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Apprentice 2013, Episode 8: Open Heart Sugar-y

The signs were, even by Apprentice standards, not promising. Online dating? Oh, be still my thumping head. Hearts and The Apprentice is rarely a happy combo. I predict blood. We’ve already had boardroom snippets of the CVs these people have compiled to woo Lord Sugar: what hideous promises would they use to lure the hearts – and other anatomical features – of innocent strangers. If the press are to believed, two of the candidates have already been ‘sharing portfolios’, so this could be exceptionally grim. Oh well, here goes …

At 6am – hardly the woo-ing hour – a thankfully almost fully covered Leah answers the incoming call. They are summoned to Marylebone Town Hall, England’s busiest registry office. As a camera-person lurking in the bathroom reveals, the ‘gentlemen’ have at least co-ordinated presentation, and are all modelling their best Little Black Knickers: let us hope the revelations cease there. Pausing only for Lord Sugar to move Jordan to the now depleted Endeavour team, the briefing spiel informs us that online dating has exploded: apparently £1.5bn is spent worldwide on dating websites. (Having, in an earlier web development career, been involved in two such creations, they omit to mention whether this is by owners or customers, but hey – it’s all money, right?) The candidates will create a website, tv and press campaigns to present to experts in two days. As experience suggests a realistic timescale is somewhere around four to five months, I manage to laugh out loud at this point, although my mirth is short-lived.

The vox pops in cabs are a mixed bag. Myles first saw his wife online, although he’s quick to add that it wasn’t on a dating site. Neil is denying any experience. (From his past showing here and the implications for his idea of ‘romantic’, this may have been for the best.) Fran thinks it’s for losers. (My Civil Partner, who I met online, harrumphs into a cushion at this point. We are, misguidedly, watching this sober.) There’s a moment of realistic modernity when Alex talks about the fact that lesbians and gay men exist too, but he follows this with “Then again, I am the Christian Grey of the Valleys.” Karren’s facial expression is not recorded.

At the ad agency, Jason reveals that he not only does history: he has history. At Oxford, he was involved in Mr Cupid, a successful student dating website. In a parallel universe, and one that is posher and wittier than this one, Jason is Mark Zuckerberg: who ever knew? Neil backs him, but with a dubious quality to his firmly-delivered support. Jason is duly enthroned as PM, and Neil and he decide to target the over 50s market, and are promptly discussing whether to go for ‘timeless, elegant classic’ or ‘cheeky fun’. Being 53, I can already feel the tendons in my arms and legs tightened, but I manage not to hit the Pause button just yet, mildly flattered when they mention ‘passion and vigour for the over 50s’ even if that does sound more like a vitamin pill.

Luisa – a paragon of romance of supplication – is meanwhile showing all the early symptoms of Not Having Got Her Own Way. Surely it’s only a matter of time before they progress to the full-blown disease. Having, with Fran, whined rather about not knowing this market (do they not have parents or neighbours or acquaintances who aren’t their own age? Really?), Neil and Fran are despatched to assemble a focus group: the latter tell them that they want class, romance and flowers and that they hate ‘cheeky’. (I’m guessing they’re not wild about pushy, nasal or grudge-bearing either, but these elements are not explored.) Jason, who has been talking up the concept of a fun experience for the target group, sees this as a curve ball that will make the campaign and concept drab. The brand name – Friendship and Flowers, suggested by Fran – may not help here, carrying as it does a whiff of coffee mornings and eau de cologne. When the camera cuts to the design process, the blooms are already wilting. As they play with the colours of a logo design that says ‘funeral parlour’ rather loudly, Luisa’s symptoms are erupting. Although the conversational context is choice of colours (where Jason is taking his time, arguing that the concept drives everything), the sub-text is clearly “I’m not in charge and I don’t like it.” After they arrive two hours late for the web design meeting and wind up with a woefully incomplete initial design, the disease bursts forth, and she is openly challenging to be PM. Commenting that “I’m in a nest of vipers” and that “sometimes the best leadership is about standing down”, Jason abdicates. Luisa will henceforth be PM, with ‘her commanding voice’. If The Apprentice did awards for Masterful Understatement … And so Day 1 concludes for Evolve. In reality, a second date would not be on the cards.

