The Apprentice's Margaret Mountford on her inspiring Co Down parents, why she doesn't watch TV and the real Lord Sugar...

Ahead of her TV documentary this Sunday, Co Down-born Apprentice star Margaret Mountford talks to Joanne Sweeney

Grave matters: Margaret Mountford at Balmoral Cemetery in Belfast where Isabella Tod is buried. Tod was responsible for two major breakthroughs in women's rights in Northern Ireland.
Isabella Tod was responsible for two major breakthroughs in women's rights in Northern Ireland.
Lord Sugar's former personal adviser on the show Margaret Mountford during the final of the BBC programme The Apprentice.
Lord Sugar's former personal adviser on the show Margaret Mountford during the final of the BBC programme The Apprentice.

She's probably the only Northern Ireland woman who can call Lord Alan Sugar a friend. And yes, we can still call the wonderful Margaret Mountford one of our own despite leaving her home town of Holywood, Co Down, many years ago.

Along with Nick Hewer, she was one of Lord Sugar's advisers on the award- winning television show The Apprentice for five series, helping the business magnate keep an eye on his often unruly candidates.

Known for her steely gaze and impressive intellect, Margaret is understandably supportive of a man who was once her legal client.

It was down to Lord Sugar's patronage of inviting her to be one of his special advisers on the show, which inadvertently led to her becoming one of our national TV treasures.

She is as loyal to him as he seemingly has been to her.

When asked if she considered him a friend, colleague or acquaintance after her long association with the famous businessman, she answers: "He is somewhere between a colleague and a friend.

"If I had a real problem, I would feel that I could ring him up and he would help.

"He's terribly shrewd in business. He's very focused and very driven, with a great attention to detail. He sees through bulls**t very easily and I know him to be very loyal, very loyal."

Much indeed like herself?

"Perhaps, maybe that's why we got on so well," she replies.

While both Margaret and Lord Sugar were each successful in their own business worlds before The Apprentice, it's an indisputable fact that the popularity of such a mainstream programme catapulted them both to even greater success.

Ironically for a woman who insists she rarely watches TV, Margaret does seem to appear on our TV screens rather a lot.

For the record, she claims to have never settled down to an evening in front of The Apprentice (yes, really), Strictly Come Dancing, Britain's Got Talent or The Great British Bake Off, or indeed to have ever sent or read a tweet in her life.

"Watching TV is something that I just don't do," she says. "My television is in my study and so I find that I always have so much more to do than watch that."

Along with fellow Apprentice adviser Nick Hewer – possibly the only other person to give her a run for her money with regard to incredulous facial expressions – she recently co-presented a BBC1 documentary called We All Pay Your Benefits.

And she will also be appearing on BBC2 NI this Sunday as the presenter of a documentary highlighting the achievements of a remarkable Belfast woman. Admittedly, the name of Isabella Tod may not be immediately recognised by many, but hers is a fascinating story – she is responsible for two major breakthroughs in women's rights in Northern Ireland.

The indomitable Ulster-Scots woman helped to secure legislation – the Married Woman's Property Bill – which ensured a married women's earnings could not be used by her husband.

She also helped influence Queen's College in Belfast, now Queen's University, to admit women as students for the first time in Ireland.

In the programme series Groundbreakers, Margaret takes a journey into the past to learn about Isabella as a woman living in Victorian Belfast who did more than most in to advance women's rights.

Isabella Tod was born in Scotland in 1836 but came to live in Belfast in the 1860s, a city that was changing from a sleepy town into an important industrial city. She was one of the few women at that time to have been asked to give evidence to Parliament in London and she set up the first Woman's Suffrage Movement in Ireland.

While making the programme last year, Margaret discovered much more about her home city that she ever had been aware of.

"I was asked to do a programme, I suppose because Isabella was of Scottish descent and so am I; she was Presbyterian and so am I," she says.

"There's a number of women reformers from Victorian times that would be relatively well-known but her name doesn't really feature.

"I had never heard of Isabella before and so I did what everyone else does nowadays and Googled her and was totally fascinated."

The programme sees Margaret beginning her story at Elmwood Presbyterian Church – known today as the Elmwood Hall.

Isabella joined the church, which is acknowledged in shaping her social and political activism.

She later played an integral role in forming the Belfast Women's Temperance Association in 1874 – setting up coffee stands as an alternative to the pub.

"We really don't know anything about her private life. Despite succeeding in getting Queen's to admit women, she was educated at home.

