The most startling moment of this episode – officially called, with blinding insight, Flat-Pack – happened a few minutes in, and I’ve been trying to have my retinas repaired ever since. Earlier in the series than usual, The Apprentice played the ‘everyone was relaxing at home on a day off, with a camera crew – as you do’ trope, and the remaining 14 contenders (I use the word loosely) suddenly found themselves with thirty minutes to reapply the bling. Girls scampered along luxury corridors, hectically searching for trowels so they could re-do their eye make-up. Meanwhile, not content with flashing his abs at us in a towel last week, Myles decided that the most appropriate way to behave on camera in a men’s dorm is to wiggle across our eye line in a thong. In a programme with no audience voting, I was left wondering which bottom line he was most eager to demonstrate familiarity with. His own, possibly? Fundamental mistake there, Myles. Oh well, maybe he was just showing us his best side …
Thereafter, the jokes continued to phone themselves through. These week’s challenge – delivered, please note, without any fanfare about its central importance to the economy or any other brouhaha – is to design, prototype and pitch an item of flatpack furniture, with a maximum RRP of £75. Before the phrase has left voice-over man’s lips, I am already thinking ‘yep, strictly two dimensional’ and ‘a child of five could do it’ (and the related jokes). But can 14 children aged between 22 and 39 do it? By the time you are reading this, all bets are off. Do not call now: you may still be charged and your opinion will be disregarded. (For those struggling with maths, the RRP limit is slightly more than half of the TV licence fee you have already paid to be seeing this.)
And so to the picking (on) of leaders. Natalie’s business idea focuses on manufacturing garments, so she’s a natural for cheap storage and steps up to the plate. Building on their failures in previous episodes (played two, lost two), the girls – as Karren points out – demonstrate once more that they are great talkers and terrible listeners. Everyone talks simultaneously, and a multi-functional cube soon becomes a stool, a table, a laptop desk, a wine rack, a cup holder, and other things that made me glaze over. Perhaps it’s a pair of stools with enough space for an idea to fall between them. Who knows? Beyond thinking how badly the wine would slosh about as you flicked the cube from one face to another, all I really noticed was that no-one wanted to let Rebecca speak. Possibly as she wanted to point out that this was a truly terrible idea. She also wanted team play and no bickering. Unless she grows a beard, changes her name to Russell and infiltrates the boys, this wish may not be fulfilled.
For the boys, Jordan the business analysist takes up the PM baton. (In the ‘relaxing at home sequence, we’d seen him having his toenails painted black by the girls, but hopefully Endeavour’s sudden lurch in metrosexuality won’t undermine their hirsute and manly resolve.) Kurt suggests a chair-cum-recycling-unit and sends Nick H’s facial tics into overdrive as he contemplates its possible contents. “Fishbones, tin cans smelling of such and such”, he grimaces like a be-suited version of one of Hinge and Bracket. I wonder what Kurt’s current chairs smell of, if this would be an improvement. Alex (aka The One With The Eyebrows), who may have had a plan up his sleeve, suggests a chair that becomes a table with storage at the simple action of cunning release pin. And lo, the Foldo chair was born. Odd things are starting to happen: no-one is shouting down the PM, everyone is listening, and there’s a product idea that appears to have been thought-through.
Next up, the ritual of the market research exercise. The girls are told that people want legroom and storage,a contradiction that suggests only flatpack combat trousers. As it turns out, it matters not: Natalie – and, more loudly, Luisa – have already decided. Even if the public – or the sub-set of them available in Shoreditch furniture boutiques – really, really want a hostess trolly, they’re getting a multi-functional cube. The camera cuts back and forward between an exasperated Sophie, who’s wondering why she bothers (and picking up empathy votes), and the ‘design team’, who are making the professional designers stroke their beards and see how far up their foreheads they can get their eyebrows. Someone says “It’s just a box with a lid, that’s what I’m afraid of”, but they plough on anyway. There are mildly fraught moments about construction: they want it to be assembled without tools (ie slotted) but to have rounded corners (can’t be done with slots). Several of them are now reminding me of Veruca Salt in Will Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and I long for a crack team of vicious squirrels to appear and send them down a chute to a grisly end. While Uzma insists on patterning (grooves cut into the sides that have the feel of pie crust of perhaps trellis), Rebecca clacks round Homebase in her high heels buying castors and the smallest cushions available, pointing out she still doesn’t really know what the product is. She seems unaware she is in good company, at least in one regard.
