The Apprentice

Wednesday, March 15, 2006 by

Let’s brainstorm some words to describe the new series of The Apprentice, shall we? Marker pens at the ready…

It’s remarkable how the latest batch of contestants still haven’t got the measure of the real Sir Alan Sugar. Not a man, it was plain from the first series, who’s spent much time “thinking outside the box”. And yet the class of 2006 still insist on solemnly clustering around their flipcharts week after week. Sugar, you suspect, is not about to hand a £100,000 contract to someone like Mani, a man fully prepared to use the phrase, “You go from a divergent phase to a convergent phase” in a real-life conversation.

Summoned to the Oxo Tower restaurant at 6.45am, this week the teams were charged with running their own food stall at the Thames Festival. In a highly predictable “shock twist”, Sugar decreed that the men’s team should be led by a woman, and vice versa. Management consultant Alexa volunteered to trade places with management consultant Mani, who received a terse warning from Sir Alan that, “We’re gonna see your skills, not only in biznizz but how you’re gonna manage a buncha wimmin.” Sugar’s unspoken assertion that the girls resembled a pack of ferrets fighting in a handbag might have been politically suspect, had it not also been entirely accurate.

For her part, Alexa had narrowly escaped redundancy the previous week. It’s always one of the programme’s most revealing sequences as the remaining contestants confidently predict who’ll be leaving the boardroom in a black cab, only for their faces to drop to the luxury carpet as their sure-fire tip returns home in triumph. The loathsome Ruth, the sort of person who can only win an argument by proclaiming “end of” (the debating equivalent of “no backs”) had assuredly informed her colleagues we wouldn’t be seeing Jo again (“For three reasons, number one, poor planning, number two, erm …”), only for the hyperactive human resources manager to walk through the door about two seconds later.

Naturally, Mani mounted a brainstorming session to determine Velocity’s strategy (“I want quickfire, just give me words”), to little success. Their original plan to make crêpes foundered on their essential Frenchness, despite some optimistic attempts (“Sea-faring theme”) to link them to the River Thames. Mani hopefully rummaged through a props warehouse (“What do they eat in Egypt?”) for inspiration. Eventually he stumbled on an Oriental theme (“Maybe a Buddha sitting in the corner”) and decided to sell noodles.

Disappointingly, this edition was light on scenes featuring the teams cruising through the streets of London in a cortege of black people-carriers, while squabbling into mobile phones. But we did get Mani ordering soft drinks (“What’s the difference between 7-Up and Sprite?”) in pigeon English (“I need to buy. Drink. OK?”) from a Chinese man, and pretending to be surprised at the price of black serviettes. If we’ve learned one thing about Mani, he isn’t very good at pretending to be surprised.

In the kitchen, the Velocity girls howled along to Phil Collins as they shredded chicken and chopped veg. Resentment mounting at Mani’s reluctance to get his hands dirty, the day ended in a showdown back at Gable Lodge that left Sharon sobbing into her duvet.

Meanwhile the fluttery Alexa took charge of the boys, having ominously announced, “I would hate to now get fired without having had the chance to be PM.” There was even more brainstorming to decide which “food genre” Invicta would be serving up (“Chips are good”), with the perceptive Tuan seizing on Syed’s brainwave of pizza, enthusiastically pointing out its mass appeal (“Vegetarian … carnivores, it covers the lot”).

Paul and Ansell dressed up as oversized comedy chefs, as a change from their usual role as oversized comedy businessmen, while Syed left his food order with an answering machine, a decision that proved fatal (“That mozzarella’s just completely blown our budget”). Practically at random, Invicta decided to make 500 pizzas, and despite Alexa’s invaluable experience on the pizza counter at Asda, at the end of a heated night pounding away at dough, they had rustled up a mere 90.

The big day dawned, and the South Bank proved thin on carnivores hungry for a slice of pizza with a dollop of bolognese smeared on top. Invicta slashed their prices (“Early Bird Special”) and Paul essayed a polished line in suburban wine-bar smarm (“You want a drink with that, it’s for sexy women, you might just scrape it through”) as he desperately hawked the last few slices.

Inevitably, back in the boardroom, it emerged the hapless Invicta had lost a thumping £807. In fact, as Sir Alan observed, each slice of their pizza cost £4.37 to make, and ended up being flogged for 50p. You don’t need a flipchart to work out that is no way to make a profit. To just break even, as Samuel noted, they’d have had to sell one slice every nine seconds.

For all his faults, Mani had clearly latched on to the winning strategy when he ordered his team to shred the chicken to make it go further, at the same time Syed was ordering 100 supersized birds and throwing most of them in the bin.

Syed and Tuan were hauled into the boardroom by their team leader. “Quite frankly,” announced Sugar, “I’d like to get rid of the bleeding three of you!” But there could surely only be one loser. Economics graduate Alexa had even had problems doling out the right change.

For a moment, though, it looked like it might be Syed clambering into the back of the taxi. It had been satisfying to see him gazing enviously at Mani’s actually-not-bad noodle bar, but he’d had the good grace to admit Invicta were well beaten.

Sir Alan has become a master of showmanship, however. Syed was staying. “Can you tell me what you were physically, actually doin’, apart from being a strategist?” he demanded of Alexa, almost spitting out the last word. She had to go.

And any rehabilitation that the “business bad boy” might have undergone in the eyes of the viewer over the last few weeks surely evaporated when he toadily thanked Sugar for his reprieve. “Thank you Sir Alan, thank you for the opportunity.” Sugar remained characteristically nonplussed. “Cheeky bastard!”

In The Apprentice, nobody ever makes a mistake (“I’ve learned a lesson from this”) or takes personal responsibility (“We made the wrong assumption”). Nobody ever puts in 100%, it’s always 150% minimum, and if you say “I’m a born winner” often enough, maybe you’ll start to believe it yourself.

Sir Alan won’t, though. “This is not,” as he pointed out, “a ‘oliday camp or some college of further education, where dumbkopfs come to learn where to make mistakes.”

No brains, but a lot of storming. That’s The Apprentice.


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