Margaret Mountford

Sir Alan Sugar's right-hand woman comes home on belhalf of Food For Thought Africa

Fans will know Margaret Mountford as the matronly hawk on Sir Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice television programme, but few will be aware of her Northern Irish routes. Born and raised in Holywood, and schooled in Strathearn Grammar in Belfast, nevertheless a lifetime spent studying, working and socialising in Cambridge and London have long since put paid to any Northern Irish twang - she‘s as elegant and English as one could possibly become.

A non-executive director of Sugar’s Amstrad plc and a former highflying corporate lawyer, Mountford is Food For Thought Africaback on home turf on behalf of the Food For Thought Africa charity, a voluntary organisation which (her close friend is quick to inform) unusually allocates none of it’s finances to overheads and runs several feeding and educational projects in countries like Kenya and Rwanda.

Today Mountford holds court in the charity’s excellent (and surprisingly afordable) Africa Gallery on Belfast’s Lisburn Road, her sardonic wit and arched eyebrow keeping the press in check before she delivers the first of two scheduled speeches.

It’s stiflingly hot both outside and in, and Mountford occasionally dabs a layer of sweat from her forehead. But facing the press is nothing compared to the boardrooms and courtrooms in which Mountford made her name.

‘When I was a pretty successful lawyer in the City nobody ever asked me to make speeches. But now that I’m on a reality television programme the phone doesn’t stop ringing,’ she comments.

The Apprentice has fast become one of the BBC’s most important flagship programmes. Having graduated from BBC2 to BBC1, it regularly attracts some of the channel’s highest viewing figures and has made Mountford if not a household name, then certainly one of Britain‘s most recognisable faces.

Fans of the show must wait another year for a new batch of hapless candidates to try their luck for a £100,000 per annum position in Sugar‘s business empire when the fifth season comes to an end on Sunday, June 7, but Mountford doesn‘t miss the show when it‘s gone.

‘It’s not really escapism for me, it’s more like prison actually,’ she quips, deadpan as ever. ‘It takes a lot Sir Alan Sugarof time. I enjoy doing it and there are some wonderfully funny moments. But Nick [Hewer] and I work pretty long hours while it’s being filmed - the filming lasts not quite 12 weeks, but more than a couple of months -, so it’s not a walk in the park.

‘Obviously it’s intensive for the candidates, but also for us. I had no experience of television whatever beforehand. So it was a completely new world to me. I was amazed at how hard the people have to work, particularly the junior researches and runners. They put in hours and hours for very meagre pay simply because they want to make it in television.’

This season’s twelve candidates included Northern Ireland’s own Ben Clarke, a trainee stockbroker from Newtownards.

At just 22 when the programme was being recorded, Clarke distinguished himself as one of the most cocky applicants, and continually found himself selected for the boardroom showdown at the end of each task. His irksome habit of reminding Sugar that he had been selected for the Sandhurst training acadmey - ‘Yes, but you never went,‘ Mountford once countered - ultimately saw Clarke dispatched by Sir Alan in week nine.

‘Ben went out on the task when he was supposed to sell a rather expensive rocking horse at a baby show in Covent Garden, but didn’t,‘ Mountford recalls.

Ever present during such tasks, it’s Mountford’s duty to appraise the candidates on the decisions they make, how they work together and their effectiveness when it comes to selling. Clarke‘s decision to select the rocking horse over a more affordable product had Mountford‘s eyebrow reaching the roof. Ben Clarke‘Actually I’m not supposed to chip in and help or hinder, I’m supposed to watch and observe. I've got used to holding my tongue now, but sometimes it’s difficult.’

When the show does come to an end, it’s back to the City for Mountford - and, surprisingly, back to school. ‘I’m currently studying for a degree in papyrology, which is looking at Greek documentary papyrery from Rome period Egypt.

‘People say my hobbies are all culture, but that’s not true. There’s a light side. I’m going to stay in London for a bit, then I’m off to Byruit in August for a few days to hear The Ring, which any Wagner fans will be interested in, but nobody else, I’m sure. I love going to the opera. I love going to the theatre. I like reading. I’m terribly cultured, really.’

Mountford smiles warmly and fills the first floor gallery space with the sound of her own laughter. She may be a hawk in the boardroom, but outside and off duty, Margaret Mountford is anything but frightening.

Lee Henry