Ahead of Thursday’s Young Apprentice final, I touched base with someone who knows all too well what it’s like to make it all the way to the last episode: last year’s runner-up, James McCullagh.
James was already a distinguished student when, at the age of 17, he was one of 12 teenage tycoons of tomorrow selected for the second season of BBC’s Young Apprentice. He had earned the joint-highest score in GCSE Economics in Northern Ireland and also possessed the gift of the gab, drawing comparisons with the scarily persuasive ‘Jedi’ Jim Eastwood from the adult version of the show.
Never afraid to voice his opinion, the outspoken James survived the boardroom after the opening frozen treats task but then went on to win in four of the next six weeks. This included two victories as project manager, in the over-50s selling task and in the semi-final, which saw him earn a place in the final against film-maker and eventual winner Zara Brownless.
James kindly took some time out of work to relive his Apprentice experience and bring us up to speed on what he’s been up to since appearing on the show.
Hi James. It’s been a year now since your memorable and entertaining run to the final of season two of Young Apprentice. Can you fill us in on what you’ve been up to since then?
It was memorable and entertaining wasn’t it?! Looking back I did some pretty mental things but I suppose that’s all part of the fun.
After Young Apprentice I finished school. I got some nice A-Level results and went on work experience with a top London ad agency. To cut a long story short I got a job out of it and I’m living (but mostly working) in London as an Account Executive.
So being on Young Apprentice opened doors for you in the business world then?
For sure. I always say people love a story. They might not care whose idea it was to brand ourselves as pirates in the first task – although it was mine, HANDS OFF MAHAMED! – but they do love the story. People will talk to you because you’re “that slightly annoying Irish guy off Young Apprentice”.
Looking, say, ten years forward, have you got any particular idea of what you would like to be doing?
I’m not too sure, really. I love advertising: it’s high pressure, fast-moving and an integral part of all business, so I’m really enjoying it. It’s a change from wanting to be the Prime Minister …
Shades of your Crazy Cabinet online game from the final there!
… But I love the business environment and take each day as it comes. (Apprentice cliché bingo!)
Hopefully you haven’t had to deal with Pants-Man 2: The Cereal Sequel in your new job! How nerve-wracking was it being on the programme?
I never really felt nervous, proud, under pressure or excited about Young Apprentice until Lord Sugar said, “You’re in the final.” Then it really hit home and I was like, “Ohhh, yeahhhh.”
You came in for some criticism in some of the earlier tasks before coming on strong as the series progressed. How intense was it being grilled by Lord Sugar in the boardroom?
Lord Sugar loved it. I was the one he loved to hate. He gave me a grilling for sure and made me up my game.
I think at the start of the process I was focussed on making an impact. Good or bad, I don’t think anyone can claim I didn’t make an impact.
That was certainly true and, of course, that only gets exaggerated when the episodes are edited together. I know I was one of those who questioned your potential in those first few tasks before you really started to show what you were capable of. Did you follow what was being said in blogs and forums or on Twitter – and did the criticisms bother you?
It’s all part of the fun, really. I trended on Twitter a few times – not for the right reasons – but I took any praise or criticism with a pinch of salt. I got to the final, Lord Sugar kept me right till the end, and his opinion matters more to me than some randomer on Twitter.
That’s a very healthy attitude to take. So what was your favourite task?
Popcorn [the semi-final task in which James and Zara Brownless defeated the two Harrys – Ed]. It was all or nothing and I was in charge. I loved being PM – note when I was, we won. Just saying …
Having reached the final with victory in the popcorn task, how did it feel to finish as runner-up to Zara?
Awful! Looking back I committed Apprentice Suicide [Apprenticide? – Ed]. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted the money for. Zara was a great talker so fair play to her.
Having said that, I got what I wanted out of it: my dream job, so I’m interested to see if the others have done as well.
We only ever get to see a small portion of the hundreds of hours of footage that is filmed for the series. Did you feel your strengths and personality were fairly represented overall?
I’m controversial and they obviously had an abundance of soundbites of me arguing with people, but I think they represented me fairly. I talk a lot, I say what’s on my mind, but I think they also showed that when it gets down to business I can get things done.
Your business ability certainly emerged as the series progressed. Was there any particular moment that was cut out that you wish the viewers had seen?
Not really. The final boardroom was a little bit strange to watch back as it wasn’t really how I remembered things but other than that it’s all cool.
Do you get recognised in the street?
Yes. All the time.
What’s it like coping with that?
It’s quite funny, I don’t really mind. Some people want pictures which always gives my friends a laugh. I’ve even been proposed to on Twitter – it was really very scary.
Scary indeed. Are you still in touch with any of the other candidates?
Yes, most of them. More of a quick text or a coffee than being BFFLs [Best Friends For Life – Ed]. I speak to Nick Hewer quite a lot – he’s the coolest person EVER.
You want to watch out for that – he’ll have you as a guest on Countdown next! Looking back at your time on the programme, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned?
Life’s not fair, deal with it. Philosophical, I know!
Finally, what tips would you give to anyone (either Young or ‘grown-up’ Apprentice) who is thinking about applying for the show?
If they need advice they’re not going to get on it anyway. Ha ha!
Thanks for catching up with us, James, and best wishes for the future.
The final of Young Apprentice is on BBC1 on Thursday at 8pm. A full recap will be posted here after the episode.
Young Apprentice season 3: