In the “You’ve Been Fired” follow-on programme for Episode 2, Dara O’Briain demonstrated how a change of background music can alter our perception of a piece of footage. The winning team strolling around a Belgian square could be either edgy or comic, depending on the accompanying score. (Left as just a dialogue track, of course, it remained tragic, but music’s awesome power can’t change everything.)
Throughout Episodes 1 & 2 of Series 9 – and two episodes on consecutive nights really was in danger of being too much of a good thing – I often had an imaginary alternative soundtrack. “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington.” And if Mrs Ampaw-Farr was watching, you might want to pay more attention to Noel Coward than Lord Sugar next time opportunity knocks. Yes, here we are again with The Apprentice. 16 fresh hopefuls, spouting like a school of whales and as estranged from modesty as they are from understatement.
The BBC had been canny enough with the pre-publicity for this series to drop the hint that Episode 2 features an organisational challenge set in a brewery. And they tell me jokes don’t write themselves … Otherwise, what was new? Not a great deal, really. The visual difference was facial hair, thankfully confined to the men. We’ll come back to Neil’s neck later. One of the women looks awfully like Stella English, which rang an unfortunate note, but also served as a reminder that embarrassing press and widespread public scorn are no match for a Budding Entrepreneur! (Capitals and exclamation marks remain, sadly, de rigeur.) It’s going to take more than poor press to shut this lot up. Elsewhere, the footage editors have ramped up the foreshadowing technique at the expense of any sense of suspense. In the opening soundbites, before we’d even met the ‘hopefuls’, Lord Sugar was already telling us/them “You’re all a bloody waste of space”. Don’t you just hate spoilers?
And so, painkillers and pizza in hand, to Episode 1. It’s midnight in the boardroom. (Thankfully no-one overdubbed the horror movie strings, but the timing screamed ‘artifical tension’ regardless.) The plucky candidates are, in their self-effacing fashion, dressed for the dodgier kind of Moscow nightclub. Lord Sugar, meanwhile, is speaking for the nation when he says that he’s fed up with “All those usual clichés”. But he’s sadly undermined by his scriptwriter when he tells us that “Actions speak louder than words”. Not for the first time, I glance at my watch: we are 9 minutes in, and all we’ve had are words. Hundreds of them, and all as empty as outer space. Words were in plentiful stock, and only the BBC were buying them. In more ways than one.
In a radical departure from the ‘flogging a load of old tat’ formula, the first episode sees the candidates divided into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ (the words used, btw: funny how they’re not ‘men’ and ‘women’, despite their average age being rather higher this year – perhaps the cold winter has meant entrepreneurs are ‘budding’ longer nowadays?) and each given a container of incongruous odds and sods to shift. The girls call themselves Evolve (optimism is an admirable quality, no?), while the boys go for Endeavour. Naming yourself after a ship scuttled by its owners far from home has the kind of resonance you look for in a branding initiative, right?
Jaz – think Scary Spice as a primary school teacher – has instantly volunteered to lead the ‘girls’, while Jason – a plummy PhD student who seems to be channelling both Benedict Cumberbatch and Harry Potter – is apparently in charge of the boys. You could have fooled me – and Karren Brady too, it seems. Bringing welcome top notes of both insight and understatement to the programme, Karren describes the boys as ‘a very vocal group’. Albeit one bereft of harmonies and arrangement. And possibly song-sheets. At least when Jason says ‘I’ve never been down the docks before’ it has a ring of truth: given some of the outfits, it was wise of the girls not to make the same boast. I notice another strategic difference: Jaz patronises her team, while Jason’s team patronise him. But which approach will win? I dig the fork deeper into my thigh and watch on …
The task – flogging bog rolls, bottled water, Chinese ‘lucky’ waving cats, leather jackets, hi-vis jackets and cat litter – unfolds in the usual litany of ill-advised decision making, although a few more jokes write themselves as it does so. Alex (Wales answer to Liberace, Dracula or both) manages to pass all the water in one go, while the girls – claws sharpened for the outset and in many cases full of crap – are left with a lot of cat litter. Maybe they have forseen the episode ending with them left deep in the poo? A crueller man than me would say it’s gone to a good home. Miles, who lives in Monaco and at least looks old enough to know better, undermines his ability to sell all the tacky plastic waving cats to a casino by offering to not just buy but install batteries. (Even the casino owner seemed a little thrown by this, and only Max’s rather oily charm saved him from a monstering from his colleagues after they spent several hours ramming AAAs into unsuspecting felines.)
