Apprentice 2013, Episode 6: Shambles Incorporated

As The Apprentice mansion still doesn’t run to an alarm clock, it’s Jason’s turn to answer the phone at Silly O’clock: this time it’s 6am. And very fetching he looks in his towel and tattoos. (The level of tattooing on the candidates is quite striking, although none of them appear to have taken the opportunity to have the odd sneaky crib-card inked about their person. Or sold any skin for advertising. Oh, the lost opportunities …)

We’re treated to the usual intro sequence, with only two exceptions: the addition of ludicrously over-stirring classical background music and the revelation that they are not only in dormitories but in sleeping bags. The future of British industry is, it appears, effectively camping in a mansion. A youth hostel would surely have been cheaper? (And why, only once as far I recall, has one team taking the phone call and ‘forgotten’ to tell the others: the evidence is available on YouTube for those of you feeling maliciously inclined.) We are, however, still treated to the modest asides to camera. Neil needs to get back on the horse, which I hope is a metaphor rather than a slang reference. Rebecca wants to show what she’s capable of: we’re spared any shot of what she might have in her hands. A grapefruit knife perhaps, or a mutilated wax doll?

Morning rituals completed, they are whisked to The Guildhall, home not just to centuries of history but – more pressingly – glittering corporate events. I can’t speak for the candidates, but my own heart is already sinking. The Business Away Day sounds like a discount railway ticket, but rarely delivers anybody to a worthwhile destination. And the journey – to use my nomination for the century’s most over-used word to date – can be pretty lacking too. Yet this is their task. Lord Sugar has lined up two clients, who will provide a budget, and the contest will be judged on profit and customer satisfaction. (Mindful of the importance of establishing clear evaluation criteria at the outset, I wondered how that might be measured, but I’ll avoid a spoiler: the answer is too obvious.) There are some clear signals in the briefing speech: they are to design and deliver a business task, not a jolly, and the clients will want value for money. (Corporate clients are, of course, notorious for secretly wishing to blow vast sums on utter pish.) After moving Myles to Team Endeavour, PMs for the week are stipulated: I always take this as meaning ‘you two are on trial here: watch your step’, and wonder if the thought registers in the same way for Lead (Endeavour) and Fran (Evolve). Time will tell – and thankfully two days of it will be distilled into a mere hour. Time is money, and I could be somewhere else spending it on something more edifying …

We are now at the mid-way point in the series, but it seems an important point has yet to dawn on some of the participants. While the first couple of weeks may be about establishing individual visibility (which might partially explain the make-up and shouting, but only partially), individuals on the winning team are automatically ‘safe’. If the programme has something we might call ‘genius’ – and the editor in me thinks that even scare-quotes don’t go far enough there – it lies in using team competitions to establish a winning individual. It’s this tension that makes the PM role such a poisoned chalice – and the percentage of losing team PMs that get fired has sharply increased over Series Eight. Being PM is seen as ‘all or nothing’ on a personal level, potentially to the cost of pulling together a team to ensure the win.

The candidates promptly illustrate the point. For Team Evolve, Fran and Luisa are swiftly at loggerheads: Fran is ‘Mrs Corporate’ – or at least wishes to describe herself as such (her BBC profile describes her as “founder and director of a dance studio, a professional dance agency and a lookalike agency”), while Luisa hates the boring, dull corporate world (that she has voluntarily chosen to embrace in the name of getting her face on the telly for a while). Over at Endeavour, Neil, whose strengths do not embrace irony, is worried that Leah will dictate as she has ‘stuff to prove’, and they are similarly soon knocking verbal chunks out of each other. “Hate each other, but win and get over it”, despite its apparent simplicity, seems to evade them. The Apprentice is criticised for lacking many forms of intelligence, but Emotional Intelligence seems to be more lacking than most.

In the Endeavour Camp, Neil – who is flagging his copious experience of away days – wants a clear theme: he is also a fan of the school days theme, preferably the sporting variety. (Neil is a Soccer Coach in real life. Add scare quotes to taste there.) Leah is in favour of ‘majestic, fun, wonderful’ history. She calls a team vote, loses it, and presses on regardless. Chins are rubbed in bafflement. And then suggests archery. The communication skills relevance of archery is lost on me: on the spectrum of conversational gambits, an arrow to the chest is surely a very closed statement?