"She never even went to any of the higher schools, but still she was instrumental in getting women into Queen's, which was a major achievement."

And Margaret freely admits that until she embarked upon this documentary for BBC NI, she had no idea as to the true extent of Belfast's industrial advancement and strength.

"I learnt so much making the programme," she says.

"I knew about the the rope building, the shipyards and the flax industry but I had never realised just how pre-eminent they were, particularly the tobacco industry. I mean, the largest rope works and largest tobacco factory in the world were both in Belfast, so, yes, I was surprised.

"It did make me more proud of Belfast."

Evidently, she has a new-found admiration for Isabella Tod as well.

Though she too is regarded as a strong woman, Margaret says: "I don't know if I had been around in the 1860s that I would have been banging the drum and doing the things that she did."

Margaret is typically candid about whether we need more role models, female or otherwise.

"Actually, I don't think that you need them," she says. "I think my parents were role models, the dons at Cambridge and senior partners in the legal business at certain times in my life also were, but there was nobody that I sat down and thought, 'Yes, I want to be like them'."

Margaret is the only daughter of a Presbyterian clergyman, James 'Ross' Gamble, who served in Holywood but was originally from Londonderry. Her mother Kathleen was born of Scottish parents here. Both her father and mother are now deceased.

She attributes her business success to the way her parents brought her up. "It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be able to do anything that I wanted to," she says. "I wasn't pushed on by my parents, but I was encouraged."

And she jokes: "My father was the type of man that if you told him that you got 98 marks in a test, he would have asked what happened to the other two. I don't think he was entirely serious about that but you could never quite tell."

The young Margaret, who attended Strathearn School in Belfast, applied to Cambridge and Oxford and was accepted by both.

She chose Cambridge to do languages but quickly discovered that she wasn't as keen on the subject as she thought she was.

Instead, she opted to study law, which was to lead to her becoming a corporate finance lawyer – and ultimately into Lord Sugar's orbit.

As the owner of Amstrad, he was one of her clients from 1980, and after she retired from law in 1999, she was asked to be a non-executive director of his board at Amstrad.

Six years later, she made the fateful decision to join him on The Apprentice.

She has said in a previous interview, "Lord Sugar asked me to be the female adviser. I think it was because I knew so little about TV that I agreed to do it".

Despite once being dubbed as "the nation's favourite headmistress", the 62-year-old is not nearly as scary as you might think. Well, not as long as you don't happen to ask her about The Apprentice ....

The only time that there is a flash of her stern headmistress demeanour during our interview is when I ask her opinion about some of the young women who have appeared in the series, such as last year's winner, Dr Leah Totten, from Londonderry, or the tabloid headline grabbing runner-up Luisa Zissman "Well, I did say that I didn't want to talk about the Apprentice. You are asking me about people that I can hardly remember and as I don't watch TV I also don't watch The Apprentice."

However, she did describe Leah, who she met at the interview stage, as a "bright girl very much on top of her business plan".

Nor would she confirm if she will be the expert interviewer for The Apprentice 2014. However, she's happy to clear up a former statement that the show was badly edited. "On no, that was a joke. In fact, it's brilliantly edited, very cleverly done and it's a major show. But I really find talking about The Apprentice, as far as I'm concerned, is over for me"

And just to put the record straight, don't believe everything you read about Margaret on Wikipedia. She doesn't have a child and the man that she is listed to be in a relationship with she has never heard of.

She did hint that there might be another joint TV project in the pipeline for her and Nick next year.

But no doubt, she won't watch that as well.

The Groundbreakers: A series that's making history

The Groundbreakers documentary series runs on Sunday nights on BBC2 Northern Ireland. Former Apprentice star and Northern Ireland native Margaret Mountford goes on a journey to explore the life of a remarkable woman, Isabella Tod, whose lasting impact is felt across Northern Ireland and beyond every day.

"The programme is well worth watching, not because I'm in it but because Isabella was such an fascinating woman," says Margaret.

Deirdre Devlin, executive producer for BBC Northern Ireland, says: "The Groundbreakers season tells the story of the extraordinary lives led by people we thought we knew about and others whose astonishing feats were known to only a few.

"Some of them changed the world as we know it, some, the course of history and others, the lives and circumstances of those around them.

"They all come from these shores and the enormity of their legacy will surprise viewers. These are stories about determination, genius and bravery that have had a massive impact on generations to follow, an impact that still resonates to this day."

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