Bill Cullen & Jackie Lavin

Now is the winter of our discontent, but it's looking likely to be made gloriously entertaining by watching people get fired. At least that's what the makers of an Irish version of The Apprentice will be hoping when it begins on TV3 tomorrow night, brightening up autumn schedules dominated by gloomy economic news. Success hinges on the force of personality of "the boss". Ireland's answer to Alan Sugar and Donald Trump is tycoon, author, beloved Late Late Show guest and budding astronaut Bill Cullen, ably assisted by his partner and business associate Jackie Lavin. Fourteen aspiring – and no doubt eventually perspiring – young Irish entrepreneurs will be filmed undergoing what has been dubbed "the job interview from hell" to become Cullen's "apprentice". The Richard and Judy of TV3 will be joined by businessman Brian Purcell in the hiring and firing role. That terrifying catchphrase 'You're fired', uttered by 'Suralan' in the British version, will be replaced with something much more colloquial.

"We're going to do it differently," says Cullen, the barrow-boy from Summerhill, Dublin who became a millionaire. "We don't have to say 'you're fired'. We might say instead 'you're barney-bracked' or you're 'Donald Ducked'. We want to show an Irish version of the thing."

If you were to ask most people to admit, truthfully, whether or not they would like to spend their entire working day with their partners – particularly those couples together for three decades – the honest answer is most likely 'no'. Lavin is one such honest woman, admitting she's glad she won't be in the boardroom with her ebullient partner for the entire filming.

"I don't think I could work closely with Bill constantly as we don't see eye to eye a lot of the time. And we fight a lot, like many good couples. But we do have a great respect for each other," she added. As someone whose name invariably carries the qualifier 'former model', and a regular fixture on the social pages of glossy magazines, the glamorous Lavin may sound more suited as a 'Tyra Banks' style judge for a reality show on the lines of Ireland's Next Top Model. But the woman with a figure for Prada and a head for business looks likely to be the real boss here.

"Jackie is feisty. She speaks her mind and has no problem laying down the rules. She'll get upset if someone does something stupid and will give them a kick in the hole. I'm more laid back and I tend to take these things in my stride"

He's possibly using his own words here. Or those of his formidable maternal grandmother, Molly Darcy. Cullen's 'rare oul' Dublin' credentials are in no doubt, and are referred to in practically every interview. Usually by himself. As 'Dr Bill' (he has an honorary doctorate), he's been caricatured on Today FM's Last Word. His upbringing, as one of 14 children in an inner-city tenement, was the basis for his international bestselling autobiography It's A Long Way From Penny Apples. The book is a tribute to the strong women who encouraged him.

Molly Darcy was of that generation of women, often cited in legends of the Easter Rising, the sort who not only ran messages to the rebels in the GPO, but also carried petrol bombs in their drawers. Molly's actual involvement was more the memory of standing outside the burning ruin of the GPO, with her young baby daughter Mary – Bill's mother – in her arms. The indomitable grandmother lives on, in name, as Molly Darcy's pub and restaurant, restored by Cullen and the Kerry-born Lavin when they bought the Muckross Park Hotel in Killarney in 1991. In 2006, Lavin transformed the Victorian hotel into a 70-bedroom resort and a "cloisters" spa. It is now being further developed to include a medi-spa offering "non-surgical skin rejuvenation procedures".

Lavin's entrepreneurial skills show her as an astute assessor of The Apprentice's candidates. She modelled with Nan Morgan and ran a chain of boutiques before going into business with Bill.

But it's the rags-to-Renault rise of her 66-year-old partner that makes Cullen a mirror of Amstrad founder and fellow barrow-boy Alan Sugar. Leaving school at 14, he 'borrowed' a priest's address (on the realisation that his Summerhill one might have something to do with hundreds of job rejections) and got his first job in car dealership in Waldens. Eight years on, he was running the company. In 1986, he famously bought the ailing Renault franchise for £1. Cullen no longer has the franchise, but the Glencullen Group, which he runs with Lavin, includes a substantial property portfolio, and has an estimated annual turnover of €450m.

Although the autobiography charts the hardship in the inner-city tenements, it's not a total misery memoir. Cullen resented Frank McCourt's assertions that the only thing worse than a miserable childhood was a miserable Irish childhood.

Today, even with rumours of staff lay-offs at Muckross Park and his being refused planning permission to retain his helicopter landing pad in Killarney National Park, Cullen continues to aim high – 400,000 feet high, to be precise. In true Apprentice style, Cullen hopes to get himself fired – into orbit. He forked out $200,000 to Virgin Galactic for a seat on Richard Branson's rocket, seeking to become the first Irishman in space.

"Of course, Jackie is a bit concerned about the whole thing. Although she said they could insure me for €10,000 to get me up there. And then another hundred to get me back down again."

The couple, who have been together for 30 years, own homes in Kerry and Florida, as well as the 43-roomed Palladian Osbertstown House, Kildare. They drive a Bentley, an Aston Martin – and pilot a Bell 222 helicopter.


Born Bill Cullen, born Summerhill, Dublin, 1942. Jackie Lavin, born
Co Kerry, 1947

Careers Cullen was a leading car dealer and hotelier. After a modelling career, Lavin went on to own a chain of boutiques; now a charity fundraiser.

Personal Life Cullen has grown-up daughters from his marriage, at 24, to Rita. Lavin has two grown-up sons from her marriage to publican David.

In the News: Presenters of TV3 version of 'The Apprentice'