Meanwhile, Alex explains the table-chair to the designers. There are detailed drawings and steel rulers, and things seem almost professionally considered. I blink and rub my eyes. Market research (Kurt, Zee and a thankfully betrousered Myles) isn’t entirely positive, although the rest of team overrule Justin and accept that an upholstered cushion will help the thing actually … you know, sell. In a further outbreak of metrosexuality, Zee picks a really lovely ‘clean fresh minty green’ fabric. Who knew Napoleon was such a wuss?
Measuring is then the verb of the moment. Justin measures a chair from every angle. Neil measure’s Alex’s inside leg. Someone measure’s Alex’s bottom. Jordan test-drives, only to be told “Not you Jordan: someone average sized”. As Nick H points out, Alex is being very pushy, possibly to the extent of forcing mistakes. Not everyone is that much taller than Jordan. Nick’s camel gag – a horse designed by a committee – doesn’t, however, quite work. Camels are very poor users of tape measures, and are hopeless with release pins. And no-one will ever mistake Alex for a committee. I’m always mindful of how heavily edited the programme is, but this looking like a walkover for the boys already.
The following morning, the girls feign excitement as their sample arrives. It is as alluring as a sample in a plastic bag could be, frankly. “Tidy-sidey” also, despite the flatpack theme, arrives flly assembled. Half-baked, perhaps, but fully formed. It is a box on wheels, with a pillow on it. An un-upholstered cushion, from which one of them proceeds to rip some of the stuffing. Karren is sucking lemons with a zeal of a woman who desparately needs the g&t that should go with them, and is reduced – for the first time I can recall – to swearing on camera. Yes, the Tidy-Sidey really is that good.
Alex’s chair, disturbingly, is actually quite cool. Jason introduces the world to the world Clicketyboo and Nick H tries to make sour remarks about electric chairs and high-chairs for adults, but for a novel furniture item in 24 hours or less, it’s really not that bad. And the quick-change mechanism works perfectly. Even more remarkably, Neil is not shown taking the credit for something. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well.
And so to the pitches. The chair’s one flaw – it’s a wee bit too tall – means Zee fails at his first pitch, although they like the concept. Jordan then sells 200 to a furniture chain, Kurt sells 12 and Jason 3. Zee scores two ducks, and is refused a third chance. Of all the boys, he and Myles – who thinks 16 year olds buy chairs in John Lewis (maybe in Monaco, sweetness, but not in Blighty) – are the only two really blot their copy books, although Myles will later be redeemed. Alex unthinkingly waves his considerable buttocks in the faces of the Argos buyers’ panel as he demonstrates his assembly technique, much to Nick H’s (rather too easily-triggered) horror, but will also be proved ‘right’ (note the quote marks) later.
The girls start at ‘a posh store’. The buyers’ eye movements recall Margaret Mountford as they politely point out the function is great, but the design is awful and it looks like a garden planter. Asked if it might be more appropriate somewhere other than the living room, they firmly suggest anywhere where it can’t be seen. Fair but brutal. Luisa pitches at Argos, who pitch back some googlies. “Why the colour?,” they ask politely. It’s one of those questions – like, for example, “So when did you stop beating your wife?” – that it’s probably best to simply not answer. Maximising their flirtatious girly charm, the other girls manage to sell 4, 20, 50 and 100 respectively in different retail outlets. The boys are marginally ahead, with the major retailer and catalogue buyers verdicts withheld overnight. If this weren’t about flatpack furniture and The Apprentice, I might even have been momentarily tense.
