With The Apprentice back on our screens for a seventh series (following on very quickly from the delayed sixth) one thing is very obvious: for the next few months the idiot quotient on TV is going to rocket. Possibly even more than if Fearne Cotton was to be given her own channel. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the previous six series it’s that the list of candidates each year presents us with maybe one or two who are vaguely sort of okay-ish (maybe someone you would possibly, maybe, consider employing in a lowly position), while also providing us with a horde of hateful, smug, selfish, arrogant, scheming, untrustworthy, cut-throat, bitching, backbiting, gloating, oily, slimy, capitalist little shits who are – above all other things – idiots, with seemingly no common sense, let alone business sense and who should be utterly unemployable in any sensible, normal world. The fact that people still choose to employ these human-hyena hybrids makes you despair for our planet. And yet, despite all that, and the fact that Lord Sugar is just as bad, the show remains compulsive viewing.
I make no bones about the fact that each series of The Apprentice is essential television for myself, despite the constant parade of worthless and soul-less hellspawn creatures served up on our screens. I know plenty of people for whom having to watch these vapid egotists is unbearable and who are happy to retreat from it and the picture it paints of business being run by the lowest form of self-serving animal-people imaginable. I agree with everything these friends say about how we shouldn’t glorify such unworthy subjects by granting them airtime. However, there is a satisfaction to be found in watching these jackals tear each other to shreds. In a world where business seems to be more ruthlessly run each day in pursuit of our money it’s good to see them turn on each other, in the same way it would be good to look out your window during a zombie holocaust and see them eat each other for the right to eat you as they came up the driveway. At least it narrows the odds a little. The bottom line is that if these people exist (and, sadly and lamentably, it seems that they do) then I want to be entertained by the demise of as many of them as possible before they come after my hard-earned pounds. And by seeing them grovel before Sugar each week on the road to one of them being unceremoniously booted out the door with “You’re fired!” ringing in his or her ears the show ticks that box for me.
My love-hate relationship with The Apprentice goes right back to the first episode of the first series. I had only been vaguely aware that there was an American series of the same name and it just happened to be on as I sat with my back to it at the computer one evening. I can remember being slightly staggered by the pomposity of the candidates and my glances at the TV soon turned into swivelling round in the chair to watch it in a way that said, “I’m not really watching this nonsense as I’m over at the computer and not on the comfy sofa”. Week 2 saw me catch it by accident again, only I was swivelling around sooner, and by Week 3 I was “in”, deciding to seek it out in the schedules and sit down with a mug of tea in comfort to watch. The feral nature of the candidates was by turns both horrifying and fascinating. And, into the bargain, I’d get to see one of them humiliated each week by being fired.
I did eventually catch an episode of the original US version and it was shockingly bad with no compulsion at all to continue viewing the next week. It looked cheap and tacky with the boardroom scenes lit really badly and the whole thing having the look of a regional TV filler. And as for Donald Trump, you’d wonder how anyone could sit there and be fired by that man without ever hitting back with a quip about the most ludicrous piece of follicle madness ever sported by an important person – a sure sign that money can not only buy you a lot of “yes men” but also a hell of a lot of “don’t mention the hair men”. By comparison, the BBC series was almost infinitely better, taking the premise and doing something far better with it by mixing slick shooting and editing with graceful sound and grading the picture to give it a look of cold steel, awash with greys and blues, as especially witnessed in the boardroom set. This is no old-school, warm, wood-panelled affair. Instead, it looks like a room Darth Vader would sit in as he announced the plan to attack and annihilate a race of furry little gerbil people just for the hell of it. In every regard of its production the UK version of the show is a polished piece of well-made television and it easily triumphs over its US predecessor.
Of course, there is just one small area in which the show falls flat on its face. Actually, one very large area. And that is with regard to its actual raison d’être: to showcase the finest young business entrepreneurs in the land undertaking a twelve week job selection procession to find a candidate worthy enough of being hired by Sugar as someone in his own mould. We are not only told that these people will be stretching their business knowledge to its limit but that they act each year as an inspiration to a wave of young people in the UK who are thinking of setting up their own enterprises. The show is, of course, absolutely nothing of the sort and anyone capable of being inspired by either the stupidity or nastiness of those competing should automatically be barred from running a business.
