The Apprentice

Wednesday, April 5, 2006 by

“It’s cold up there,” whispers Lindsay Duncan in GBH when tartly reminding her father of his lofty position in British society. “So cold.”

Meteorologists rather than mythologists got it right when correctly surmising the higher you fly, the chillier it becomes. If you want to get closer to the sun, first you’ve got to navigate the icy wastes of the upper atmosphere. Only if you survive such a frosty encounter with the elevated echelons of our world can you stand any hope of emerging to bask in the warm rays of celestial godliness. Aka Sir Alan Sugar.

“No qualifications?” our hero hissed at a bunch of schoolkids at the start of this week’s episode of The Apprentice. “In the bin. Simple as that.” His audience reeled. Sir Alan was back out on the road, and relishing the opportunity to fret and strut on an even bigger stage than normal. It transpired he’d been invited by Chigwell High School to give a lecture – or in Sugar-speak, a “pep talk” – to a group of, in his view, clearly bone idle 6th formers.

This was a tense encounter. Sir Alan looked curiously all at sea behind a lectern rather than a giant frosted desk. All the traits that normally play well when essayed from a highbacked leather swivel chair – the pointy arms, the goggly eyes, the five-second-long blinks – diminished rather than compounded his dignity. Was this funny little man with the bearing of a pickled marionette really the same office-bound ogre for whom 14 contestants had given up “highly-paid jobs” to come and work?

“It’s fickle,” Sir Alan sighed a little later from under the comfort of a shady tree. “The skill in this task is choosing the right merchandise.” It turned out the trip to Chigwell had, as ever, meant nothing in the grand scheme of the episode. Sir Alan could just as well have announced this week’s challenge from the screen of one of his video phones. But that wouldn’t have been anywhere near as shameless nor as entertaining as poking our heads into a bit more of our host’s orbit and inspecting another slice of how he lives his life.

In fact, even after handing the contestants’ their orders to make a go of selling clothes in a branch of Top Shop in West London, Sir Alan wasn’t satisfied. He soon turned up again, this time with one of his celebrity pals and fellow business tycoons, “good friend of mine” Philip Green, to see how his protégés were doing – for once literally – on the shop floor. Gazing with almost misty reverence upon the countenance of his compadre, Al could only nod in mute appreciation as the equally goggle-eyed Phil laid waste to the retail policies of the wannabe hawkers.

Earlier the teams had boasted, foolishly, of their ample knowledge of the clothing industry. “People are going to see me in the store,” announced Michelle curtly, “and think, crikey, she’s got style.” “Don’t forget,” chipped in Ruth, “I go shopping all the time.” You knew these statements had only been included in the programme to allow the speakers to go on and prove the complete opposite. Sure enough, the task soon perpetuated the twin themes of every single episode of The Apprentice there has ever been: money being haemorrhaged and people doing lots of shouting.

Señor Green wasn’t impressed. The sight of him snorting in derision at being presented with an outfit not, as he instructed, worth £100 but instead a measly – gasp – £66, was the highlight of the week. “If you’d have been thinking you would’ve have given him something worth £200,” snapped Sir Alan joyously in the boardroom, with the vicarious thrill of knowing how a millionaire’s brain works. “You might even,” he added, as much to himself as anyone, “have got him to spend £300.”

Here was the chill logic of the executive stratosphere being liberally hosed upon the massed ranks of Sugar’s putative rocketeers. As ever, they appeared less than grateful. This year’s bunch of contestants are nowhere near as haplessly instinctive and engagingly guttural as their counterparts from 2005, and as a consequence never learn from Sir Alan’s regular dressing downs. It’s meant the second series has so far boasted an unfortunate sense of idle repetition, a quality that could never be laid at the first, peopled as it so successfully was with unpredictable changelings who had no idea what had hit them and responded accordingly. There have been too many slugabeds this time round, and Sir Alan has been too slow in getting rid of them.

This week’s show was a chance to begin to set that right, and thankfully the boss seemed to have woken up to the fact that “as sure as I’ve got a hole in my bloody arse” one of them, ultimately, has to get hired. Which meant, in other words, he didn’t want “none of that camaraderie.”

Both teams had made a fair hash of offloading merchandise in Top Shop, to the extent that there was only a little over £100 difference in sales to separate them. This really was a most unsatisfactory outcome for a show where the consequences of winning and losing are writ so large. Yet the causes were legible enough for Sir Alan’s twitching cornea. Handed a hapless victim on a plate by team leader Michelle, he knew what was necessary. For doing precisely nothing two weeks running, Samuel was fired.

At least it meant one of the lollygaggers was gone, and ensured there was still another one, Tuan, left for Sir Alan to get rid of next week. “That was the right decision,” cooed Nick and Margaret, the guv’s “eyes and ears” who brilliantly seem to be landing in more scrapes with each passing episode. Indeed, this week they ended up treating themselves to an in-store hand massage while waiting for the teams to get their acts together, Margaret looking like a 19th century duchess having stumbled into a working class hostelry. It’s always a shame so little of Sir Alan’s deliberations with his two sidekicks make it into the final cut. The pair’s earnest conjecture and sly banter are endlessly entertaining, not least by throwing still more light on the mystical mind games of their master.

Excitingly, next week Sir Alan pays a visit to the team’s house. This is what we want. The greater role the boss appears to play in the whole mechanics of the show, the far more you, as a viewer, feel you want to invest in the outcome. And with such a bunch of inconsequential astronauts trying to pilot themselves up into Sir Alan’s universe, the more fuel there is to fan the flames the better. After all, it’s cold up there.


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