The Apprentice

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 by

Part reality-TV car crash, part Big Boy’s Book of Business, The Apprentice is a television show many people end up loving without really understanding why. It’s not as if there are any likeable characters in it, after all. But as a civilised form of torture, it really can’t be beaten.

Ostensibly, its aim is to give the great British public an exciting insight into high-flying big business while simultaneously recruiting millionaire Sir Alan “Amstrad” Sugar a brand new, top-class minion to bend to his will.

That’s the theory. But there’s a slight gap between that and the show in practice. That gap is the contestants. Instead of the best and the brightest of British business, we mostly get a bunch of arrogant, lying, cheating, back-stabbing Wall Street wannabes who would fail hopelessly if ever Sir Alan set them a brewery-related task. If there’s a measure of the horror of the show, it’s the fact that Sugar is the most likeable character in it, apart from his trusty, but mostly silent lieutenants. Despite his bluster and abuse of the contestants each week, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the man, knowing he could well wind up with one of these incompetent vipers on his payroll.

We’re now nearly mid-way through the second series and thanks to the extensive pruning Sir Alan’s been performing over the previous weeks, the first green shoots of competence are starting to appear. Now gone are most of the really dead wood, who appeared to be hand-trained by gibbons in the delicate arts of business negotiation. Emerging instead are a few contestants who actually seem to have a clue. But not many.

This week’s mission for the two teams was to come up with an advertising campaign for Sir Alan’s new private jet credit card, Amsair. The card, as explained by Sir Alan, is ostensibly a really simple scheme: you can use it to charter private jets, wherever you are in the world, without all those thorny credit checks and negotiations we all face when ordering our own planes. Just dial a number and a Sir Alan’s lackeys will sort out all the details for you while you’re still sipping the champagne.

Unfortunately, this is where it all starts to go a bit pear-shaped. The teams send a couple of hapless candidates off to be briefed in full about the card by one of Sir Alan’s sons, the MD of Amsair. Velocity’s representatives, Ansell and Mani (a self-professed “world-class presenter” who nevertheless makes the average car-park watch salesman look sincere) eventually returns with the pitch that it’s “like a concierge service”. The rest of the team, led by Ruth, a reassuring island of competence in a sea of disaster but one with the charm of a granite cliff-face, naturally gets fooled into thinking the card is “like a concierge service”, even though it’s not. They then proceed with remarkable efficiency, cooperation and coordination to put together completely the wrong ad campaign.

Invicta, led by Paul, a third-generation Splendid Chap by the looks of him, escape this trap but can’t quite work out the best way to pitch the card, despite having an advertising lecturer in their ranks – “I only teach the theory of it,” Sharon explains later. Undeterred by failing to yet have that most vital component of any ad campaign – an idea – Invicta heads off to cast the actors for their 30-second promo video. They’re not sure who or what they want, so they test young, old, male, female, black, white and Asian alike, hoping that some compelling concept will land in their laps through the power of the casting pixies. The day ends, though, without any fairy dust having been sprinkled.

So, Paul puts his foot down, orders a midnight brainstorm, and, just like that, comes up with his pitch: “It’s like magic. 5000 airlines from one card”. It’s an idea so good, apparently, it gives team members “goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Day two then becomes a race against the clock to put together the video and a matching billboard. Both teams try to film on Sir Alan’s private jet at the same time, leading to a surprising moment of generosity by Splendid Chap Paul, when he allows the other lot to carry on shooting, even though he had the booking. It’ll be the last moment of generosity we’ll see from him this episode before he turns to the dark side.

In another further moment of synchronicity later that day, both teams simultaneously realise their directing inexperience has led them to accidentally shoot Confessions of a Business Traveller instead of a promotional video. Cue mad panic.

But with judicious editing and voiceovers, the worrying shots that make it look like the harried businessman in Invicta’s video was “rubbing himself off” are excised; and Velocity no longer have to worry about their concierge giving their businesswoman a look-over. The show can go on, after all.

But it’s about now that Mani, with remarkable timing, takes one look at his team’s campaign and points out that he meant the card was like a concierge service, not that it was a concierge service. Doom, gloom and more re-editing. Ruth, however, takes it all in her stride and to the surprise of regular viewers, so does bipolar Jo. She greets each new task with the eagerness of a Labrador puppy but then usually spends the allotted time complaining and crying. However here she is eager to stay quiet, knowing that if they fail, Ruth will tether her to a stake with all the other scapegoats, ready for firing.

The final hurdle before showing Sir Alan what his money’s bought him is a presentation to advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi’s entire creative team. After Ruth decides to bypass the sulking Mani in favour of the undervalued Samuel, Velocity deliver a blinder and are given the official blessing of Saatchi & Saatchi.

Invicta fares far worse. The world’s most important man, the self-styled “entrepreneur” Syed, is trying to keep a low profile. Syed, who confessed guiltily at the beginning of the programme that in the previous task he may have only given Sir Alan 110% rather than the 150% he’d previously claimed, is clearly feeling chastened and wants to be as blameless as possible in future. That leaves Paul to deliver the presentation. Unfortunately, Paul’s delivery of the worst jokes in presentation history only result in the contempt of the creatives for Invicta’s campaign. Suddenly, he realises he’s in deep trouble.

So come the final presentation of the campaigns to Sir Alan for his impatient evaluation, like all Splendid Chaps who think they are in deep trouble with the boss, Paul preemptively dumps on his entire team before the results are even announced. “I had to come up with the idea,” Paul grumpily explains. “I was expecting more of them. Especially Sharon.” The looks of his team mates could have killed and had Sir Alan not thrown Ruth’s lot to the lions instead, it’s likely they’d have done a lot more to Paul outside than just look at him.

But all is quickly forgiven, because Alan sends successful Invicta off for a champagne and fashion show treat, leaving Ruth to pick two other candidates from her squad for potential ejection from the building. After approximately a millisecond’s contemplation, Ruth nominates Mani and Jo for target practice.

Sir Alan’s not best pleased. He was speaking English when he’d explained what he wanted: did they have some problems understanding the language? No, Sir Alan.

So who’s to blame? At first, Ruth almost gets herself fired, when it becomes clear she’s brought Jo in because she doesn’t like her, rather than because of any terrible failing on the curly-haired, curly-brained one’s part. But it’s Mani, who has “gone from anchor to wanker” since the start of the series, Sir Alan decides, thanks to his overstated presentation skills being exposed in previous tasks as simple gobbiness.

To his credit, on the taxi ride home from Sir Alan’s offices, Mani gives an atypical Apprentice exit interview and instead of blaming everyone else, decides to face up to failure and get on with his life. Whether anyone will hire him after displaying his “talents” on-screen remains to be seen.

The remaining candidates walk off into the sunset, hoping to prove themselves in the next test. As a job interview it sucks and you have to wonder why management consultants and “entrepreneurs” among others would put themselves through it, just to be shouted at professionally by an easily irritated former market trader. But as a more genteel form of the village stocks, The Apprentice works just fine. A modern-day capitalistic morality play, it teaches aspiring Gordon Geckos that strutting around like a peacock won’t get you your business rewards in this life; only by sticking to the one true path of competence will you make your way to the sweet taste of Sugar heaven.


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