Over at Endeavour, Jason is elected PM over Alex, who has experience in website development but wins the argument over target markets: young professionals. (Not exactly outside the box, I mumble to myself. Although I want a definition of ‘professional’.)  Jordan, who is already prone to uttering strings of business buzzwords, talks about aiming to coax the best out of other people, and uses rather too many words to say so. Delegating Market Research to Myles and Leah, I’m cringing again when someone says ’50 Shades of Work’.  Market Research seems to consist of Myles conning men into posing for cheesy photos with Leah, who smiles and postures like a woman who won’t touch anyone without first slipping on a biohazard suit. There are smiles and laughs, although I wonder if they are all at the right people’s expense.

Back at the agency, Alex and Jordan – and especially the latter – are waffling about empowering young professional women: Karren’s face is beyond price, and her ability not to stride across the room and belt someone can only be admired. Perhaps they edited that bit out. Alex at least hits upon a brand name – Cufflinks – that he and Jordan (clue: both men) really like. Leah likes the logo but isn’t sure that women wear cufflinks. A missed opportunity there, Leah: judging by Alex’s earlier comments, you should have suggested a dating site for the young gay and (more butch) lesbian professional. A small niche, but a moneyed one. Ho hum. They do at least produce a finished website design, although it is so flatly business-like, it suggests mobile phone contracts rather than a more emotional connection. The flash of wit comes from Myles’ idea for the TV campaign, who suggests theming it around avoiding the disastrous date. Possibly forgetting the laws of slander, he proceeds to verbal cast this, using team members. Although it’s not the slander laws that he may live to regret …

Day 2 dawns, and it’s time to create TV and press campaigns. The latter must lack appeal to the programme editors, as we don’t see any evidence of this happening at all, but the TV ad filming is enough ‘entertainment’ for one evening. And perhaps too much.

Neil and Fran’s telly ad is competently filmed, without any daggers being buried between shoulder-blades. Unfortunately, that may be what it’s missing: a sense of pace and the hint of a pulse. As Nick H points out, they’ve gone beyond classy and elegant and straight into ‘mumsy and huggy’ territory. (Hopefully, he doesn’t mean the nappies.) As he comments, he is part of the target age group, and he’d run a mile. (I’m impressed that he retains the stamina, but then I have a cruel streak. So to speak.) The other thing missing from it would seem to be June Whitfield (luscious, pouting and 87), although I suspect she might have politely ad-libbed a touch of humour or energy into it. The day ends with Neil and Luisa locking horns about who will pitch; Luisa, one bloodied scalp already in the bag, is now determined to acquire a second. If the advert lacked charm, it looks a positive delight compared with the PM.

For the opposing team, Jordan and Myles are showing web page designs to random passers-by on an iPad. “Bit boring,” they say, and “Looks very corporate”.  In his second insightful contribution of the day, Myles acknowledges that the TV ad needs to inject a note of engagement. (See, he can even do dating puns. Not bad for an old age, eh?) Unfortunately, we then see it being created. Alex, who has a background in film editing and (over)-acting – and perhaps we should add ‘allegedly’ – is cast as the bad date, leaving Leah to pout at a festival of mascara in a Goth t-shirt while Alex attempts to co-direct from in front of the camera. As Karren rather needlessly observes, “It’s mayhem”. Although, to be fair, it’s rather fun mayhem, Myles’ subsequent observation that “it’s gone panto” isn’t far off the mark. But advertising does depend partially on memorability, and Alex perving on a park bench looking like a fourth-form remake of A Clockwork Orange is certainly a haunting sight. As the day ends, Jordan spouts yet more streams of business-speak, and Myles is mercifully positioned to deliver the pitch.

