The Apprentice, Episode 8: Exit through the Chat Show

Something a little different this week. No whiff-whaff or studied loafing in casual attire for starters: we’re back to the 6am call, inexplicably answered by someone fully dressed, and they’re whisked off to Waterloo Station. Sadly, they’re not asked to meet Lord Alan under the clock with the rolled Telegraph, red carnation and half-chewed wasp. Instead, he appears on a huge flatscreen in a basement tunnel, grinning unusually. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be disturbing, but it looks like Sid James appearing in a version of Orwell’s 1984. Perhaps he’s smiling because he could pre-shoot, rather than hanging about at Waterloo at that time of day with this lot. That would be understandable.

Anyway, this time the teams will be picking two urban artists to represent in cutting edge galleries – which turns out to mean Brick Lane again (presumably Whitechapel Gallery wouldn’t play ball) – and attempting to complete a sale to a corporate client, who they will meet to gather information for a brief. It is mere milliseconds before the voiceover, and several of the contestants, start mentioning Banksy. The art gallery-goer in me squirms a little, until I realise that’s the point.

I may have exhibited and sold work in the past as an experimental calligrapher, and I might be off to a friend’s Private View tomorrow night, but this is a programme about business decisions and making sales. Part of the point is to name-drop artists people might have heard of. I might be waiting for anyone to be knowledgeable enough to mention the seminal influence of Blek Le Rat on the recent modishness of stencil-based defacing of the built environment, but I just need to get out more and watch less BBC 4. And at least Adam comparing Banksy to The Stig is quite funny. Several bloggers couldn’t resist jokes about helmets at this point, although that would be to miss alternative fnar moments as the episode unfolded.

Both Project Manager elections are on the foregone conclusion end of the spectrum. For Phoenix, Adam, Jade and Laura bow to Tom’s graffiti nerd credentials. Tom is this year’s coolest candidate, and he wowed the Brick Lane posse with his bestubbled boyish pout last time round: let’s not mess with a formula. For Sterling, Jenna, Ricky Martin, Nick and Stephen select Gabrielle, who’s already been edited to present her as the wacky creative one.

Learning previous lessons, they both have a strategy. Azhar would be so proud, although I hope he’s thrown a coat over his micro-shorts if he’s out prowling the rain-swept pavements of Bristol for gritty urban art. Tom wants to go for message and history. Meeting the corporate client – Renault – he quickly shows he’s followed the marketing campaigns to date, although I might not have said “Joie de vivre” myself. One of the Renault reps wants Frenchness and sex. In London, armed with a £5K budget, that should be a walk in the park. Well, maybe not a walk and maybe not in the park, but achievable.

Gab’s client is Beefeater Gin. They want art that talks about their brand and about London. Oddly for a company that is briefing someone to source urban art, they mention ‘heritage’. I know they had graffiti at Pompeii, but still. To Karren’s astonishment, Gab doesn’t ask about the budget, let alone possible locations and sizes for the art they will be attempting to source. And neither Steve or Jenna pipe up either. In other circumstances that might be refreshing, but if ever there was a time to actually talk … On the other hand. Her strategy is to show enthusiasm to the artists, having grasped that their task is to represent them rather than themselves. For this task, it’s about being an agent rather than an innovator or an entrepreneur.

Let artist selection begin. For Pheonix, Jade and Adam go to Bristol. (It’s where Bansky is from, so for BBC1, Bristol is shorthand for artistic epicentre. For me, Bristol means murals, unsuccessful but cool bands in rather studenty pubs and Tesco Metro branches getting rioted at, but perhaps our experiences differ.) If part of the task is to demonstrate ability in an unknown world, the programme makers have found the perfect candidate in Adam. Unfazed, he promises to offer his ‘unique opinion’.  This starts with him liking the work of ©opy®ight. It goes unmentioned on the voiceover, but I can’t help but wonder if two things about his work particularly grabbed Adam’s imagination: nipples. Perhaps not the ‘sexiness’ Renault were looking for. It looks more revved up Vauxhall Nova to me, but I’m a gay pedestrian and I might be wrong.

Meanwhile, Tom and Laura encounter Pure Evil in Shoreditch. As you do. To me, his work looks like Andy Warhol prints of women impersonating pandas left out in the rain, but you can judge for yourselves here. (I’m also guessing the pseudonym has been chosen for marketing rather than applicability: he looks and talks more like a probation officer.) I’m thinking its derivative enough to sell well, but Tom seems to prefer establishing his endless knowledge of key pivotal moments in the evolution of urban art to exciting Mr Evil about being represented. Evil is confounded when it could have been embraced. They then visit James Jessop, who produces vast paintings in the style of B movie posters or covers of the kind of 50s trashy novels where Godzilla ravages Jane Russell. Neither of them like it, although they remember to be polite.

Gab starts with Nathan Bowen. I mishear this as Nathan Barley the first time, and flinch uncontrollably till I realise that kind of reference would be a little too cool for the programme makers to have engineered. His prints and smaller pieces look like Daleks in tea cosies drawn by someone whose lifestyle featured too many crayons and too little Ritalin, but it has Union Jacks and Gab gets excited. The spectre of Brick Lane looms again. Ricky and Nick, seeing his work on the streets of Bristol, decide it looks like “a crazy workman alien peeing on another crazy workman alien”. In the back of my head, an evil voice mutters something about being peed on by aliens being the kind of thing some folk would pay good money for until I remind it that we’re talking about Beefeater Gin and not the House of Lords. And, like Adam, they are strangely hypnotised by the perky breasts of ©opy®ight. No, let me rephrase that … When Gab and Steve visit James Jessop, Steve asks the artist what he wants to get across. Judging by the rather vague response, Jessop is all about passion. And beer. I can’t help but think he won’t be an easy sell. Nathan might draw urinating daleks, but he has charisma. But when Gab visits Pure Evil, it’s charm all the way. I don’t recognise any of her words as being art criticism or appreciation per se, but she loads her spraygun with enthusiasm and lets rips. For once, it’s Pure Evil that can’t do the resisting.

