The return of Dragon’s Den: it’s business as usual, but the show’s lost its charm

New series of Dragons’ Den (Thursday, 8pm, BBC One), then. No point me saying anything like: “They have changed Dragons’ Den – it is different now.” There is no point in me lying to you. The point of Dragons’ Den is that it is always Dragons’ Den. We are 16 years, 17 series and 18 separate Dragons deep into it now, and we have seen tectonic shifts in the global economy over that time – the collapse of the housing market! Austerity! The impending doom of the post-Covid financial reality! – and no matter what happens, somewhere in Salford Quays, Deborah Meaden is sitting next to a big stack of printed-out money, refusing to spend it.

Listen: I’m never going to dunk on the TV show that gave us Reggae Reggae Sauce. But it is fair to say that Dragons’ Den has started to lose a little of its charm. You know the format by now: nervous pitchers go up in a big goods lift (there are five types: weird inventor; comfortably wealthy businessman who has a wheeze to become even more comfortably wealthy; earnest couple; mum with an idea; strange business odd couple who somehow already have £4m of investment), say their idea, don’t know their turnover for some reason, leave with less equity than they would have liked, but a Dragon onside. That’s it.

Here’s the thing: the most iconic Dragons’ Den pitches are the ones that break the Dragons from their icy facade: you either make Peter Jones laugh (“Look: I like you”) or one of the other ones cry (“I believe in you”). The most boring Dragons’ Den business pitch is the one that is just a business pitch. There is no theatre to that. But Deborah Meaden has heard every possible sob story going. Peter Jones has laughed at every joke. He does not need to ever laugh at a joke again. This week’s episode (featuring an OK idea for a monthly subscription teabag service) fails to get a rise out of them. They hand some money over anyway.

Obviously, it’s extremely difficult to translate the nubbly, overarching, planetary rotation-deciding world of business into a TV format that in any way works: that’s why Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice both still persist, because they are the only ones that do it even passably well. Business is everywhere – watch Dragons’ Den and know just how many people in Britain spend their evenings in their own garage, absolutely imploding money on some stupid idea they’ve had to “revolutionise the way we store kitchen roll” – but it doesn’t really make for tangible entertainment.

And so the ritual begins anew: Peter Jones sits in his big chair. Deborah Meaden is cursed by the devil to stay in this iron-clad studio until the sun burns out of the sky. Three other ones are there. “Hello, Dragons,” yet another loser says, “I’m asking for £70,000 for a 1.5% stake in my business.” Tej Lalvani sighs. He knows it isn’t a £5m idea, because nothing is. He’s already conquered the business world, and he doesn’t want to do it again. But the machine requires its meat. “Fine,” he says. “All the money, for double the equity.” The weird inventor confers with themselves in the corner then agrees that that sounds fine. Come back next week, every week for ever, for more.


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