The Apprentice

Wednesday, February 22, 2006 by

There are few things as off-putting as the broadsheets squealing in delight at a TV show. If they’re not getting “naughty” thrills by slumming it with Footballers’ Wives, they’re talking in a wry Tim Dowling kinda way about Chantelle off of Celebrity Big Brother, or – as we saw at the end of last year – fearsomely stroking their chins in the general direction of BBC1′s Bleak House adaptation. Pungent throughout is the whiff that, hey, it’s just the telly, and we’re having a bit of fun here! How kooky of us is that? To be into a TV show?

Of course, it’s happening again with The Apprentice. The show’s press launch at the start of the month saw a bumper turnout of journos. Alongside the usual circuit stringers hoping to snaffle out a quote about Sir Alan Sugar’s fitness regimen, a whole Vision Express-style fleet of portentous glasses descended upon the Soho Hotel to pick up a free copy of the mogul’s Whizz Kid-style book on how to make it in business (there’s even space at the back for “your notes”), watch the first episode on a big screen, and engage in a “small argument” with the man himself. Even Radio Times was there.

It’s official. The Apprentice is the new “bit of fun” in town. But that doesn’t matter. Despite the accolades tumbling upon it, on the evidence of last night’s season-opener, the show remains as beautifully made, witty and – most importantly – bullish as ever, unaffected by its success.

All right, he may not be the most charismatic chap in the world, but the tanned Sir Alan is still vitally important as the man at centre of all things. His utterings are a long way from Wildean, but it’s his coarseness, rampant ego and pathological belligerence that make him so magnetic. “How times can change. You seem to have gone from anchor to wanker!” he barks over the opening montage to one poor unfortunate (this year’s, “I’d have told you to piss off!”, surely?). “I just don’t know if you’re a bloody nutter!” he continues. “Quite honestly, I’d like to fire the bleedin’ three of you!” And then, at the end of tonight’s episode, “I got your card marked!” to the self-proclaimed “business bad boy” Syed.

Where his business reality show rivals Donald Trump and Richard Branson are all suave swagger and cricket sweaters on the shoulder, Sir Alan is aggro. A business bovver boy, to almost coin a phrase.

Tonight’s task saw this year’s 14 aspirant tycoons dispatched to Spitalfields market to stock up on fresh fruit, which they then had to sell for profit in their prospective boss’s old stomping ground of Hackney. While Ben led Invicta in the Queensbury rules of negotiating, the girls flung themselves around, self-confidently trading on their sexuality to blag as much over-ripe “toot” as possible. “Our strategy should be free, free, free,” declared Michelle as she realised the potential of the situation; befuddled stallholders handing over nearly-dead stock en masse.

While the debate about using femininity in business became the core talking point of the episode, what was shamefully overlooked was Velocity’s (“We have vision! We are exceptional! We are lasting! And we are outstanding in the city!”) misguided self-assurance in their own likeability. It’s one thing jiggling your melons, but their belief that their very presence is reason enough for punters to stump up freebies was surely the most distasteful thing of all. “Oh, you’re a star!”

As ever, the show is exquisitely compiled, fuggy shots of the City, radio chatter and cascading sky-scrapers giving it all a gritty, yet aspirational sheen. And there were those tiny, priceless moments: “Invicta”, “Invicta”, “Invicta”, “The A Team”; Syed declaring “let’s bring on the mind games,” before telling lawyer Karen she doesn’t look “a year above 30″; Ruth declaring, “I want to win because I’m a winner. I’m going to get the job with Sir Alan, end of … The girls are a lovely bunch of people – bar one” … with the camera then cutting to the effusive Jo.

And then there’s my favourite: Tuan and Alexa’s getting-to-know-you chat by the pool. “All in all a good bunch of people,” murmurs the financial adviser from Weston-Super-Mare. “Yeah, we’re going to have some fun. Work hard, play hard”. And then silence, with the pair raising their glasses in unison for a silent, uncomfortable drink before, in synchronicity, looking away for someone – anyone – else to talk to.

It’s absolutely beautiful stuff. Much better than we deserve, really.

And so Ben – pale, pleasant, puppy-dog Ben – was the first victim, following a spectacular savaging in the boardroom. To be honest, he’s better off out of it, as the monsters are gathering. Syed looks to have all the self-assurance and people skills of last year’s Paul Torrisi, while Jo is like Saira Khan on a sugar-rush. Ruth’s motivated by “money and recognition” and Paul can quite easily sell an apple for a fiver, with no recourse to snogging. He’ll go a long way for sure.

I love it that The Apprentice is back, and it’s not because I’m kooky. It’s just that it’s the best thing on TV. End of.


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