Things do not improve when they turn up late to meet their client – Barclays UK Retail Banking – who are looking for an idea that can be rolled out to 35,000 managers who need greater listening skills. Leah not only fails to convince that her ideas will instil these: she fails to demonstrate them too. And seems surprised that a major financial institution might want something more ‘serious’ than jousting and lawn games. (I wonder how far the episode is revealing the types of corporate event the contestants have attended, and how far that talks about how seriously others may have taken them in life to date.)

While Alex, Kurt and Neil investigate the costs of archery, Leah promptly changes theme from medieval history to ‘army’. Palms meet faces with an audible slap, although oddly they are only slapping themselves. At least demonstrating a budgetary eye, we cut to Myles in a Hackney cash and carry, interrupted by a telephoning Neil who is fretting about whether the afternoon programme (ye gods, they have one?) is full enough. He suggests Sumo wrestling. While the nation titters, Leah attempts to moderate. If she must have Sumo wrestling, they are only allowed to touch each other, not to wrestle. My mind fills with a surreal vision of someone attempting to put a business spin on the homoerotic potential of two men in inflatable suits and black nappies. Leah recruits Alex to the list of people with whom she is now conducting telephonic slanging matches.

Meanwhile, over at Evolve, Fran is name dropping celebrities to weave into her theme, and hedging dangerously close to the ‘this task is mine’ card by stressing that she supplies to corporate events. (That’ll be the lookalike agency then.) Their ideas for corporate teambuilding tasks are intriguing too: wine-tasting (in a school theme?), which – pay attention – is suggested by Jordan as well as Rebecca. Francesca wants that corporate staple – chocolate making, which Luisa is swift to stress is very similar to cupcake making (her own business). Except without the chocolate, but with flour and muffin tins, of course. But cupcakes are something to beat Fran round the head with, so they’ll suit her more obvious purpose. Jordan, who presumably doesn’t cook, reminds everyone who’s slept through the last 6 weeks that the task is about profit. (And forgets the customer satisfaction element.)

Fran’s client is, and its representatives are quick to stress their ethos of 5 star experience for 3 star prices. An ethos may be posher than a strategy, but I can’t help but feel that they’re on the wrong show.  When Jason and Luisa visit the chocolatier, Luisa is – a little too obviously – swift to dismiss the idea and offer to run a cupcake class herself. ‘To save money’. Of course, dear. And, after putting the poor potential supplier’s nose firmly out of joint in front of a TV camera, she boldly asks if she can buy some piping bags while she’s there. One of the merits of brass necks is that they are much harder to strangle. Meanwhile, Fran and Rebecca more or less ram-raid a supermarket to buy ingredients for school dinners while Jordan trails in their wake trying to tot up what they are spending. And perhaps guess what part meringue, double cream and puff pastry will play in the advancement on listening skills. (Clue: with a meringue in each ear, the candidates seem so much quieter.) Evolve’s day ends with Jason and Luisa doing a variation on tandem ski-walking on what appear to be planks and string. In heels. Luisa promptly talks up the quality of this experience.

As Day 1 closes, the watcher’s sympathy for the clients’ employees is deepening by the minute, but proof awaits. For Endeavour, Day 2 starts with Neil once more challenging Leah’s abilities to manage a corporate event, and he modestly offers to deliver a motivational speech to save on external costs. An interesting suggestion from a man who, yet again, doesn’t think he’s listened to. As the Digital Spy forums report in real time, for most viewers, this has become one of the most cringe-inducing episodes of all previous series – which is, I suppose, an accolade of sorts.