Momentarily spared such award-winning sales lines as “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”, it is, of course, Squeaky Bum Time. (© Sir Alex Ferguson, apparently. Who says grumpy old men can’t be innovators?) The girls manage to praise Natalie’s leadership, and Lord Sugar manages to praise the absence of tools. As ever, he speaks very literally. Rebecca’s dislike of the prototype is highlighted, and she exchanges a brief death-stare with Luisa. Natalie’s use of others to pitch to major (ie laid-on) buyers is queried, although she emphasises that she was there. There are smiling remarks about the criticality of managing creativity, but the figures stay up the advisors sleeves.
For the boys, Joran’s orderly and structured PM approach is praised (and with straight faces). Alex’s idea was well thought through, despite Lord S’s quips about an electric chair. If they’re about to lose, Jordan may be in difficulty for his decision to trust the others to handle the major pitches and to not attend. The tensions clicks up a notch (it’s easy: pull pin, adjust cushion, slide into place …)
And so to the numbers. The girls sold 174 units on the day, 0 to John Lewis and – despite Argos liking them and their pitch – a great big fat 0 to the catalogue. Because the product was mind-boggingly, head-scratchingly appalling, essentially.
The boys sold 216 on the day, 500 to John Lewis and 2,500 to Argos. Recognising the imperative of targeted reward practices, they get to wear boilersuits, clamber up the outside of the 02 on ropes and drink orange juice. Oh, and to bitch about the girls and that blaady box. They seem happy enough, but they also seem coherent. Almost like a real team. No doubt the producers will soon fix that – just not funny enough. I use the word funny loosely, of course.
In Episode 2 of Squeaky Bum Time™, the gloves come off. Phrases like ‘tidy-sidey, wishy-washy poxy-boxy’ and ‘1970s East Germany’ are used. Within seconds, a full-on blame-slinging festival is under way and the panel have to silence them a few times. It is soon evident that the girls wish to sacrifice Sophie (for failures in market research, the subject of her dissertation) and Uzma (for being Uzma, and making designer credential claims in the face of a grey plywood laundry basket on castors). Rebecca’s willingness – wasted though the effort was – to point out the product was a disaster zone is again highlighted. Which may stand her in higher stead with the panel than her team-mates. Well, I say ‘mates’ … Predictably, Natalie brings back Sophie and Uzma.
After the panel privately shake their heads, agree that Natalie PM’d badly, Sophie was disappointing and that Uzma seems to ‘have issues’, it’s time for the final grilling. Natalie says the other two are hiding from responsibility, and that Uzma was trusted to design and failed. She counters by asking why Natalie signed off a design she didn’t agree with. Sophie’s market research abilities are verbally shredded, while the PM’s ‘willingness to listen to it’ (spot the quote marks) goes unmentioned. Apart from by Sophie, who (fairly accurately) says she only listened to Luisa. Squawk squawk squawk, blah blah blah, etc. Repeat. It would be a relief at this stage to heavily arm the panel and disable any qualms they might have about mass slaughter.
Uzma, whose showing has not been so grisly in previous fiascos, survives on the grounds of her strong credentials. Natalie, who managed mainly in the sense of ignoring the only person pointing out imminent disaster, also somehow survives. Sophie pays the price for being ‘the quiet one’ and finds herself in a cab, a victim of a combination of drawing the market research straw and the responses of Lord Sugar’s gut.
Neither a particularly informative episode – although the boys’ team were actually orderly, organised and structured and scored a huge win as a result (does that really count as a lesson? That bitchy chaos isn’t a winning approach?) – nor a funny one. The tiredness of the formula is showing through pretty badly now, and the programme’s ‘entertainment value’ depends entirely on the comedy of the participants’ attempts to do something fatuous in a ludicrous timescale. Essentially, this is It’s A Knockout without the giant Quasimodo costumes, the Joker and Eddie Waring. And even careful editing can’t conceal how even the patience of the ever-graceful Karren Brady is now also wearing thin.
Next week, perhaps they will invent a bio-active yoghurt drink for the man of a certain age. Or perhaps not. (They’re running farm shops. The trailer shows Alex holding a bunch of carrots and saying ‘What are these?’. Spare me …) I just dread to think what Myles is going to show us next. As long he doesn’t refer to it as his prowess, I may be past caring …