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.
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.
We’ve introduced you to the runners and riders for this penultimate hurdles challenge of the season, and let you review their form in the paddock. So let’s get the cameras rolling and take you to West London for the Burlington Arcade Handicap Chase. And who better to set the scene than contemporary business’ very own Burlington Bertie from Bow? Lord Sugar, for it is he, sets up the challenge to create affordable luxury items. Roll up, roll up, get yer entrepreneurs ‘ere, ladies and gentlemen. (One of the candidates makes a remark about the final heat being the one to sort the men from the boys. I’d man up if I were you, Jade. Or cuff someone.)
The trick of the task is presumably in the non-sequitor. Charged with creating the product, the branding, a retail environment and an industry experts pitch, market positioning and retail strategy will be critically important here. Not so much as little nuggets of poshness for poorer people, but more as the kind of pampering items that still sell even in hard times. (The BBC has presumably slipped up somewhere on the socio-economic inequality indicators, but we’ll let it pass.)
I’m not sure about this additional episode. In one way, it’s the Personal Statement section of the application form, where we get to understand their individual drivers and see their pitch in terms of strengths. It also provides Karren and Nick – who, we should attempt to remember, are the two people who have actually witnessed and observed the participants over the long string of tasks they’ve completed. (Lord Sugar’s acquaintance with them is limited to task-setting cameos, a quick game of whiff-whaff one afternoon and the Boardroom session, which focus mostly on the losers.)
In televisual terms – and for televisual reasons – it’s also the sob story/background bit. Is this supplementary information that you’d normally welcome in a recruitment process, or sentimental special pleading masquerading as light entertainment? This is the kind of material that’s usually filler in X Factor, surely? If this was Big Brother, a cartoon Geordie would announce at this point that “You decide”.
But we don’t. Lord Alan, Nick and Karren decide, and we don’t know if they even care that so and so loves his Mum or comes from good stock. After all, so do – in their different ways – Edward VIII and bowls of dripping. I’m not sure I’d want to invest in either. What really drives them? It’s too easy and tempting to say “A cab, with luck”, but here is a summary of the runners and riders for the semi-final.
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.
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 …