Having set up in their Hertfordshire base, Neil greets the guest bankers by asking to be called Sergeant Neil. Loudly. For the first time in five years, national sympathy for bankers edges up a notch. The encouraging sign is that Neil and Myles have spent time considering and reviewing the ‘flow of the day’. I try not to recall that nothing flows uphill, and that – whatever else it might defy – Kurt and Natalie’s beef stew is unlikely to break the rules of physics. Despite the arrival of Alex – I’m so sorry, The Colonel – in combat uniform and stick on camouflage stripes, the formation marching to the lawn for militarised lawn games actually goes well. And someone (with an attitude and a neck beard) has remembered the theme: the bankers play boules ‘blind’, guided by the verbal clues of their colleagues. And they enjoy it. As he says so modestly, “Neil Clough again will save the day.” There are no bonus points in this programme for syntax.

But business cannot overcome one thing. Nature. Right on cue, it pees it down. And a complete lack of Plan B hoves into view. Leah duly leads a session on conflict resolution, asking guests to share their real workplace conflicts. As you always do on a cheerful day out. Little wonder, the bankers are a little baffled when two rubbery sumo wrestlers burst in and bash their bellies together repeatedly, as if ultra-soft pseudo-Japanese porn is the answer to the world’s ills. As Leah voice overs, “What we want to work on today is avoiding that.” On the neighbouring sofa, my partner mutters a quiet “Hallelujah!” Saved by the end of the rain, the bankers get to fire a few arrows while Neil and Myles talk to them about their individual challenges, working out how each task can be linked to the ticked boxes. Their day concludes with the motivational speech. When Neil starts by explaining that his Dad died when Neil was 18 and how soccer kept him going, TV and banking audience alike might be forgiven for wondering how we wound up in an episode of  X Factor: in the only real spoiler of the day, we are spared any more of the speech.

But what of the competition. It starts with Fran being proud that she has a timetable for the day, before Luisa starts talking over her. Motivational speaking starts the next tussle: Luisa thinks the team (cough) can do that, while Rebecca manages to disagree respectfully. Fran tactfully mentions that she is conscious that quality matters as well as profit. The TV watchers are, I assume, slightly perturbed that Evolve have spent £300 on props, including feathers and a flamingo: not things I recall looming large in my own school days. While Jason and Rebecca patiently peel carrots, the guests arrive and are visibly concerned that they spend quite a while simply being brought tea, coffee and biscuits. (The opportunity to get them to serve themselves and spark conversation is also lost on the team.) When Luisa finally prompts Fran to address them, she tells them how she wanted to be a policewoman when she was little. And how she isn’t. Bafflement drifts through the audience like sleeping gas.

Things perk up with the team plank walking, as the guests are at least having fun – and getting to work off the caffeine and the calories. Things deteriorate, however, when it’s time for the wine tasting. Rebecca and Jason are caught by the camera crew confessing a total absence of knowledge to each other, despite which they opt to overlay the ‘event’ with a hefty dose of business waffle. I’m only aware of two business-related uses of wine – showing-off and anaesthesia – and I’m sensing their guests think along similar lines. They may be getting a glass of wine, but the relevance is lost on them. This isn’t helped when Fran – without seemingly realising – launches into a round of Buzzword Bingo. Their day concludes with their guest speaker, who not only delivers (for the audience) their day’s highlight but gives the team 45 minutes respite. If only from each other. While the whole giddy spectacle has lacked glory, I am – like last week – fairly sure which team has lost before business bottoms sink into the boardroom furniture.

Lord Sugar is sounding aggrieved from the off. First question is to Leah, who is asked if she found being PM easy. She is tactful enough to say no, but the jousting – well,  at least they stay on theme – breaks out with Neil once more. Karren Brady’s tolerance has also been worn thin once more: not only were they late to see an unimpressed client, but history was ‘a completely half-arsed idea’. Karren’s insights and contributions to the programme are increasingly impressive, but I’m starting to fear for her blood pressure. Alex is described as ‘a bit pantomime at times’, and Lord Sugar is aghast about sumo wrestlers in a business context. Despite all this, Neil whips out his trumpet for a metaphorical tootle.

If the panel were abrupt with Endeavour, Evolve are spared little. “Communication skills doesn’t mean getting them pissed,” as His Lordship points out. The almost total lack of business message to the day is firmly flagged, and Jordan and Luisa take their chance to install a number of knife blades in Fran’s back. In a nod to racheting up the tension, Rebecca’s insistence of hiring an external speaker also comes under scrutiny. But no matter how the camera work is edited, the figures never lie.