Apart from the fact that the tasks are pretty much the same every year with minute differences they’re hardly the sort of things which prepare you for big business, with teams often succeeding because they have some wide-boy East-End-type who can use his chat and personality to sell a few extra bottles of marmalade or whatever to gullible passers-by, before being exposed as someone who can’t actually lead and who has no idea of planning or business models when it gets to the later stages of the competition. In other words, people with big gobs and brass balls get rewarded in the early stages even when it’s clear they don’t seem to know a lot about what they’re doing. A few years back there was an unusual task (which hasn’t been repeated) where Sugar gave the teams free rein and told them they could do anything they liked at all. Tragically, this resulted in the girls’ team desperately selling kisses in a bar at the end of the night to torpedo the idea that the show was teaching us anything at all about the finer arts of business.
The worst thing about the format though is that it promotes a ludicrous sense of short-termism which would be self-destructive if applied to any business in the real world. For instance, each year there will probably be several tasks involving the selling of food at markets or promoting some sort of fancy food product to shops. Also every year, without fail, one of the teams will opt to provide something that is a quality product while the other opts for something which is as cheap as chips and which turns out to be foul-tasting and appalling value for money. Almost always though it seems to be the team which opts for the awful product who actually wins, just by selling more volume of a cheaper product. What this is meant to teach the candidates or the viewers about business I have no idea. That quality doesn’t matter? That it’s actually something to be shunned? If the task was to be run over two days rather than one then the cheap product team would have a queue a mile long of angry customers from the day before demanding their money back and filing suits against them for food poisoning. Whereas the quality product team would slowly build up good word of mouth and start to increase their profits. But Sugar rewards the team who make no effort with quality or market research just so long as they bring back more mullah at the end of the day – even if it’s quite likely that they’d never be able to set foot in the area they sold their product again, let alone attempt to sell anything. By doing so he not only exposes his own mantra of greed but fatally wounds the programme as a serious statement about entrepreneurship.
So, with the contestants all being despicable, the tasks not up to much, Sugar himself pretty unlikable and the whole business point of the series exposed as being pretty silly, the only reason left to us for watching is the aforementioned entertainment value of watching opposing teams of fools humiliate themselves with idiotic business ideas, tearing each other to shreds and then begging for mercy from Sugar. Sixteen colossal cretins start the series and we get to see fifteen of them laid low and given the kind of exposure and kicking their contemptible values and actions deserve. It’s just a pity that one of them has to walk away from the ordeal successful. But that’s a price worth paying and if this is the closest we can get on television to the same sort of thrill the Romans must have felt while feeding Christians to the lions in the arena then it’s probably fair enough that anyone who has clambered over his dead comrades’ bodies to the top of some pole to evade the snapping jaws and swiping claws should eventually be allowed to walk free. Even if it’s with a £100,000 a year contract, upped this year to £250,000 to start your own business with.
And so to this year’s bunch of dunces and angry simpletons deluding even themselves that they are the next conqueror of the business world. I’ve included mugshots of all sixteen of them at the top and they’re a thoroughly scary bunch. You can pretty much guarantee, even at a glance, that these are not people you would want to go out for a drink with. But then, they wouldn’t want to go out for a drink with you either because they’d be too busy swigging cheap champagne on some Thames barge with their friends Tarquin and Henrietta while dancing to Simply Red’s Greatest Hits. The men usually divide between nauseating little Tory party donators from public school backgrounds with no idea of the real world and angry pillocks who look as though they are well-trained in the art of smashing their fists on tables when they don’t get their way. The girls tend to be a mixture of frosty ice maiden bitches who would coldly and calculatingly poison their workmates’ tea with arsenic and screaming crazies who shout a lot and get very emotional and whose method of killing you in the workplace would be a frenzied attack administering multiple wounds with a kitchen knife. Either way, you wouldn’t want to share office space, or even a building, with any of them.
You’ve got to imagine that the BBC producers do ask them to come up with something as off-the-register in terms of annoying corporate bullshit talk as possible when making their original presentation of themselves to camera in the first episode. However, I doubt anyone actually forces them to be quite so loathsomely vile. Why don’t they just introduce themselves and say that they like getting along with people and hope to make some friends along the way and learn from others around them? Instead, it’s almost as if they revel in being so repellently odious. One contestant a few series back introduced himself by stating that he couldn’t even bring himself to speak the word “failure” and illustrated this by stopping himself short at this point and refusing to actually utter the word that he was telling us he couldn’t utter. There’s just no excuse for twattery of that level.
So what bilge do they pollute our screens with this year? Well, it’s pretty hard to be more malignantly repulsive than Alex who tells us, “I take cut-throat and ruthless to a completely new level. The only focus for me is myself. I am cold. And hard. I am unstoppable”. Not so unstoppable as it turned out as he was fired after the second task for having done almost nothing in the first two rounds and with his only memorable contribution in either of them being to stand in a van for a day and slice some bread. Not quite the Terminator he promised but you get the idea that these people are not only deluded but seem to think that coming out with these hard-talking, ballsy, nasty statements of intent to slice up their rivals and dance on their graves somehow makes them cool and something that would be appealing to Sugar, while failing to realise that to the rest of us they are exposing themselves as being morally crippled.
