Even the continuity girl was ready with the puns this week, and the programme hadn’t even started. The remaining up and coming geniuses of British Enterprise were going to raise awareness of British wine, so out came the phrases – corker of an episode, bursting bubbles, fizzing. For pity’s sake people, I’m missing Lewis for this, and that has moments of genuine suspense. And ad breaks. Still, let’s see what sells, eh? The market’s never wrong: tamagotchi, Justin Bieber, Greece …
We start in the Champagne Bar at St Pancras at 6.30am. On the way there in the cab, Ricky is already giving it 110% with the verbals, while Gab and Tom look like they want to kill someone. Possibly Ricky. Lordalan sets the scene by plugging the quality of English Sparkling Wine. In truth, he’s right: it really has won several credible international wine awards. But it’s up against the brand awareness of champagne, and it sorely needs public awareness of its competitive quality. The task is to prepare a website and video as an online ad. Although, perhaps with an unspoken nod to the emergence of technocratic administrations as a solution to crisis, this week’s task will be judged on the basis of the inputs of an industry expert panel. The horse may be dead, but at least they’re not flogging it for once.
I’ve approved of this method of judging in the past, not least because it allows the candidates to receive feedback – albeit partly indirectly – from the task’s client: the element of learning – which should be central to the concept of ‘apprentice’ – is momentarily restored. And the client quite possibly learns something about providing constructive feedback in challenging circumstances. But the actual tasks beg the question as to whether Lordalan is searching for a business partner or a PR trainee, even if they do move us on slightly from scoring people on their ability to punt tat.
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.
5pm and the candidates are chillaxing for the cameras, as you do, when the phone rings. The cars will be arriving in 20 minutes to whisk them to what must surely be the spiritual home of The Apprentice: a wholesale warehouse in Essex. Lordalan recites his I Started My First Business In A Van psalm for the congregation. Before handing them their £150 for stock, he points out the warehouse has ‘everything a business needs to turn a profit’. Oddly no-one storms the aisles looking for the strategic plans or the common sense.
Actually, this is a time-honoured Apprentice task. (I’m saying ‘honoured’ but …) Take a punt on the first batch of stock and pick two locations. Restock once you’ve sussed the market, and biggest total sales plus stock in hand wins. It’s all abaht smellin’ wot’s sellin’. (Thank the lord – or perhaps the Lord -we’ve moved on from street food, or someone would have to make a nasty joke about Adam’s nasty little balls.)
There was an ominous caller at the door. Not The Grim Reaper, I reminded myself, having just listened to an old Elvis Costello album that helpfully pointed out that ‘Death wears a big hat, cos he’s a big bloke’. Lordalan had arrived in person to interrupt the candidates’ jolly relaxation capers (X-box rather than whiff-whaff this week, but still hardly ‘work hard, play hard’?). Apart from looking seriously over-staged, this also had the unusual affect for The Apprentice of showing him stood with others. A minus mark on presentation for the programme makers there: the point is to make everything look bigger and more important, surely?
Anyway, for those still sentient enough to care, the task. Streetfood. Or rather “high quality food from mobile units” in the “culinary capital of Scotland”. Despite not just the Edinburgh Festival but its larger Fringe and the innumerable other events of the Scottish capital (including at least one food festival), someone thinks this kind of thing is still ‘in its infancy’. Shoot that researcher.
Judging by Jenna’s worries about people talking Scottish at her, geography teaching is in its infancy further south. (Yes dear, they do speak differently in Edinburgh. It’s because they’re educated.) Or maybe she’s been prompted to say it so we all think this is 2012’s ’11 Go Mad Abroad’ episode. Still, a bonus mark for not inflicting this nonsense on Glasgow, where the candidates might have learned some short, sharp and possibly un-broadcastable lessons.
Irony abounds, doesn’t it? Entrepreneurial gladiators woken from their pre-dawn slumber, sleeping three or four to a room behind the surface glamour of their Bayswater mansion when there’s a Travelodge within spitting distance. A judging process that isn’t only all about sales rather than investment potential, but which also assesses income while ignoring expenditure. An episode that might have inspired us with a few remarks about the importance of physical fitness for entrepreneurial success, but which encouraged us to sit on our bottoms for an hour, possibly swilling a low calorie vodka or two. Did I miss the round where they invent new bar games and someone comes up with ‘Loser Stays On’?
The location for this week’s surprisingly poetic briefing? York Hall, famous East End boxing club. There was a ‘locally’ missing there, I thought, as some of the contenders looked like they thought Bethnal Green was one of Farrow & Ball’s new seasonal emulsion colours. Thankfully, no-one said anything to the effect of ‘the gloves are off’ or ‘seconds out’. ‘Seconds’ in this context are slightly inferior versions you buy as cheap as possible and then flog vigorously. And the task? Designing a new exercise class to license to health club chains. Jog on, I thought quietly to myself …
It may be Olympics year in Boris Johnson’s London, but in Sugarland even whiff-whaff’s not sacred. Relaxing in some very tidily pressed casual wear during what the voiceover calls a day off, our plucky hopefuls are summoned to the phone. This is Business (possibly all in caps, with exclamation marks, maybe styled as a logo), and work-life balance isn’t one of the lessons on Lordalan’s curriculum. Mercifully, we’re spared the interjection of a talking head cameo from Michael Gove.
