The Apprentice

Wednesday, March 8, 2006 by

If I had a bomb, and a place to drop it from, I’d drop it on you, business hopefuls.

Let’s not fool ourselves that the entrepreneurial spirit was first raised in the ’80s – one glance at Foyle’s War proves that “business bad boys” were rife in 1942, even in Hastings – but the decade of red braces and Gordon Gekko did a lot to turn it into a way of life. As one particularly nasty lobbyist proclaims in oil-industry potboiler Syriana, the latest piece of liberal porn from the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh camp, “That’s Milton Friedman! He got a goddamn Nobel Prize!”

Friedman, the father of the free market, got his prize in 1976, but his influence was mostly felt once Reagan and Thatcher had been elected, and judging by The Apprentice, their fall from power did little to dampen our enthusiasm for private enterprise. (Sir Alan’s Amstrad empire was first floated on the stock market in 1980, as if to prefigure the aroma of success that stuck to the decade like Paco Raban.) The contestants on this second series, reduced at the end of week three to a band of six brothers and five sisters, were, with one or two elder exceptions, born in the ’70s and raised in the greed-is-good decade. Worse, they will have started work in the ’90s, when American business speak infected our boardrooms, hence all the talk of strategy, bringing it on, and “going for the close”. (This week, Paul, 26, announced that he was going to “role-play” when haggling for a yard of silk, when what he meant was “lie”. What monsters we have created.)

On points, episode three was the weakest in terms of task, dispensed by Sir Alan at the London Stock Exchange from an unnecessary balcony that can only be described as papal, at the very least dictatorial: to buy 10 prescribed items (lobsters, saffron, cigar). The winning team would be the one that came back with the most change from £1000.

This was a fairly mundane quest, almost random, like one of those wacky inheritance comedy films of the 1960s, designed perhaps to test their teamwork but too unwieldy to keep track of, despite the programme’s skilful editing. A 24-style clock in the corner might have helped. Also, the specification that all items must be purchased for under cost price, or else penalties awaited, simply spelled the unedifying sight of grown people groveling to get a penny taken off at a wholesalers. “Go on, please,” whined Mani at one stage of the negotiations for some silk. He is 39 and must surely now examine where his life is actually going.

The knockabout task aside, this was the most compelling dramatic outing so far, partly because we are getting to know the less noisy contestants, like “sweet natured” Alexa, and the foul-mouthed Michelle (who at one fraught moment, summed up with, “What a fucking farce!”).

This, though, was Jo’s show. The 35-year-old undiagnosed-bipolar HR manager was given enough rope to hang herself by the other members of Velocity, allowed to nominate herself as project manager with forethought that would have impressed Judas. It’s interesting that the show’s other early candidate for villain, the actually reasonable Syed, also got his chance as team leader but made little impact, dramatically, beyond haggling for a lobster at zero hour by lying, sorry, role-playing. Indeed, Invicta did little of any interest except win, by eight quid. The spotlight belonged to Velocity, and the inevitable power struggle between Jo and Everybody Who Isn’t Jo.

She put herself forward without any challenges from her spirited teammates, unless you count a barbed, “What skills have you got?” from belligerent Brummie Ruth, who I rather like, despite myself. To her credit, Jo kept the tears under control, but not her mouth, or her isolationist tendencies (always good in a team leader). She was warned by “nice lady” Karen the lawyer to “stop brooding” after not getting her own way, but there is little scope for cutting yourself off from the team in the back of a people carrier.

Most of the boardroom bullshit (remember – Sir Alan doesn’t like “bullshidders”) came from the boys, but there was scant tension to entertain us. Having spent two and half hours planning what to do rather than actually do anything, the girls split into two teams of three and Karen and Alexa were unlucky enough to end up on Jo’s. That was their downfall (keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, or something). While the other three spunkily went off and, without consulting their leader, procured seven out of the 10 items – for which their reward was a panicky last-minute delegation to find the elusive tyre – Jo proved herself useless yet again, taking her team on a wild goose chase to Camden for a dinner jacket. If she spent less time phoning the other team on her fancy mobile and more time getting on with it …

Always on speaker phone, the sight of women yelling into an open mobile as if using a compact will be the enduring image of this series. “I’m not having it,” huffed Jo, who claimed to have “eyes and ears in the back of my head,” but displayed very little between those freakishly-sited lugholes.

In the boardroom, it quickly emerged that that the poorest negotiators (the boys) had won, and were packed off to a symbolic race meeting at Sandown Park for champagne and chest-beating. We saw little of Ansell, who seemed so promising in episode two in his towel, but that just shows that The Apprentice is edited like a soap, as indeed it should be. He was a supporting player this week, but he did get to observe that “treats work”.

As for our treat, Jo dragged her loyal captains Karen and Alexa into the final showdown with Sir Alan, whose criticisms are always met with a straightforward denial.

“You’re amateurish.”

“I’m not amateurish, Sir Alan.”

Alexa, her cheeks aglow like a star of the equestrian club, was accused of being a bit girlish by woman-hating Sir Alan, but she spoke up and saved her own outdoorsy skin. Karen, arbitrarily given retrospective responsibility for the missing tyre, kept her counsel (well, she is a lawyer) and was summarily and unjustly fired. (“Nice lady, but she had to go.”) The first unfair sacking of the series. Jo emerged into reception less outwardly and nauseatingly triumphant than last week, the pink varnish on her nails all but chewed away. Like the tears, she seems to know when to play the clenched fists. Can her mania also be an act?

Of course the nation now hates her more than we ever did Saira. And that, like an idiot chef who can’t tell pork from a scallop on Kitchen Nightmares, is TV gold. (The producers must have begged Sir Alan to leave her in for another week. Or is that a cynical view?) “I was like a Rottweiler,” she said, at one point, picking far too sympathetic an animal. Sir Alan identified her “machine gun rat-a-tat” delivery, but called her “a bloody nutter” in an almost affectionate way. She loved that. She is the kind of person that says, “I’m mad, I am.”

Jo is having it after all. Her claim not to be a threat is false. I love this programme more than any other, while hating those participating to an equal degree. That’s reality TV. And it proves that Milton Friedman has even more to answer for than we thought. Although I’ll bet, on receiving his Nobel, he didn’t punch the air and say, “Bring it on!”


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