The Apprentice

Wednesday, April 26, 2006 by

Being perhaps the last person in the country to have cottoned on to The Apprentice and only ever having watched two episodes previously, it is with a sense of curious detachment that I find myself being drawn to this evening’s edition. Outwardly it has all the hallmarks and classic architecture of a show that I would avoid normally at all costs: repulsive, snivelling contestants whose world view could best be described as screechingly insular and whose – ahem – talent would make a quadriplegic amoeba blush; a brash, repellent comedy villain/anti-hero who has clearly wandered off the pages of a sub-Dickens parody and onto our screens; and a basic raison d’etre of “Me! Me! Me!” that’s at least two decades-plus past its sell-by date.

Yet mix all these oleaginous ingredients together and you’ve got a cracking little show that effortlessly entertains the viewer from start to finish. The argument that the programme is so popular because of, rather than despite its cast may be incredibly well worn, but it certainly bears repeating to the point of mantra. This is a group of dolts, dullards and dunderheads that one could not possibly be less dispassionate about individually, yet somehow as a collective entity you find yourself mesmerized by them.

Like most modern day programmes that have achieved overwhelming popularity such as Strictly Ice Twirling and Celebrity Can’t Dance, Won’t Dance, The Apprentice is, in truth, little more than a Generation Game sketch stretched beyond the point of belief, that somehow manages to fool the viewing public into believing it’s a worthwhile talent search. Whether this makes Sir Alan Sugar an upmarket Jim Davidson or a low-rent Larry Grayson, I don’t know – though I do like the idea of Sir Alan buzzing Jenny, his secretary, up on the intercom and archly asking her to get him Everard immediately. The trick that the producers have managed to achieve is to rip-off the Gen Game sketch format shamelessly and make it so damned compulsively entertaining – a feat that even Derren Brown would be jealous of.

Tonight’s sermon from the mount saw the Big Cheese send forth the mini-Babybels to a cruise ship on the Med on which to display their mediocrity – which they did with stunning aplomb. Like a Bond baddy, Big Al was displayed on a videophone to the remaining charisma-free contestants somewhere in downtown Istanbul (no, Constantinople), or Ankara, where he dutifully informed them of their task, should they wish to accept it. What a pity the phone didn’t self-destruct thereafter as it would have been a nice touch, and we could have witnessed some collateral damage: “Your task is to organize disaster-zone triage!” which would, undoubtedly, have seen Ruth successfully selling her blood to the rest then buying it back at a profit.

As the Essex wide-boy version of Blofeld (yes, I know) set out the task for his wannabes (why didn’t the producers give Al a white pussy to stroke on board his yacht as he spoke to the minions?) his two silver assassins watched on impassively. Actually, I think they’re both remote-controlled zombies with fragments of John Major’s soul imparted into them, such is the level and consistency of their monotonous interludes. Though I can imagine them running a high-class Kensington S&M dungeon, but that’s another story.

The hard thing for the casual viewer like myself is to anthropomorphize the collective mass into individuals. It’s easy with Ruth, the alpha she-male with a big cock attitude but the others are pretty much much of a muchness. Their names escape me, and it saddens me immensely that, after less than an hour in their company, I cannot remember – or care to remember – who they are. All I can recollect of the other four is that one was the nervous, twitchy young Asian guy who got the sack tonight, there was a comedy duo of two talentless but predictably jovial, fat blokes (insert your own joke here about Tweedledum and Tweedledumber) and a bird who has something along the lines of Customer Service Manager below her name, but you tend to believe what this really means is call centre operator. Nightshift.

Ruth and the rest, that’s your bag. Somehow I don’t think yer actual next generation of entrepreneurs and whiz-kids will be following through into their boxers over the future promise of this lot.

But what they lack in talent, charm, ability, business acumen, flair, decisiveness, strength, depth of character, integrity, adaptability and intuition they more than make up for with determination, self-belief and sheer, unadulterated ego. And that’s the nub of the show – ego. Business is the ability to wage war with your peers and lay waste to the competition. The quintessential, core component of each and every successful businessperson is this (and how ironic) – ruthlessness. Battle ye not with monsters lest ye become one.

Presently, only Ruth seems to behold this self-evident truth and the Gang of Four need to considerably up their game and demonstrably show themselves to be capable of matching up to her. Especially since we’re at the business end of the competition now. The show has reached a stage where brutality is called for and tonight truly began the rite of passage. No room for pussy’s now (except Al’s necessary white arm accessory), it’s dog eat dog and the biggest dog shall win.

Warring mutts aside, this edition did throw up two genuine nuggets of television gold. Firstly when Fat Bloke #1 was interviewed for the ship’s in-house television channel. He came across as the spirit of Norman Kember trapped in the body of Peter Kay, being grilled by Pee-Wee Herman. To call it surreal would be to do the word surreal a gross disservice. Secondly we had (again) Fat Bloke #1 mustering his considerable intellect and life-experience to describe Rome, the Eternal City, to Fat Bloke #2 as being “full of shit”. The tourism industry has lost out a gem in that lad.

Lesser highlights included Nervous, Twitchy Guy and Alpha She-Male wrestling with the not particularly abstract concept of organizing a raffle and, gloriously, failing miserably: Nervous, Twitchy Guy coming to a stunning Scooby-Doo-esque realization that golf balls are smaller than the holes in tennis nets; and Alpha She-Male metamorphosing into Foghorn Leghorn during moments of conflict. As for Call Centre Woman and Fat Bloke #2, they contributed nothing of any substance to the show, which seemed somehow appropriate.

The Apprentice is, like its contestants, a programme where the whole tomally is far greater than the sum of its component parts. Despite the cartoon cast of characters, the overly stentorian voiceover and jarring, at times, schoolboy editing, it somehow works. Not only that, it works fantastically well and demands your undivided attention. You might not buy a computer from Big Al anymore, or a macaroon bar or spearmint gum from his protégés, but you can certainly buy the show from start to finish, with a gorgeous sense of fair-trade karma. It’s no coincidence Alan Sugar nearly rhymes with Buddha, you know.


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