The task? Buying second-hand goods and reselling them in pop-up shops in Brick Lane. Brick Lane is presumably programme-maker shorthand for ‘cool’: too cool for some of the candidates, it seems, even if it’s a rather lazy symbol for some of the rest of us. (Neither is there any mention of the cost of using prime retail space, if only for a day, in a shopping strip that Time Out has been plugging for at least 15 years. Let’s just say ‘more than a market stall’.)
So, it’s basically Cash in the Attic meets Flog It! week, although when isn’t it? (The BBC? Upcycling?) The stentorian language that the ghostwriters give Lord Sugar for his intro fails to point out – or equally fails to hide – the fact that the episodes are always decided on the profit. The Apprentice isn’t so much about being back to basics as never really moving beyond them.
Rejoice people, for we have a new euphemism. Last Wednesday, Duane asked that most passionate, key, committed question: “Who’s feeling the chutney?” Perhaps in next week’s task, the remaining candidates must not only define it, but decide which colour it should be and who should do the voice-over. Or, in other words, here we go again … This week, it was all abaht … I’m sorry, all about condiments. You know … stuff. In bottles. For sploshing on stuff. Your local supermarket already offers a choice of thousands of varieties, so the market’s obviously ripe for something exciting and innovative, fresh from the back of a van.
As the population decline on the girls’ team was getting a little worrying, Duane and Nick got to bat for the other team this week, while the girls bid a tearful temporary farewell (well, ok …) to Katie. After the usual reversing into the spotlight, Duane was heralded as PM for Sterling, while Katie takes on the ‘honour’ for Pheonix, despite Adam voicing his concerns that breasts and ovaries might be some kind of impediment in a manner that made HP sauce look as modern as Tea-smoked Piquillo And Pimenton Relish. (Don’t all rush, I made that one up. Really, I should be a food critic.)
OK, I missed Episode 1. No, I didn’t nod off: I was Down Under, 12 hours out of sync, and eating breakfast in a campervan. Whether muesli, banana and sunshine were better for me than another episode of this must remain a debate to be had elsewhere, but I didn’t have a sense of missing it. Having concluded, watching the last series, that the programme struggles to really be either a business lesson or an entertainment (we’ll return to that in a moment), watching Episode 2 in the throes of jetlag wasn’t a great idea. While the running metaphor of review the last series was Steve, sat on a sofa in Rotherham, the show’s ‘magic’ didn’t rub off on Dave, sat on a sofa in Milton Keynes. I drifted, more in the sense of Mae West’s oft-quoted remark than in the sense of any kind of reverie. And I wasn’t Snow White before I started, even without the capital letters.
It was the week of The Invention Task. “Aren’t they all?”, I mused woozily, in as much as every episode seems essentially to turn on the alchemic process of turning old rope into fivers by the magical application of egotism, backstabbing and a carefully edited sense of urgency. I’m sure the programme should be instilling some kind of appreciation of the virtues of the ideal businessperson, but the commentary I read over the weekend that most reminded me of the programme was actually an interview with Marianne Faithfull in The Guardian, where her answer to the splendid question “Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?” was as follows:
I’ve had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.”
After thirteen weeks, I can take that fork out of my leg and celebrate: we have a winner. Pleasingly, the person most of the office here picked a few weeks back, not least on the grounds that hindsight is better than myopia or having a crystal-clear view of your own adoring reflection. As the four finalists presented their business plans to Lord Sugar’s hired human ‘demolition balls’ (thankfully, with the emphasis on the demolition – His Lordship’s testicular fetishism has rivalled Gordon Ramsay’s in this series), it went mostly as you’d expect.
Naturally, the theme was something that was ‘Big Business!’ The voiceover almost enunciated the capital letters and exclamation mark for us, just in case we were being a bit slow. (Not for The Apprentice anything niche like vintage guitar trading or rare stamp collecting, where in-depth knowledge, a commercial understanding of the target audience and a sharp eye can make some serious wonga. No sir-ee, time is money. Just not in very big amounts most weeks.) And naturally, we were talking speedy. Not just something banged together from fag-packet to fanfare in 36 hours – although a task around re-thinking what the back of fag-packets could achieve commercially and socially might be a more interesting challenge – but fast-food. The series might drag overall, but taken an episode at a time The Apprentice is fast food telly. It fills a hole, it’s easily digested (if messy and a little hard to swallow), and it’s not as nourishing as it would like us to believe. Brownie points to the task-setter.
So … empty City shopping-mall unit to first branch of a fast food chain in about the same time it takes to prepare for a serious dinner party. On our left, Natasha, Jim and Susan. Natasha fielded her BA in International Hospitality Management, only to see the diners return it to the kitchen. (After it failed to win her PM status, she spent the rest of the programme parlaying it as something she did years ago and chose to never pursue. Which made Lord Sugar a little lumpy.) Selling her expertise in branding instead, Jim – a two-time loser as PM (as Susan nicely pointed out in the Boardroom later on), but a man with a personal grievance about playing second violin – saw no reason why he shouldn’t be PM. (He might even have meant Prime Minister.) They went Mexican, and Jim visited some Mexican food chains for inspiration. His brushes with novelty seemed to begin and end with thinking “Caraca’s” a) had an apostrophe in it, and b) was a Mexican percussion instrument. (It’s the capital of Venezuela, Jim. Google is your friend even if your geography teacher wasn’t.) Given that my local Mexican restaurant plays a relentless diet of Cuban music and serves mostly Spanish or Brazilian food, any hope of cultural understanding was always going to be a long-shot. If they’d pulled that off, I’d have eaten my sombrero. It would have been more nutritious than their nachos, which His Sweetness said reminded him visually of when “my son’s dog puked”. Charmed, I’m sure.