Antonio Stradivari got a rare namecheck on primetime UK television last week when business tycoon Sir Alan Sugar likened himself to an instrument by the Cremonese master. It was the opening episode of the fifth season of The Apprentice, and the boss was working himself up into one of his characteristic lathers in order to assert his dominance over his new minions.
‘You can not play me,’ he blustered, looking as irritable as a sackful of weasels despite the fact that nobody had yet wasted any of his money or even uttered a word. ‘I am harder to play than a Stradivarius.’ After which we could safely assume that the demands of the week’s task probably wouldn’t include writing apt metaphors. As any musicians watching the programme may have been thinking in unison, a Stradivarius isn’t necessarily any more difficult to play than a violin by any other maker. You might need to take a different approach – to play it slightly differently to get more out of it. And it will undoubtedly have great sound potential, cost a fortune and be impossible to get hold of unless you’re a world-class soloist or have the keys and security codes to one of several international history museums. Might I humbly suggest Sir Alan is in fact harder to play than, say, Paganini’s Caprices or more difficult to manipulate than the fingerboard of a baryton?
But nitpicking aside, Sir Alan’s point was made. Stradivari’s name has become an international shorthand for talent, quality and expense, and as such Sir Alan was happy to appropriate a little of what I suppose he would term Stradivari’s ‘brand values’ for his own ends.
There were more musical similes to come in the opening episode – the contestants, he decreed, were ‘bongo drums’, presumably meaning primitive by comparison with his good self. And in order to make a crucial point about the difference between ‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the walk’ (walking being harder, I think, but then I’ve never had job in which the ability to do both wasn’t taken for granted) he came out with the immortal line ‘I know the words to Candle in the Wind – it don’t make me Elton John.’ No, indeed.
I wonder whether these musical references might hint at a theme to any of the tasks to come over the next fourteen weeks of the show? Perhaps Sir Alan could put his apprentices’ selling skills to the test by asking them to persuade corporate donors to support an organisation that lends talented young musicians the high-quality musical instruments they need to fulfil their potential? In a financial climate battered by the failures of the capitalist ethos of recent years, it would be a welcome change to see young businesspeople trying to divert cash towards the arts rather than simply making more and more of it for the gain of unseen shareholders. And Sir Alan might discover that the main difficulty associated with playing a Stradivarius isn’t technical, it’s logistical and financial.