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Apprentice 2013, Episode 4: Crying over Spilt Milkshakes

Here we go again. Over swelling musical motifs, slo-mo footage of meaningfully fondled cufflinks. As voiceover man tells us about the original 16 potential business partners, the screen shows someone in bio-hazard gear and rubber gloves, grimacing as they agitate something that is possibly edible. Or was once. Will the girls finally show us what they’re made of – other than claws, paranoia and eyeliner? Can they think outside the box, rather than just thinking “A box? Right you, outside …”. Not one but two broadsheets (The Telegraph and The Independent) have just published articles that boil down to ‘why are people still watching this?’ without really coming up with answers. It’s a not a question I feel like taking on at 9am on a Thursday. But I already have watched, and I’m none the wiser.

Thankfully for me, then, that I am not – miraculously, already wearing a pencil skirt and a sports bra – answering the phone to Lord Sugar’s secretary at 5.20am. Few men my age look good in that get up, let alone that early in the day. Even the contestants may be starting to suffer from existential ennui. Neil ponders what’s worse: being woken up, or being woken up by Luisa. There is something faintly disturbing about the way he announces this shirtless while zipping his fly in a flourish that can only be described as contemptuous. Meanwhile, something that sounds like the soundtrack to either a circus or show-jumping plays in the background.  Manes are plaited, hooves are checked for stones and everyone is – as they would probably say if they thought of it – hot to trot.

This week, they’re off for some rural life. At godknowswhat o’clock, everyone duly stands in their best business attire in a farm yard, having presumably clicked through Surrey Docks Farm’s freshest manure in their heels. Lord Sugar meanwhile announces farmers markets as a great new trend. The amateur historian in me wonders just how many centuries farmers have loaded stuff on carts, ridden to town and flogged it: without farmers markets, however did people survive The Dark Ages? Did we all drink black tea for centuries, waiting for someone to invent farmers markets so we could add a splash of milk? Maybe they couldn’t decide what colour the stall should be, or there was a hang-up with picking the brand name. There is much blah about organic this that and the other, and about profits being ripe.

Having trounced both history and economics, Lord S wreaks his devilry on the teams. Natalie becomes a boy, while Myles, Jason and Jordan become girls. (And at least one of them is already wearing a thong. Perhaps we should have him checked for tramp stamps.) This way, as His Lordship points out, there will be at least one girl on the winning team. The girls get another verbal roasting about their awesome prowess to date. Played 3, Lost 3. Many goals conceded, many of them from their own players. Ironic references to hot-selling e-book soft porn lost on them, they gather in sheds to pick leaders.

Luisa – whose recent tabloid profile suggests more than a nodding acquaintance with inappropriateness, shed-based or otherwise – volunteers, as she has a local shop with local suppliers. No-one mentions that it sells cupcakes. (What else? The perfect Apprentice venture, you’d think). Rebecca, still channelling Cruella de Ville meets Audrey Hepburn, also volunteers but  Luisa gets the vote. Someone says “I think everyone’s really happy with that” as Rebecca beams from one stony cheek to the other.  Jordan meanwhile guns for toting buffalo meat as a high-quality USP product. His line of thinking is innovative, if rather swanky, but falters slightly as he announces that “There was a van at my school with ostrich burgers”. Somehow, nobody slaps him. If I could just reach through the television … There is also talk of lower priced take-away food: soup (potato and leek – the most exciting soup known to man) and jacket potatoes. Perhaps they are confusing farmers markets with camping? In the heart of one of the world’s largest and most multi-cultural cities, with the cuisine of every nation available, Jordan plans to appeal to the burgeoning foodie market with … soup and jacket spuds. Oh well.

Over at Endeavour, Neil – having had his card marked as a backseat driver already – gets to be PM. Front-wheel drive, at last. (Perhaps it’s a burgeoning trend.) He’s thinking margin, which appears to have replaced ‘strategy’ as this year’s buzzword. As he says, he knows nowt about farming but “I am a born leader”. Kurt plugs fresh milk, which Alex thinks everyone cutting edge urbanites might already have in the fridge. (Perceptive that boy: I have supplies of lactose-free, soy, rice and goats milks on hand at all times.) Possibly true, but he then declares that cheese on toast is good enough for anyone. After a few more displays of masculine catering prowess all round, they settle on milkshakes, as Kurt already does these. Kurt is aggressively pushing milkshakes – as they’re the basis of his business plan – to steamroller Neil, who then steamrollers everyone else in turn. Quite rudely. Oh well.

