The Apprentice

Wednesday, March 29, 2006 by

It’s the reality show for people who don’t like, even expressly detest, reality shows. For those who recoil at the prospect of paying lip-service to the world of Heat magazine-favoured celebrities and run a mile from the ethical grey area of gawping at a house full of stir-crazy working class oddballs, The Apprentice fulfils that base voyeuristic need with half the saturated guilt of other programmes.

The business community is, after all, fair game, isn’t it? A minority group everyone enters of their own free will, upon whose doorstep blame is heaped daily for some venal transgression or other, and who are generally better off than you anyway. There’s no worry about the implications of laughing at the underclass, and little chance – so far – your patronage will inadvertently spur any contestants to take up permanent residence in the media, or release a Christmas single. The Beeb may sell it with emphasis on the aspirational side of things, but it’s really just a cunningly conscience-salving chance to sneer, gawp and giggle in that righteously superior fashion we all secretly crave. Everyone’s happy, no-one gets hurt. If its creators hadn’t got sidetracked into television, they’d be running the UN by now.

Week six, and the contestants arrive at the lair of Siralan, that Doctor Who baddie manqué, for a gawp at the opulence which, we are constantly reminded, awaits one of them, and to be set the task of flogging motors in Slough. As tasks go, it doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, and indeed this was probably the thinnest in terms of the high comedy we’d been used to so far. Fun was had at the expense of the car-ignorant girls. A saloon is one with the sticky-out bit at the end, decides Michelle. Velocity, wandering about by the road and flogging nothing, spot Invicta’s success, decide it’s all down to the natty purple sashes they’re sporting, and rush off to make some of their own – only due to on-site material shortages, they have to make do with fashioning red armbands which evoke mid-20th century German politics more than dynamic salesmanship.

Maybe there’s something in that, as most fun is provided by the car lot’s very own little Hitler, the white-haired and appropriately named John, ruling the ranks with an iron fist and regarding the assorted interloping pipsqueaks with undisguised contempt. Syed, confidently assuring a customer a car would appreciate in value over the next few years, finds himself on the end of a concentrated bollocking from the boss man. Jo, who scrawls a sale on the windscreen of one car, then fails to close the deal but leaves the vehicle in unsellable limbo, takes her dressing down from the headmaster on the chin – and, of course, reminds us several times of this fact during the rest of the programme.

Another injection of liveliness comes from the editors. Perhaps deciding this task lacks the essential lunacy of previous classics, they opt for a bit of cutting room misdirection. Invicta are bigged-up relentlessly from the start. Karen’s a sales veteran. Jo worked for MG Rover. Sam knows a bit about cars, too. How can they fail? Perhaps it’s not playing by the rules to put the production team under the same spotlight as the participants, but sometimes it’s hard not to. We are, after all, being sold the programme by them. Why shouldn’t we become sceptical, sofa-bound Siralans in the face of such televisual Wolf Spirit trickery?

And so, after the usual winding-down shots of all and sundry looking knackered, to the boardroom, in sumptuous Brentwood Wharf. After the relative lack of visual interest on the car lot, the camera team – never knowingly underlit – seize on the chance to make merry with the sinisterly glowing conference table, ably abetted by the soundtrack composer endlessly running his finger round the rim of that damn wine glass. In short order, Siralan dismisses Sharon’s winning team – ah, bet you thought they were going to lose, didn’t you? Sussed! – leaving Sam, Jo and Ansell to sweat it out over the table. Ansell’s proximity to the waist-level strip-lighting enables the crew to get a fun effect, as the glow pierces his sub-Marsellus Wallace wraparound specs to reveal furtive, darting eyes that look every bit as obviously frightened as Jo’s.

They’ve been grooming and choreographing Siralan too, though he’d be the last to admit it. Aware his gruff monotone could do with a bit more dramatic punch, they’ve taught him a trick – the on-syllable nod. Most evident when he’s uncomfortably reading a bit of pre-prepared spiel rather than freeforming, Siralan has begun to jerk his head violently to emphasise a stressed word. The cameraman follows this with a similar over-mannered nudge of the camera in the same direction. The desired effect is presumably an atmosphere of edgy tension where the Earth shudders at Siralan’s every mighty utterance. It’s not needed at all but, as a glance at BBC drama’s current repertoire of toy box visual techniques shows, things could be worse.

And so Jo leaves. Even Siralan admits it’s a shame to see her go. He gave her a chance and she underperformed. It’s hard not to agree – the last three tasks have seen very little of the early Jo’s manic instability, which is surprising, given the production team’s blatant decision to cast her as the resident clown. This week’s was the limpest. All we got was a short sequence of her inevitably scaring customers away with what only she could imagine was matey banter, presumably obtained by squeezing the footage dry. A last minute appeal against Siralan’s decision was a first for the programme, but too little too late on all counts. Making a conscious decision to “straighten up and fly right”, she abandoned her essential Jo-ness and lost it not only with Siralan, but us as well. There’s a message in there somewhere worthy of The Cosby Show.

Still, as she rolled off in the cab (looking strangely calm and collected – normal even, as if released after a term of wrongful imprisonment) it was hard not to reflect on the incidental joys we’ll have to learn to do without – the prehensile eyes, the village fête competition-winning gurns, the weird combination of the Babs Windsor squeak and the Sid James cackle (sometimes within the same outburst), the baby’s-first-coffee-enema expression on receiving the most mundane piece of info from Siralan, the random explosions of hair-and-limb callisthenics in the manner of a transvestite Rod Hull on learning there is, once again, somebody at the door. “Now I’ve gone, things are going to get a lot more tough,” she predicted, perhaps aware of her Norman Wisdom role. It was indeed hard not to feel we were going to get a lot less fun in future editions.

But maybe not. In some pokey floating casino, new barneys were being forged. Velocity’s high after their “unexpected” win on the back of flogging a couple of anti-Ribena protection kits soon turned into a spat worthy of any middle school playground during morning break. Paul, it transpired, had said something to Syed about Sharon being rubbish, and Michelle had heard it and told Sharon that Paul had told Syed she was rubbish, and Sharon didn’t like hearing people say she was rubbish, but Paul said he never. Or something. Velocity as a team was judged “finished”. This could be good.

Less knockabout and more bitter than before, this was a turning point in the series. The Apprentice law of evolution is coming in to play, with the familiar old dinosaurs starting to fall by the wayside under the weight of their own cumbersome egos, and the small, foraging rodents beginning to emerge from the protective undergrowth. Whether the likes of the taciturn Tuan, the distracted Michelle and Sharon (one of those contestants no-one really knows anything about, but somehow know they just don’t like) will last much longer depends more on what the likes of Paul and Ruth get wrong more than what they get right. The spectre of Tim the Quiet One looms large.

For the production team, things will get tougher, too. With contestants numbering in double figures, all that was needed was to get enough coverage of the numerous to-ings and fro-ings, and select the best morsels. Now, with things taking shape, more care is needed. The “dumkopfs” and larky bandits have been shorn away, and everyone still on board is ruthlessly focused on winning the prize. Whether their determination will prove sufficiently enthralling to everyone else will be down, more so than ever, to the salesmanship and sleight of hand abilities of the producers. Can they turn Tuan’s lust for glory into riveting telly? How will they cope if deprived of Ruth’s ticked-off toddler grimace, or Syed’s shifty boardroom manoeuvrings? With the stock of reliable nuts and fruits running low, miracles may have to occur between boardroom and screen.


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