When time comes to pick artists, they both want Pure Evil. (I’ll let the metaphor go: it’s so cheap there’s no margin in it.) Handing the artist the casting vote, Mr Evil votes for Gab. He, at least, has understood the task: who’ll most likely flog his work. Give Pure Evil 60% and its turns into Sweetness and Light. So Pure Evil and Peeing Daleks it is. Nick doesn’t seem so sure about the Daleks, and mutely mauls his own head, while Gab decides he should draw live during the show. (Steve wants him to do this out the back, unseen, and is politely ignored.)

Tom is left with no Plan B. Not overtly seeking Adam’s input, he turns to Jade who dithers like a graphics package set on blurry. Tom decides to gamble and go for the giant B movie posters of James Jessop. They’re expensive, but one sale would sweep the task. Adam wonders who’d have a front room big enough for an original Jessop, forgetting that Renault might not refer to their corporate reception area as The Front Room.

When the show/sale starts, he calls people Madam at a Private View and says he thinks people appreciate his honest naiveté. I re-lower my eyebrow when the sales figures prove him right. Tom pulls off the corporate sale, although I’m not sure what it was they bought. On 40% commission, he’s done well, and airbrushed nipples are obviously a better investment than I’d realised. The edit quietly pre-announces the result when he starts making excuses to camera about art being a subjective purchase and people need to talk themselves into it. Actually, there is a very fair point, but I can’t help but think it pushes the envelope of the format further than even a fairly wide flatscreen telly might accommodate. Elsewhere, Jade is selling ©opy®ight stuff, Ad’s calling people sweetheart and racking up sales, and Laura is trying the soft sell. Nice of the makers to leave in the comedy moments, isn’t it? The Jessops, meanwhile, stay safely on one of the few walls in London big enough for them.

At Gab’s gallery, even a live Nathan can’t shift incontinent monsters at £500 a pop, but Pure Evil sells. (Ask any major retail chain.) Steve is trying too hard with the public, and too little with The Gin People. No greeting on arrival, no drink (although he waves his empty glass at them while he talks to them), and no goodbye. Karren, despite the warm-up act supplied by the artists, struggles to believe what she’s seeing. Making key visitors endure a Private View sober? What are they thinking?  Ricky haggles with a man in a bow tie, and completes a £3.1K sale of art he’s non-plussed by.

And so the Boardroom. Gab’s failure to ask about budgets and Steve’s grim handling of the client at the show don’t play well, and there was no corporate sale. The team, possibly sensing failure, are a little quiet in their praise for her. Tom’s lack of Plan B when the artists selection fell through is a major regret, although taking the risk on the Jessops is applauded and the team are wowed by his knowledge. The panel think he overplayed it.

In the event, Gab’s team wins by137 quid, and they get to go action painting. Well, paintballing indoors. Let’s draw a veil there.

Saved by his gung-ho approach a long way from his fruit and veg and by outselling everyone on the night, Adam is spared the boardroom. A faint scent of Favoured Son passes through the room, and Sugar approves of Tom’s selection. Tom admits his two big mistakes – failing to impress Pure Evil and having no Plan B. But the Favoured Son scent lingers: his willingness to take the big risk and stick by it wins over Lordalan. The failure isn’t the gamble, it’s failing to pull it off. So we’re back to judging by sales, and Laura’s aggressive self-defence mechanism fires into action. Along with her mouth. Her lack of sales on this occasion and her copious supply of words seal her fate, and her cab awaits. Jade, meanwhile, has her card marked for consistent indecisiveness.

I’m left pondering the format, as are journalists and readers at The Guardian. The programme is unclear as to whether the panel have seen the candidates’ business plans at this stage, but you could easily argue that Tom should have gone. The big failures were his. As in previous weeks, responsibility on the task doesn’t seem to be the deciding factor, so what actually is the role of the tasks in the decision process? The very different nature of selling art was passed over here, as were the costs of putting on the exhibitions: wine is only free for the visitors, unless they’ve been ram-raiding a branch of Majestic off-camera. Colossal failures on winning teams are sanctioned, allowing candidates who should be removed to stay in the process unduly. (If you watched last night’s The Apprentice: You’re Fired, the straw poll of the audience on the remaining eight was fascinating. Steve is judged to be well past his sell-by date, while the front-runners are Tom and Nick.)

The real process seems to be more like a modular degree course: some low-marks in one or two components are condoned as long as the overall performance is strong. Except where this clashes with the game-show elimination format, which dictates someone has to go. And ‘out of comfort zone’ tasks have a place, but the emphasis on pace (24 hours to create a sauce, put together an art exhibition, etc.) is no more realistic about the adaptability of individuals than it is the task in hand. The falsely instant trumps everything. Struck as I was by Mike Clayton’s review of the episode, I though his neat closing quote  – The alternative to evidence-based decision-making is decision-based evidence-making – applied to the programme as much as the candidate. It felt like the decision has already been made to keep Tom, so the emphasis of the final conversation was shifted to sales to expose either Laura or Jade. And that’s ok if that’s how the programme markets itself, except … we keep getting these only vaguely different tasks and would-be cliff-hangers about winning teams. And we keep getting the messages that tat sells and aggression wins.

Still, it has vestiges of both business and entertainment, I guess. Selection processes are contradictory, favouriting defies logic, and people buy pictures of breasts. I’m not sure it’s learning, but I suppose the programme still has one foot in reality. I just hope it doesn’t think it’s doing anything to improve reality …

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