And they’re off! The teams go off, hunting the Home Countries for produce. People name fruits randomly. At least one candidate thinks satsumas are currently in season in Surrey. Possibly in Waitrose, darling, but not on the trees. No-one knows how many potatoes are in a kilo, which takes on an almost Zen significance when poses as a philosophical conundrum. A propos of nothing at all, Alex offers to dress up as a scarecrow. I’d avoid obvious typecasting if I were him.

Luisa meanwhile clacks off to a buffalo farm. Jordan photographs cattle – possibly an idea that he’s picked up from the camera crew. Natalie rhapsodises about “the really nice smell round here”, which turns out to be silage: I can’t wait to witness her inputs to the inevitable grooming and toiletries round.  Rebecca, sensible to the last, ponders the relative margins on different cuts of buffalo, perhaps to distract from either the smell or the rest of the team. Nick H contorts his eyebrows in approval, muttering about high costs, medium margins, big investments and big risks. But not barbecues, which would have sprung to my mind.

Neil meanwhile goes to a dairy farm. Alex attempts to tranquilise a woman to sleep with the sheer sloth of his inept maths, but they manage to buy vast quantities of milk for £40. Kurt is convinced he’ll sell 200 milkshakes at £3 per shake, and the others bask in the glow of his self-belief. Alex, determined to be ‘the entertainment’ poses while milking a cow before chasing one round a field. Dressed from head to toe in white health & safety garb, he looks like someone is making a Danish art-house documentary about mental outpatients running a smallholding in the grounds of a nuclear power station. Which is by far the most interesting thought that comes my way during the whole programme, as it transpires.

Myles, Fran and Jason are despatched by Luisa to bulk buy veg. Jason suggests using bulky veg as a way of filling empty space so that the shop doesn’t look bare, and the watching nation collectively consider the relative merits of cauliflowers, beetroot, corn on cob, cabbages and onions for a few seconds before Luisa interrupts our reverie. She sees vegetables as ‘dressing’ rather than products to sell. Knocking the budget to £40, she only wants a few of each item. (About enough to stock a single household’s organic box delivery, perhaps. One wonders when she last contemplated the actual size of a shop.) Fran exasperatedly explains to the cameraman that this is how they keep losing tasks. I continue to feel for the camera crew on the programme: filming people stating the blindingly obvious or utterly inane after you’ve already filmed what they’re now commenting on for 12 weeks must leave lasting mental scars. Myles meanwhile begins to show us his mettle – which makes a pleasant change from this underwear – and steams lightly from his lovingly moisturised ears.

Endeavour then repeat this for us, in case we missed it the first time. While Uzma, Kurt and Zee bask pastorally on the back of a tractor, off to collect fruit, Neil phones to give them a maximum budget of £100. (If they run out of stock tomorrow, one of them can always slip their white wellies back on and shin up a tree for more stock, presumably.) Kurt is becoming to milkshakes what Marlon Brando’s Apocalypse Now character was to Cambodian temple make-overs: obsessed. Karren stands in a ploughed field somewhere, reminding viewers the task is about running a farm shop, not just selling milkshakes. (Something of her tone suggests she believes a branch of MacDonalds somewhere is missing its most promising junior management trainee.) Something is clearing brewing among the team, and possibly not soup. Discovering the sub-team spent £33 on veg and that 10 cabbages do not constitute a window display, Neil’s team clear the farm’s onsite shop (at retail prices) in a mad panic to have some stock. Kurt churns on about milkshakes again, and even Neil is now getting cross. ‘Eggs in one basket’ is muttered. As is ‘ballsed up’, which is perhaps nearer the mark. Neil’s ears steam like fresh dung. Despite her love of silage, Natalie looks peeved too.

