In the “You’ve Been Fired” follow-on programme for Episode 2, Dara O’Briain demonstrated how a change of background music can alter our perception of a piece of footage. The winning team strolling around a Belgian square could be either edgy or comic, depending on the accompanying score. (Left as just a dialogue track, of course, it remained tragic, but music’s awesome power can’t change everything.)
Throughout Episodes 1 & 2 of Series 9 – and two episodes on consecutive nights really was in danger of being too much of a good thing – I often had an imaginary alternative soundtrack. “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.” And if Mrs Ampaw-Farr was watching, you might want to pay more attention to Noel Coward than Lord Sugar next time opportunity knocks. Yes, here we are again with The Apprentice. 16 fresh hopefuls, spouting like a school of whales and as estranged from modesty as they are from understatement.
The opening sequence set the tone: over-statement was clearly going to be the new black. Modesty is plainly going to be worn lightly and sparingly this year, and one candidate proudly informed us “I may look like a 5 foot 1 inch angel …” The young woman in question, to be honest, looked more like a trainee air stewardess, and angelic wasn’t a word that had rushed to mind. (If you’re wondering what the dress code for Bright Young Thing is this year, we’d counsel that the Young Apprentice candidates are not the best starting point: general office consensus from a tour of their profile pictures was that we were puzzled as to why they were all dressing like they were twenty years older. Well, with one exception, but we’ll come back to Patrick …) Buckets of drive though. When these people say “I started my first business at 9”, they don’t mean a.m.
Lord Sugar’s introduction doesn’t buck the trend either: “I know everything. I’ve done everything. I’ve seen everything.” Before the hour is up, he will be viewing a wet-suit/kimono hybrid and presumably hoping we’ve all forgotten he just said that. And he may have played the ‘old dog’ card, but new tricks appear to be off the agenda. It’s the first week, so it’s boys versus girls, everyone is still holding their smartphones like Star Trek communicators, and we’re not directly told about the restrictions on using it that we assume still apply (see our interview with one of the last series’ adult contestants). As we’re dealing with teenagers here, they aren’t summoned until 10am – maybe they’re all too busy starting new enterprises over breakfast anyway – and they’re only playing for £25K, but turning tat into tenners is still the name of the game.
So here we are at The Final. Even if I’m not entirely about the numbers (as my MBTI and other psychometric experiences confirmed), I can calculate on the spot pretty well for someone whose background and strengths are mostly on the creative side of the fence. So if time really is money, I reckon this series has cost me about a grand at my going rate. Ok, it’s had its moments, but any sense of a meaningful return has been a little difficult to identify.
Nor am I entirely proud that I’ve reviewed the episodes as if I’ve been watching televised pantomime, but that is what much of the series has felt like: the reviews are at least honest. And few reviewers – except one or two written by people taking themselves rather too seriously (or trying too hard to sell their own services) – have treated the programme with much more respect. There has been wisdom on offer, but all too often it’s been Norman Wisdom rather than Business Wisdom. No disrespect to Nick Hewer, Karren Brady or Lord Sugar himself: I’m sure your intentions are entirely honourable and your hearts are in the right places. But a lot of the audience are laughing up their sleeves rather than taking notes. There also seems to be a consensus that this hasn’t been a bumper series: the candidates have neither shone with brilliance nor dazzled with ineptitude, and the format feels tired. (If you can’t be clever, be likeable and all that …)
Indeed, the format is now an ugly cut and shunt job. The title never really belonged: whatever the programme has ever been, a structured learning programme with constant mentoring isn’t it. The task format worked while it was about picking an employee, but has not been amended now that it’s about identifying a partner to invest in. As The Telegraph pointed out, this year and last year’s eventual winners were both the candidate in the final who had been on the losing team the most often. (Although this criticism also overlooks the factor that annoys me: the worst or weakest performance can easily be on the winning team, while someone else must be fired.) The selection process may introduce a ‘reality tv’ level of suspense into the series, but as a model of business selection criteria it needs a stern word in its ear. (Claude, do you have a moment?) As models for assessment centres go, It’s A Knockout is an unusual choice.
