Well, I’m delighted it’s back but I’m devastated about the fact that Claude won’t be on the show!

The Apprentice: Tim Campbell 'honoured' to stand in for Claude Littner

Former Apprentice winner Tim Campbell says it is a "great honour" to be standing in for Lord Sugar's assistant Claude Littner on this year's show.

Littner, 72, will be absent from the 16th series of the BBC One business programme following a cycling accident.

Campbell, who became the first ever Apprentice in 2005, said returning to the show was like coming "full circle".

"It was a great regret when we heard about Claude, who is such a massive part of the franchise," he said.

"We're really pleased that he's doing well and he's on the road to recovery."

Littner's accident occurred last April while riding an electric bike. The 72-year-old injured his right leg so badly that doctors considered amputating it.

As a result, he was unable to film The Apprentice, so Campbell was assigned to follow the two teams, along with Lord Sugar's other aide, Karren Brady.

Campbell joined Sugar's company Amstrad on a 100,000 salary after winning the first series in 2005. He went on to set up his own digital marketing agency and was made an MBE in 2012.

"It's a great honour to have come full circle," Campbell said. "Having been on the other side of the table I definitely understand what [the candidates] are all going through. And it's a great honour to be working alongside Baroness Brady in assessing these candidates and seeing how they all get on."

But any candidates who might have been expecting some help from Campbell, as a former contestant, were left disappointed.

"It was very easy not to give hints and tips, because I didn't get any when it was my turn!" he laughed.

The new series of the BBC show, which begins on Thursday, will see 16 entrepreneurs battle it out to win 250,000 worth of investment into their business.

Speaking at a virtual press conference ahead of the new series, Lord Sugar paid tribute to the BBC One show's production team for managing to film the show during the Covid pandemic.

"One thing I can tell you is that you will not see one mask throughout the whole of the 12 episodes," Lord Sugar said.

Regular testing and social distancing were among the measures taken to ensure the series could be filmed safely, in the spring of last year, while many members of the production team wore masks behind the scenes.

"I take my hat off to [executive producer] Paul Broadbent and his team to managing to get this thing done, in very difficult times," Lord Sugar said. "It was a very difficult thing to do.

"Having said that, this shows you how great and resourceful people can be under problems, which is what us British are good at. And the challenge of doing this thing through Covid, we just took it in our stride."

Covid references loom large in this series, however, with Lord Sugar telling the candidates during the opening episode: "In this board room, you don't get furloughed, you get fired."

Baroness Brady told journalists: "It was a mammoth task in itself keeping everybody safe. That was the priority of the production team and everyone involved.

"There was constant testing, we maintained social distancing where we could, we wore masks when we weren't filming. But Tim and I keep our distance [from the candidates] anyway."

Viewers will not be disappointed by this year's crop of candidates who, as usual, are not shy about making truly ridiculous statements.

Candidate Harry Mahmood, a regional operations manager from the West Midlands, says he hopes to work with Lord Sugar to develop his business and become "the bad boys of the bath bomb world together".

Alex Short, the owner of a commercial cleaning company in Hertford, says: "I would compare myself to a Ferrari, shiny on the outside but under the bonnet, there is a lot of fire and I'm coming for you".

Boutique cocktail bar owner Sophie Wildingdeclares: "Failure is not an option, winning is part of my DNA."

Ashkay Thakrar, the owner of a digital marketing company, says his friends "call me AK47 because I'm a killer salesperson" and claims that his first word as a new-born was "profit".

The other candidates on the show include Aaron Willis, a flight operations instructor and ex-RAF member, Akeem Bundu-Kamara, a strategy manger for a financial firm, beauty brand owner Amy Anzel, hotel front of house manager Brittany Carter, sales executive Conor Gilsenan, and mother-of-five Shama Amin.

The line-up is completed by Francesca Kennedy Wallbank, a sustainability company owner, Harpreet Kaur, a dessert parlour owner, online pyjama store owner Kathryn Louise Burn,pharmacist Navid Sole, finance manager Nick Showering, and Stephanie Affleck, the owner of an online children's store.