The ‘action’ then seems to go into repeat mode. Myles, Fran and Jason visit an apple juice specialist. We get the idea it’s quality stuff. Jason says “Gorgeous” many, many times. It’s not clear who he is talking to, but he’s hosannas make no impact on Luisa, who won’t allow an extra £25 for more of it. Fran gives the cameraman a piece of her mind. Given the visible stock levels, her generosity is astounding. Myles is now stamping his slip-on moccasins and giving every suggestion he might tut shortly. Luisa, meanwhile, congratulates herself on huge batches of soup at £2.50 a pop. Ah, the conviction of the cupcake entrepreneur in full flight …

7am, the following day. Today they must wow the public with their organic wares. Even Voiceover Man calls it ‘flogging’, the cheeky minx, and you get the sense that the veneer of self-belief the programme usually tries to exude is cracking quite badly. The teams have each been given a shop on Broadway Market, apparently a foodie favourite. (I think a researcher may have confused it with Borough Market, although Broadway is reputable enough – and given the East London Hipster clientele, presumably already knee-deep in organic mozzarella and home-made ostrich burgers.)

Luisa delivers what I guess was a pep talk to the staff of Buffalocal (yes, really), plugging buffalo meat and takeaways. The first visitor backs away in fear when she sees the prices on the buffalo steaks. The team have 350 take away sales to get, or one sale per person every 10 minutes. (No one, it seems, calculated Jason’s thankful sealing into the kitchen with a cheese grater, but I reckon they need to therefore aim 20% higher.) Her reputation now rests on a vat of potato and leek soup: nothing like a firm foundation, now is there? Myles, dapper in a blue pinny, charms the street well enough, but the soup doesn’t. “Flavour it yourself when you get it home to make it taste nice,” he voiceovers to the poor camera guy, who seems to forever be on the receiving end of the less than tempting. He has similarly qualms about the charmingly under-stated presentation of the take-away backed potatoes. (Someone later comments that it looks like someone has been unwell into a box. Give or take a spoonful of baked beans, that is sadly true.) Given that its breakfast time and that there more organic pastries and fresh coffees available within 100 yards than there are punters, the slow sales are perhaps predictable.

Despairing of how to help, Myles suggests putting hot food outside so people can at least smell it. (Which possibly beats seeing it.) Rebecca and Jason, ‘toiling’ in the kitchen, tell no-one in particular that they expect to go unthanked, which demonstrates a new self-awareness. Outside, Myles rants to camera about Jason: “No sales, he can’t negotiate, he can’t make soup, he can’t put it in cups. He’s a no trick pony.” No Myles, he’s a whole field full of no trick ponies: you need to think bigger, son. Luisa’s comments that “I don’t know how he goes about his everyday life”, however, speaks for many of us.

Uzma is reminded to walk as well as talk, although neither – despite her being in the ‘looking good business’ – are proving attractive options. Most people aren’t using to woman who’ve escaped from a department store cosmetics counter trying to sell them a jacket spud at 9.45am. In a bid to play to her strengths, she lovingly positions a sweetcorn cob while offering wisdom about display techniques. No-one tells her where else she might put it, which is perhaps a relief.

Neil, meanwhile, seethes. Open for 45 minutes, the team is still assembling the store while Alex wrecks the window display in a fine display of footwork. Kurt is not shining. I get the impression that if he doesn’t sell those blessed shakes, Neil may demonstrate traditional castration techniques live on camera. By this point, I’m forgetting who is on which team, and not especially caring. Editing tries to give a sense of tension and drama, although ‘people mostly eat at lunchtime’ proves to be quite a hard plotline to twist into intriguing new forms. Somewhere along the line, Kurt’s shakes start selling, as does Luisa’s buffalo, but her take-away food dreams are not panning out. (Add your own puns everyone.)

Kurt, whose milkshake empire remains tantalising within his visionary grasp, diversifies.  Which is a posh way of saying he buys apple juice from Costcutter to juice with spare veg. Karren wrinkles her nose like the main character in Bewitched, but magic fails to happen. Maybe you need to click your heels, Karren?  As the deadline approaches, the final mad shifting of stock proceeds. People get shouty in the street. PMs ice-over like malfunctioning chest freezers. Neil sells milk at cost price to shift it; milkshakes sales hover well below 200, but he’s confident he’s done enough. He is, of course, SuperClough. What could go wrong? For Luisa, that question has one answer. Jacket potatoes. Epic fail. She ponders her possible strategic downfall for us. In Apprentice editing terms, that means she’s probably won.