Interestingly, the ‘The Final Five’ and the ‘Why I Fired Them’ programmes gave the viewer rather more beyond slapstick and buffoonery than the actual episodes: they had moments of a sober reflective quality that reviewed business strengths and personal qualities in ways that the tasks themselves have not. And as Lord Sugar reminded us in them, the process is also about the person: as well as an investor, Lord Sugar will be a business partner with the eventual winner. Good luck with that, as they say. And are you sure you didn’t want that dog?
Anyway, here we all are at the Institute of Directors, and each finalist gets a couple of sentences to outline their business plan. Nick offers a one-click facility for any recipe on the internet so we can buy the ingredients in one fell swoop. Tom is punting a hedge fund based around investments in fine wines. Jade is offering a call centre the size of Wales. Or perhaps Nepal. And Ricky is proposing an ethical recruitment service aimed at the scientific industries.
Last week’s episode engineered a cliff hanger, which saw Stephen escape Lord Sugar’s laser-guided firing finger by millimetres. This week, he’s parlayed his way into being PM whatever the task, and winning. Assessed on past performance, he’s left himself no option but to polish his petard until it’s as blindingly shiny as his suits and pray that he’s not hoisted aloft on it like a white flag. If there’s any justice, he’ll address a few other points too: dealing with his five o’clock shadow (fine at 5pm, but all day?), curb his patronising approach to the others (and especially the female others – let’s hope Karren is taking notes), and start taking responsibility rather than directing to others the moment anything as much as threatens to turn nipples-skyward. Last week, he had what we can assume was his first real close shave, and was only spared a free cab home by the thickness of his faux mohair waistcoat.
This week, regardless of the task, it’s his own brand that sorely needs a 24-hour makeover and a drastic repositioning. So it’s very tense on my sofa this week. Not only I am missing Lewis for this, I now realise I’m also missing the final series of A Town Called Eureka. Dramatic tension, complex problems to unravel, radical innovation, rendering of justice – and all of it on other channels.
Oh, the opportunities for cheap jokes – an episode of The Apprentice about disposing of waste. Lord Sugar even cracked a (well-scripted) funny about normally having his rubbish taken away in the back of taxis, but given that the tab is probably on the BBC licence payer, the punchline wasn’t quite so hilarious. (He also has a fair amount of waste ferried from luxury pads to prestige locations in some fairly expensive motors, when an Oystercard might have been more cost-effective. Surely even an East End lad should know the tube goes as far as Richmond?) And considering the episode was about the waste disposal business, there was a significant pile of crap still on display at the end of the programme.
I could update you on who won, although it doesn’t seem to be why anyone watches the programme anyway. I could harp on about the schadenfreude of watching metaphorical stiletto heels being inserted between rivals’ shoulder blades – one reason most of us are watching but that wears thin, even if we are less than halfway through. Watching the whole series is like running a marathon, only it’s your brain that starts to feel like it’s turned to lead. As usual, what stayed with me most at the end of the programme – apart from the moments that counselling and a vodka and tonic have now successfully erased – are the bits where the programme has failed itself and its audience.
Well, well, something new on The Apprentice. Who would have thought it? This time around Lord Sugar isn’t hiring them; he’s going to be their business partner and invest £250,000 in a venture with them. (Which makes the series title a misnomer, surely, but since when was this series about giving a realistic education in any aspect of business?). Novelty and innovation were quickly restored to their usual levels as we met another 16 hopefuls – on second thought, make that boastfuls (these people don’t hope: they believe global success is their birthright) – and Lordalun duly sent them to flog fruit and veg. I, meanwhile, recalled an old joke about the difference between a barrow-boy and a daschund. (If you don’t know it, click here.) But the punchline doesn’t work when the only thing a bunch of dogs wears out is the viewers’ patience …