Then there’s Helen (think an insect sucking on a lemon) who bedazzles us with, “My social life, my personal life don’t mean anything to me. I live to work, it’s all I do.” One glance at her and you believe it. Or how about Vince who tells the viewers, “I’m best of breed within my industry, I’ve got plenty of charisma and, yeah, I’m not bad looking. I’m one of a kind”. There are so many reasons for wanting to attack this man with a machete and many of them are there in this opening statement. “Best of breed” – dear god. The conceit of the man to tell us that he’s good looking when he’s not actually anything special and sports a mullet hairstyle is staggering and the episode later reveals him to be the kind of man who wears those expensive leather shoes which can only be described as clown shoes, extending six inches past your actual toes and which are only ever worn in the street by idiots. But “one of a kind” is perhaps his most unbelievable soundbite. He’s not even one of a kind in terms of being a poisonous narcissist as there’s fifteen more of them in the series and in business terms he’s just another nobody, as he proved in episode two by floundering like a fish in the desert while trying to make a presentation and being unable to string two sentences together before being bailed out by a team-mate.
The poster girl for idiocy this year though is undoubtedly Melody. From beneath the many layers of make-up on her face she informs us that she has been personally trained by no less than Al Gore, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. Oh, and twelve other Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Probably watching them as small dots on a stage in the distance no doubt and trained in what exactly? Everything she says you instantly disbelieve, so incredulous are her claims. And when it comes to corporate crap talk she’s up there with the gods, giving us the phrase which has been used to help promote this series: “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon”. What does this actually mean? Does she even know herself? It’s like someone saying, “You can achieve anything”, to which Melody would reply with, “No, you can achieve more than anything”.
When you suspect that someone is an imbecile it’s good to have it proven to you straight away and this is very much the case with Melody who in Task One, as the Project Manager of the girls’ team, demonstrated that she might be able to spin-off some meaninglessly inane buzzwords but is about as bright as mud when it comes to actually walking the walk. Given £250 by Sugar to go and buy fruit and veg produce to sell on in any way they see fit she makes the mind boggling decision (against the advice of everyone else on the team, who she simply over-rules) to only spend £150 of it and keep the rest to do nothing with! Perhaps someone hadn’t explained the rules to her. It’s not really Sugar giving them a kindly leg up in the world with £250 between the eight of them where maybe they should hold back a bit for later in the month if the first few weeks don’t go too well. It’s a one day task and you have to maximise your profit. If you don’t spend anything you don’t make anything. Good grief. To be fair to Sugar, he does point this out to her in the boardroom but Melody strikes very lucky indeed by the fact that the boys have appointed someone even more harebrained as their Project Manager.
Step forward, Edward, who is this year’s one week non-wonder. A trained accountant, he makes you despair for whatever institution passed him on into the world when he approaches the task with the very novel idea of not bothering to work out what he is spending, what he is going to be charging for their goods, what their goods might even be or how they’re going to make them. It’s up to Candidate Jim to step in and work out that after Edward has blown most of the budget on a zillion oranges to make juice with that there’s precious little left and some slick negotiating is able to save the day by getting the ingredients for some soup at a decent price. And Jim even manages to organise the making and selling of this. The boys end up losing though because, despite providing a much better product with their orange juice and their soup, they didn’t have time to squeeze more than a third of the oranges they bought and they ran out of goods to sell. Understandably, Sugar is not impressed and, as he tries to pin Edward down on the finances, the young man plays a very odd and high-risk strategy: every time Sugar asks him a question he ignores the question and blurts out something which declares that he is a maverick who doesn’t do things the normal way, no doubt having seen in previous series that wide-boys who appeal to Sugar’s memories of himself starting out always get to the final half dozen each year. So, when Sugar asks him if he was trained at one of the country’s leading accountancy firms he interjects with, “I don’t fit the mould”. Before long he’s desperately babbling, “Not only am I the youngest in the team but I’m also the shortest”, in some sort of bizarre attempt to bond with Sugar along the lines of small guys having to stick together. It’s always a bad sign when your own team-mates are openly laughing behind your back in the boardroom and Edward is soon gone, back to the job market and having to explain to future potential employers why they should employ him when he has clearly demonstrated to the nation’s viewers that he’s incompetent at just about everything, and a raving nut to boot.