Although both teams emerged with profits (Evolve having spent more), both clients wanted partial refunds. For Endeavour, this reflected the lack of contingency planning for bad weather, which collapsed the structure of the day. For Evolve, this was simply because the client saw no business sense in the day. (Remarkably, the clients requested surprisingly similar refunds.) After taking into account refunds, flamingos and cupcake ingredients, Endeavour achieved a profit of £1,579.50 while Evolve made only £1,095.81. Winning PM Leah was reminded to thank her team for saving the task, with the suggestion that her cab might now be waiting had they not. And Karren, smiling just for once, reported that the client was ‘very impressed indeed’ with Neil’s motivational speech. (Thus pointing out to the viewer that they’d be robbed of seeing the best moment that the teams achieved.) At which point Endeavour get pampered in towels at a luxury spa.

In the Losers Café, Luisa wastes no time in calling Fran awful and weak, while Jordan – responsible for costs, where they lost (but no-one mentions that) – blames Rebecca for hiring the motivational speaker. Fran promptly labels him a turncoat.

Back in the Boardroom, diplomacy continues to head towards extinction. Lord Sugar says the client thought they’d been taken as mugs and felt they’d been blagged at. Asked how people are inspired through cupcake design, Fran deepens her potential grave by showering the room in meaningless clichés and the increasingly impatient Karren asks her if she believes what she’s saying. (I think this is called a rhetorical question, btw.) Pausing to ask if Fran has swallowed the Harvard Business Book, His Lordship asks why no-one spoke when it’s undeniably a team ‘strength’. As Luisa’s anti-corporate sentiment is ‘discussed’, Karren fails to resist the comeback: might Luisa not need a different attitude when she’s asking the bank for an investment loan? The dismalness of the performance spares no-one: Jordan should have controlled the spending, Jason might have offered something beyond talking rubbish about wine … And Fran is firmly reminded to select final session candidates based on performance, not on personal issues. When she chooses Rebecca (to whom she apologises) and Luisa, the latter is ready to rant on before the panel silence her.

Left in blessed peace for a moment, the panel are also left to muse that knitting would have been as useful as a theme. Rebecca’s ability to persuade Fran is a mystery to them, as she’s had so little impact elsewhere, and the choice of Luisa as a returnee is flagged for investigation.

And so to the final mud-slinging … It goes badly for pretty much everyone, viewers included. Luisa’s attitude is universally questioned, and she does little to dispel an impression that she’d argue with a bollard given half a chance. Her ‘shoot first’ approach is failing to endear her, and Lord Sugar reminds her that he needs a partner that he can trust.

Fran’s supposed experience of corporate events counts against her, and she’s told that it was very hard not to send her home. But it’s Rebecca – who has failed to make enough of an impression, despite impressive selling skills – who finds herself in the complimentary taxi.

The You’re Fired audience whole-heartedly disagree, as – from what we see – do the other candidates, waiting back at the luxury hostel. ‘Turncoat’ Jordan thinks Fran will go, while Jason assumes Luisa will go with her. Sadly – for this reviewer at least – he is wrong: Luisa merely gets her card very clearly marked.

As the episode grinds to a thankful close, we’re left with Neil proudly announcing “Only nine more of you to get fired until I win.” His performance this week has been strong, if (as ever) lacking charm behind the scenes, but I’m left thinking he may yet be proved right. So far, the biggest threats may be Myles (winning team every week), Jordan (five wins out of six, no boardroom appearance), Jason (five out six, no boardroom appearance) and Alex (four wins out of six, no boardroom appearance).

The strongest among the women are Leah and Luisa, both of whom have won as project managers – but both whom failed to shine while doing so. But the field so far lacks anyone who appears both capable and tolerable, no matter how far the edit goes out of its way to disprove both aspects. And this week not only helped to put me further off many of the candidates, but to remove any faint lingering desire to ever attend a business away day. Hardly a service rendered, given the programme’s intended promise.

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