And so, thankfully, to Squeaky Bum Time with Lord S, Nick and Karren. Luisa explains her strategy: buzz, plus indifferent hot food that would make her money. Jordan tries to persuade Lord S to try buffalo. The ensuing silence is neither warm nor friendly. 130 soups and 20 spuds sold (targets were 200 and 150), Luisa changed tack and put the spuds up for sale. Myles’ ears are still steaming slightly, as he argues the team was self-limiting under Luisa, who just wanted window dressing and actually sent a sub-team home with 90 minutes playtime still available. Luisa’s PM skills get gnawed at all round. If she loses, she’s not going to have a good evening here.

Neil, meanwhile, is praised for stepping up as PM after three weeks of playing management sat nav from a back seat. The milkshake obsession issue is raised, and signs that Neil and Kurt may lock antlers for some time over this become apparent. Pawing the ground with hooves, snorting, that kind of thing. Was Neil right to back Kurt’s experience, and was Kurt right to choose a self-inflicted sales target? (At least try to care, somebody.)  Neil’s PM-ing is decreed “a bit dictatorial”, although the team are generally happy apart from budgetary issues. His surname is picked up on too, and unfavourable comparisons made to Ol Big Head. (Neil also has a football background, which explains his ready grasp of team play and commitment to the smooth passing of total football.)

And so to the numbers. It’s a close run thing, but Luisa’s team scrape a win with a margin of £91. Luisa ponders possibly taking out a contract on Myles, who badmouthed her in the boardroom as the team thought they’d lost. After re-attaching their smiles, the winners get treated to a four-course meal at The Tramshed. (This looks better than that sounds, thankfully.) Neil, in an unsubtle hint, is reminded that he would have been ok if they’d sold all those milkshakes. In the Café of Shame, both he and Zee are less than complimentary about Kurt.

Returning to the boardroom, Endeavour turn acrimonious. Boys have claws too, it seems. Mostly at Kurt, even if endorsing his self-promoted industry expertise was Neil’s choice. Karren shudders at his choice of Costcutter apple juice as a juice base in a farm shop. Facts shift and squeak like clammy buttocks on plastic seating. The phrase “That’s not true” plays on a loop. Kurt points out he made more profit that anyone else, and looks relieved when the conversation turns to guessing what Uzma’s contribution was. Neil calls her ‘the weakest in his team’ and thinks they would have done better without her.

Neil, who possibly knows a thing or two about unpopularity, brings Uzma and Kurt back for the final knockdown round. Uzma starts on her ‘I just don’t understand why’ speech before everyone suggests breath-sparing as an alternative pastime.

After the panel stage whisper to the audience that Uzma is now in deep trouble – Lord S is starting to remember her, basically – the final showdown doesn’t help her. Neil plays on her poor track record (when he should, as the panel tell him, focus on the task – sounds constructive performance management advice there, for once), while she says she’s either talked down or over all the time. Sadly, her answer to being asked what her strengths are is to whine in self-defence rather than demonstrate anything. Perhaps like last week’s evictee, she just doesn’t want to be there anymore. Everyone then spends about five minutes watching Neil and Kurt lock antlers and growl at each other. Kurt is reminded that his self-inflicted target was a very foolish move, while Neil – of all people – is told off for getting browbeaten. Kurt is warned that his business plan had better be bomb-proof: the panel aren’t inclined to buy his shakes right now. Neil is told that’s there no much room left for mistakes. (Really, there are at least 8 hours of primetime TV left: what else are we going to fill them with?)

But it’s all antler-rattling and willy-waving: Uzma faces the furry firing finger, and gets the free cab home.

Back at the house, Neil is asked “Have you been knocked down a bit?” He answers with a straight bat that he had a weak link on his team and that ‘that person is gone now’. But I also notice that Kurt gets more greetings and hugs from the others. Funny that.

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