So, one task down and both teams have been disastrously bungling and amateurish. Fortunately, this new series doesn’t make us wait long for our next fix as the first week is debuting with two programmes on successive evenings and this allows us to see both teams spectacularly failing at another task. This time it’s coming up with an “app” for a mobile phone and the best they can come up with is one which delivers some vaguely insulting regional sayings delivered in a variety of accents (the boys) and one which delivers a handful of supposedly annoying noises such as girls shouting “Surprise!” at a party and some animal sounds (the girls). Though not the elephant noise you would expect given that they are using an image of an elephant to promote the app! Much as I want to tune in each week and see these hideous people fall flat on their faces, this task almost proved too much for me. So inept were the teams in their presentation of what were patently bad ideas that I almost couldn’t watch. A homeless wino from the park could have been dragged against his will into those rooms having never heard the word “app” in his life and given better presentations. It was so cringe-inducing to see someone dying on their feet that I almost – not quite, but almost – started to feel sorry for them.
In the end, for the second task running, the girls delivered a dreadful product but struck lucky when it got taken up by the biggest website of the three they pitched to and received the most downloads over the course of the task. In the real world their appalling effort would have been slammed in reviews by anyone purchasing it and their sales would dry to a trickle within days before stopping altogether. The boys weren’t much better it must be said but they did demonstrate that their product was not only more popular with audiences but that it might actually grow and be capable of being refined to improve its chances – a bad idea, but one that would easily have outsold the other in the long-term. Nevertheless, it was a good thing that the boys were designated as the losers as it gave us the moment in the boardroom which suggests that this series could be a cracker.
With the boy’s creepy-looking Project Manager, Leon, stumbling and blundering in the boardroom it was time to nominate who he was going to bring back with him in the final three and put in the firing line for eviction from the series. Quite unusually, he had picked on Jim from Northern Ireland, latching onto some criticism by Sugar of the way the app was worded when put on sale, which had been partly Jim’s fault, but ignoring all the great saves Jim had pulled off in the presentations to stop his colleagues looking like the fools they are. Jim was having none of this and in a moment which has no parallel in any previous series of The Apprentice he simply refused to be nominated. Turning on the ineffectual Leon, Jim told him in no uncertain terms that not only was he not prepared to be nominated but that he should nominate someone else pretty sharpishly. Jim even made it easier for Leon by suggesting some other candidates, including Glenn (who clearly looks like he has just walked off the set off Star Trek where he is playing a Vulcan) and, incredibly, Leon allowed himself to be cowed into changing his mind and selected Glenn instead. Even more brilliantly, when Glenn tries to similarly wriggle out of it and pass the buck even further down the line to “Beneath these glasses lies a core of steel” Tom, Jim tells him that he can’t do that and that the PM’s decision has been made and is final! For sheer balls, this moment has to be applauded and, coming as it did from the single contestant so far to have displayed even the first sign of common sense, ingenuity or basic business skills in either of the first two tasks, it would seem that Jim could go a long way. On the evidence so far he looks light years ahead of his rivals in both out-performing and out-fighting them. Though you do worry about a guy who describes himself as: “I’m not a show pony or a one-trick pony, I’m not a jack-ass or a stubborn mule, and I’m definitely not a wild stallion that needs to be tamed. I am the champion thoroughbred that this process requires”. Hmmm.
So, it’s back, and I’m very happy with what’s been on offer so far. While it’s depressing to know that these people exist it is a pleasure to see them shamed, squashed and cut down like this. In fact, I don’t even bother with the follow-up programme hosted by Dara O’Briain in which the fired candidate is paraded in front of a studio audience and forced to watch all the stupid things they’ve done. The really truly nasty pieces of work who emerge from the pack each year are never given a particularly hard time trying to explain their lack of soul, or humanity, or common decency to their fellow man, and it comes across as a PR exercise in damage limitation in which they try to laugh it all off while apologising for none of their repugnant behaviour. No, I like my final images of them to be the grovelling just before Sugar fires them in which they promise to give 150%, that they’re just like him and that they’ll make him millions if he can just give them the chance. Then there’s the dawning realisation that it’s over for them before they storm off, ridiculously vowing to “show Sugar he has made a big mistake today. He hasn’t heard the last of me”. That’s how I like to see them disappear from my screen and that’s what they deserve.
But the final words must go to the “Unstoppable” Alex who told us that, “If you are successful, you are unpopular, so unpopularity is a good thing”. Well, Alex has proven himself to be very unsuccessful indeed (and very stoppable) so perhaps he can be popular instead. But he thinks that’s a bad thing. Poor lad, he must be so confused.