It took me a while,’ he concedes, in his trademark laconic drawl. ‘She’s a challenging woman is Margaret. You don’t get her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. First I convinced her to come on Countdown. Then I think she got the taste for TV again.’
In the spotlight: Sir Alan Sugar with Nick and Margaret on the first series of The Apprentice
‘He’s quite persuasive,’ agrees Margaret. ‘And he’s actually rather fun to work with too. I’d got my PhD, so when the right project came along… I said yes. Now I guess I’m one of those token older women on TV.’ Of course Margaret wouldn’t have come back for any old tosh. She blanches when talking about some of the offers she has turned down. ‘I don’t think it got as bad as any of that jungle business, but I did get asked to do Strictly Come Dancing. Can you imagine I can’t think of anything worse. But this project appealed because I think it’s an important issue, and it’s quite a serious and sensible programme.’
The pair are fronting a show called The Town That Never Retired, which addresses the very timely issue of working beyond traditional retirement age. Recent research predicts that future generations will end up working well into their seventies because of the pension crisis. Nick and Margaret take a group of pensioners – some of whom have been out of the workplace for ten years – and find them jobs, then loiter about in the wings ( la Apprentice, but without quite so many disapproving expressions) to see how they get on.
‘He’s quite persuasive… and he’s actually rather fun to work with too. Now I guess I’m
one of those token older women on TV.’
At 68 and 60 respectively they are ideal
for the job and it’s a joy to see them back together, bickering in the
way of old married couples. There’s a point in the programme when
they’re visiting a factory and Margaret is struggling to get plastic
coverings over her shoes (‘No one said it was a glamorous return to
telly,’ she points out). Nick gallantly helps her, but when he quips
about it, she retorts, ‘I think you’ll find I’m younger than you.’
So what conclusions did they make about working into your 70s Nick shudders, ‘That it was perfectly possible. Some of our pensioners did remarkably well. But, my God, I wouldn’t recommend it. I thought it was barbaric. We had a 70-year-old plasterer getting up at 6am to work on a freezing building site in February. It was like being in a Russian gulag. If this is what the future holds for people, I think we should all be very angry, and we should take steps to avoid it.’ Margaret was rather less appalled. ‘I think Nick is much softer than me. Yes, it was hard, but I was – and still am – of the belief that if people are physically capable of work then they should work, whatever their age.’
Back in the real world, the Nick and Margaret show first kicked off over 20 years ago. They met when Nick was working as Alan Sugar’s PR adviser, and Margaret was his lawyer. Can they remember what their first impressions of each other were Oh yes. ‘I thought she was terrifying,’ says Nick. ‘She still is. I call her Madame Mussolini. She can be quite fiery. Dangerous.’ Margaret snorts. ‘Rubbish. I don’t believe that. I found Nick very irritating. I never trusted him. Our jobs were very different, you see. It was my role to negotiate transactions and keep everything under wraps. It was his to talk to the press.’
The Town That Never Retired: Margaret with Barbara Winchester Beeches chocolate factory
Now things have changed. Their roles
are different, and their personalties have mellowed. Margaret seems
quite in awe of Nick, seeing him as something of a modern-day media
genius. ‘He’s an incredibly gifted communicator. He can relate to
people, get an idea across very effectively.’ She says that’s the reason
Nick sought out a media career and she didn’t: he’s better at it than
her. ‘Nick is a natural. I don’t
feel I can be natural. I don’t know how to act. Nick can do all those
panel shows and be witty. I’d just want to shrivel up and die on
something like that.’
doesn’t help, of course, that she doesn’t actually watch TV. She laughs
about the fact that when she does have to attend an industry function
she never recognises anyone. ‘Someone always has to tell me who the
famous people are, and why they’re famous.’ Does she actually have a TV
‘Oh yes, but I have it in the study rather than in the living room. And
I don’t put it on for months on end. In fact some friends came round
recently and wanted to watch the Grand National but when I put the TV on
I didn’t have any channels. Everything had gone digital – but I
Some friends find it astonishing that Margaret accepted the Apprentice job in the first place. She says that some acquaintances, particularly members of her father’s old congregation, are a little appalled. ‘I don’t think some of them like The Apprentice much. They don’t like the language, and possibly the brutality of it.’ She, however, is made of sterner stuff. Yet was the very severe image she adopted on The Apprentice – all red lipstick, pursed lips and headmistress death-stares – contrived for the cameras, or simply her ‘Ha! Well, the lipstick certainly wasn’t me. I never wear make-up. But the stares My old secretary used to say, “I know that look”. I suppose I could be formidable at work.’
Well, the lipstick certainly wasn’t me. I
never wear make-up. But the stares My old secretary used to say, “I
know that look”. I suppose I could be formidable at work.
/06/22/article-2162742-13BB769D000005DC-865_306x548.jpg” width=”306″ height=”548″ alt=”'He's quite persuasive,' says Margaret of Nick ” class=”blkBorder” />
'He's quite persuasive,' says Margaret of Nick
Both Nick and Margaret return, again and again, to the work ethic – whether they’re talking about themselves or their new programme. The second part of the project saw them bring young jobseekers in, competing directly with the pensioners for the same jobs. They were horrified at what happened. ‘I was hugely disappointed with the young people,’ admits Nick. ‘All had sworn at the start that they were desperate for work, but their attitude was very bad. Some didn’t even turn up. They lacked conversational skills. They were locked into their iPads and Nintendos. It was dreadful.’
Margaret was even more shocked. ‘There was just a complete lack of work ethic. I found it incredibly dispiriting. These youngsters patently didn’t expect to have to work in factories, or on building sites. Maybe they wanted “exciting” jobs, but life isn’t like that.’
Were Margaret in charge of getting the nation’s youngsters into shape, you would imagine a whip might be employed. ‘I take no prisoners about these things. I do think that if someone is receiving jobseeker’s allowance, they should be expected to work for that – painting railings, doing shopping for old people. It’s too easy to sit around at home.’
Perhaps the reason Margaret is such a joy to watch is that she breaks every single unwritten TV rule about how women should be. She isn’t bothered about what she wears on TV, or how she looks, beyond ‘looking appropriate for the business setting. All I’m thinking when I’m buying clothes is “does it fit” Karren [Brady, her Apprentice replacement] is much more interested in all that. When I was doing The Apprentice I used to find that my feet got sore after all that standing, so I would put on trainers. The crew would always say they wouldn’t film my feet, but invariably they did – so I would end up looking like Olive Oyl.’
She isn’t the sort to overtly bang the feminist drum, but perhaps she doesn’t need to. She was one of only 13 or 14 women studying law at Cambridge in her day, compared to 150 men, but she has never made her gender an issue. ‘I never saw it as one. I think it only is if you make it so. I don’t agree with quotas. I think it has to be a case of employing the best person for the job, and to be honest I have a lot of sympathy for employers who are reluctant to take on women who will have babies.’
Her own career path might have been less straightforward had she had children, she concedes, but that was never an option. ‘I simply never wanted them. I’m not remotely maternal.’ She has godchildren, but won’t even say that she’s a good godmother. ‘Oh no. I’m dreadful. I ignore them. I do believe that if their parents fell under a bus, then I would step in, but I’m not the sort to be very hands-on. I’m afraid to say that I have never once taken them to the zoo.’
So does she see herself hurtling headlong into a belated TV career now, like Nick ‘I don’t know. I might dabble a little. I do have one other TV project. I still sit on some boards, and I want to publish some more academic work. But I also want to play golf. Isn’t that what retired ladies are supposed to do’
The Town That Never Retired will be on BBC1 next month.