Sir Alan Sugar has launched the fifth series of The Apprentice, saying the job had got tougher in the economic downturn.

The BBC1 series, which features aspiring tycoons embarking on a job interview from hell, returns next Wednesday with 15 new candidates including a lawyer, an ex-professional footballer, a former chess champion and a Gavin Henson lookalike.

The high fliers also include two international candidates – a New Yorker who has performed Mozart in Carnegie Hall and a Tanzanian beauty queen.

In the first five minutes of the new series the eight women and seven men are stunned to discover a male candidate has already ‘bottled it’ in the words of Sir Alan.

Asking them if they are tough enough to take on the challenges ahead, he tells them: “I know the words to Candle In The Wind – don’t make me Elton John… you lot are as easy to play as bongo drums.”

Asked if it was harder to be the apprentice in a recession, Sir Alan said: “Yes… in this day and age people are not being recruited.

“Companies are not taking on people that can get lost in the background and be part of some unknown part of the management.

“It’s much, much tougher out there.”

He said that it was not a case of him experimenting and continued: “The person that comes on board in the end is going to have to do some work.”

Episode one of the new series follows the candidates as they set about operating a cleaning business.

The team of women decide to call themselves Ignite and the men decide to be called Empire after deciding Strike sounded ‘too Arthur Scargill’.

The fifth series of The Apprentice kicks off on Wednesday March 25 at 9pm on BBC1.

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