And so to the pitches. Luisa glosses over the 80% missing website by calling it a ‘work in progress’, leaving the audience to wince through the TV ad. In their voiced comments, the audience call the campaign patronising, bland, very poor and point out that 50 is not the new 80. Oh dear.

Taking the lectern, Myles positions Cufflinks as functional and easy to use, while ‘Herbert’ (Alex as the kind of creature you find swigging vodka in cemeteries) is the character who epitomises the kind of bad date it will help you avoid. At least the audience laugh with rather than at the ad, but they are puzzled by the over-masculine brand name and the disconnect between a funny ad and desperately dull website. I think that adds up to a verdict somewhere around ‘Meh’.

Subsequently dragged back into the boardroom, Alex’s failure to get elected as PM is noted, while Jordan projectile vomits more empty words and is queried as to whether he’s a PM or just a good delegator. Lord Sugar seems unimpressed. The disconnect between website and ad is again noted, although the use of humour in the latter was ‘certainly memorable’.

What we turn to Evolve, variations on the change of PM are explained until Nick H intervenes and describes Luisa’s ‘nipping at Jason’s heels all day’ as ‘one of the most disgraceful displays of bad manners I’ve seen in a long while’. Given Nick’s role in the programme, not even Luisa can spin that as an accolade. The team is labelled ‘a bloody mess’, the website a failure and the TV ad would make The Last of The Summer Wine look like an action movie. Having chosen a promising market, the campaign is boring, patronising and cohesive but cohesively poor. Luisa’s putsch has successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of defeat, and then failed to keep its jaw shut when the awkward questions started. Their declared task loss is about as surprising as nightfall.

While Endeavour lick caviar off their hands in Mayfair (and Jordan spouts yet more rubbish), Neil finds himself in the Losers Caff voicing his embarrassment at being part of Evolve. Luisa is caught wondering if she should have let Jordan carry on as they were going to lose anyway. This is the televisual equivalent of standing over a corpse with a bloodied knife in your hand and telling the policeman you have no idea how this happened.

Their return to the boardroom is slightly surreal, as both Luisa and Jason are treated as PMs, who can’t even agree who to bring back. I can’t help but feel, however, that Luisa’s campaigning for Neil to be brought back is a bid to jeopardise a candidate who is clearly stronger than herself. She appears to be channelling not the successful  business woman but Alex Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, killing her way to the prize. Neil and Fran don’t escape blame for the market research, as it’s mis-steer may have been a case of which questions were asked. But the conclusion that Jason was browbeaten into abdication is inescapable: he seems to sense his time is up, but his explanations are sensible and clear as well as not just polite but focussed on winning the task rather than the glory. Neil gets the reprieve, and is probably hugely relieved to head back to the house.

The final sequence is the usual outburst of bickering. Fran stresses that her contribution was actually entirely finished, which seems to ignore the fact that it contributed to the loss through its dismalness. Previous good reports from Nick and Karren about her inputs are now undermined. Jason is not the only one to wonder if Luisa works for her team to win or for the most glory and limelight as possible to accumulate around her, whatever the cost. She is also told to shut up more often than I can recall with any other candidate, which is – in its own way – quite an achievement.

But we conclude with a regretful (on Lord S’s part) firing of Jason, whose charm is acknowledged but is just too much of an academic chancing his arm for His Lordship. (In the subsequent You’ve Been Fired! Programme, even Jason thinks he should have been fired, although the live audience disagree.)

And somehow, Luisa survives. Having presented us with an hour of some of the least charming behaviour I’ve seen on television short of serial killer dramas, she lives to torture another day. I shake my head at the screen: anyone who behaved that atrociously to colleagues anywhere I’ve ever worked would have been frogmarched to a door and told to pay for their own blaady cab. But her card is now clearly marked: Karren firmly requests that she be allowed to follow her next week. Is it too much to hope that the budget might stretch to a blowtorch or a crossbow for Ms Brady?

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