Surpassing her wisdom in arriving in Chinatown two hours before it opens to flog Chinese retailer Chinese goods at Western prices, Jaz asks for feedback on her performance as a PM. Mmmm. Uzma tells a cameraman she’s not fazed by not being in the limelight, and I can’t help but think that she may need to either flex her preferences or sharpen her nails before the next episode. Although for a woman whose PM is traipsing up and down Oxford Street trying to sell random tat to till-minders without purchasing authority, she does demonstrate a sense of restraint. Over at Endeavour meanwhile, Neil manages to be a whining, carping back seat driver regardless of whether his team are in a vehicle or not at the time. His relentless energy is outdone only by Tim, who’s bounce is as dayglo as the hi-vis jerkins he manages to unload, plainly eager for some visibility himself. He’s so sweet you fear for his personal safety.
Mostly, however, it’s the usual drivel. Zee straight-facedly tells someone that he is “going to take you through exactly what we’re going to do for you” despite there being ample evidence that his audience have actually bought cat litter in bulk before and may not have found it that difficult a process to follow. Rebecca, who resembles an escapee from a rather darker version of Mary Poppins, meanwhile shifts bubble wrap and bog rolls as if kittens might be murdered if her price isn’t accepted. And as time finally runs out, Neil continues to criticise his team leader for all to hear. Over and over and over …
Back in the boardroom, things remain predictable although we get the best ironic joke. After Karren criticises the boys for all speaking all the time, Alex fails to correctly name Neil, who has been a serial offender throughout. Naturally, even this fails to silence him. There’s never a pistol and silencer when you need one, is there? For the girls, everyone agrees Jaz’s instant self-promotion as PM was a brave, bold and bird-brained move and then the knives come out. Sadly, Lord Sugar was right and actions do speak louder than words. The girls lose by £58, and both PMs were outsold by their sub-teams.
The boys whoop back to the luxury house in Holborn (where they still seem to sleep in dormitories – does no-one count the contestants before they phone the estate agent?), where a Fortnum’s chef cooks them dinner. The girls are left with a night to stew over in The Café of Shame, nailing Jaz as all patronising motivational blather and no competence. (Actually, they have a point. It’s the delivery they might want to work on.)
Back in the boardroom, the girls demonstrate what they have learned from Nick Hewer: melodramatic pouting and wincing. The ensuing cat-fight reveals little that wasn’t already obvious, except perhaps a few temperaments. The ‘s’ word – strategy – rears it head as it always does at this stage: the missing rebuke in most episodes is to remind candidates that strategy is what you start with, not what you beat each other with at the end. Despite a stirling self-defence for a lack of sales (in that she provided the logistical co-ordination that got them to within £58 of the boys total), Uzma is dragged back into the boardroom along with Sophie, whose alarm at selling Chinese cats to Chinese people (being half-Chinese) had been first ignored and then steamrollered by Natalie stealing the sale from under her nose.
The panel agree that Uzma should not be facing them, as logistics is an important and neglected role. Sophie’s lack of sales and readiness to criticise but not to accept feedback mark her card, but there’s no saving Jaz. A candidate who cannot save themselves and remains largely oblivious to others will find few leaping to their defence, and the first departure is sealed.
Meanwhile I sink back into the sofa, reflecting that the candidates seem older but no wiser – not just compared with previous series but with the start of this episode. The strongest showing is probably Rebecca’s sales capability, although the frosty exterior isn’t endearing. Uzma was unfairly dragged into the final catfight after a valid contribution, but the lack of sales will probably count against her in the longer run. Among the boys, Tim is endearing, Kurt was seemingly missing in action and Neil needed gagging. Despite where some of them thought the sun was lodged, no-one really shone.
Performance of the episode: Karren Brady. The only one present to demonstrate either insight or dignity, I longed for her to tell the ‘girls’ that they were disgracing their gender. But then it’s early days for Series 9 – I dare say the moment will arrive.