Getting the hang of the opening sequences yet? They are edited teasers for how the episode might pan out. Ignore the usual pantomime ‘everything is urgent all the time’ stuff (although it’s lucky that Steven is fully dressed at 6am, given that the cars will arrive in 15 minutes.) David, who we are being told (ok, shown) is disorganised, is putting some kind of gel on his face rather than his hair. Maria, who may not have yet studied astronomy (clearly believing the Earth rotates around her), is caught saying “we just need to work together as a team and that will make us win”. Alice, meanwhile, is telling us how she’s won every time so far. Promises, promises …
15 minutes later – thankfully ‘reality’ is edited here – we’re at Cutty Sark, which is “all about tea and speed”. (My memories of visiting it are mostly about it being static and being overcharged for lattes, but life moves on …) This week, our (p)lucky candidates will be revamping the Traditional British Afternoon Tea to create a Themed Experience, and will be judged simply on how much profit they make. Plenty of scope for Sugar-based jokes I’d have thought, although oddly none are made. The Disembodied-Voice-That-Only-Sounds-Like-Evan-Davis tells us that tea is pouring back into fashion, which seems both a diabolical pun and a statistical leap of fancy. No one swaps teams, and no election campaigns either: Lord Sugar dispenses with democracy and makes David Platinum’s Team Leader and Alice Odyssey’s Project Manager.
Deprived of the ‘vote for a PM’ opportunity, we cut straight to the theme decisions. (At this point, I always get a flash back of Maureen Lipman in an old BT ad, slightly edited to brag about her offspring ‘having a strategy’). Alice goes for ‘very British’, history, heritage and the 1940s. No more au fait with history than astronomy, Maria asks if ‘The Queen was in 1940’, making history sound like a BBC2 series. Alice is sticking firmly to high end as the way to go, and – without deliberately looking at Maria ; promising to ‘take hold of personalities’. Across the nation, viewers are quietly thinking things like ‘both hands round the throat’.
Sending Maria, Andrew and Navdeep off to do market research – aka standing in a street asking people how much they’d pay for afternoon tea – Alice and Patrick go to Langhams for a brew and a portion of lemon and elderflower posset. So enthralled and engrossed in this exquisite decadence do they become, that they can’t possibly stop to take Maria’s call. You can’t help but feel that Alice has just stencilled her own shoulderblades with an instruction that reads ‘Knifeblade here’. The edit shows Maria calling her ‘stupid’, and I fear the cutting-room floor footage might have fallen victim to watershed-related considerations. Nick (born 1944) wonders to camera if the 1940s and rationing and war doesn’t well, you know, clash just ever so slightly with all this fine bone china and rennet-based desserts stuff. Back on the gritty pavements of somewhere-that-actually-still-looks-quite-posh, Maria is not only pushing for £25 a head for whatever the crew will later concoct, but already looking to play the ‘we didn’t have a strategy’ card. So much easier than politely nudging the conversation towards formulating one, although probably less gripping viewing. Time will tell, although phrases like ‘Red is quite British’ do suggest that clarity isn’t as evident as it might be.
David meanwhile is looking for an exciting twist. Like actually winning and stuff, perhaps. Torn between going high end or cheap and fun, someone almost gives us a spoiler by uttering the words ‘profit margin’. Revealing an eye for comedy – and possibly reflective irony – David settles on a theme: the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Meanwhile, Karren ratchets up the cringing and Ashleigh turns the “I’m Northern, me” dial up to 11.
A few minutes later, he’s in what looks rather like Tesco with Ashleigh, explaining that he doesn’t do grocery shopping and he’s happy to be led. Ashleigh, who still seems to be both 16 and 42 years old, has accordingly found a happy niche in life. Their pricing discussion, such as it is, hovers around the 7 quid mark, as that’s still quite a mark up on jam and cheese sarnies. Yes, jam and cheese sarnies.
Meanwhile, his sub-team, Steven and Lucy, grabbed the ‘mad’ bit of the Hatter theme and ran (amok) with it. Dayglo green cake, iced cake in the shape of mushrooms. I quietly wondered if Lucy had been having a sly sniff of her nail varnish remover, although they did draw the line at purple scones. And their austerity on the budget would no doubt have had Ashleigh in raptures. Slightly dour, arms firmly folded, let’s-not-get-over-exited raptures, probably, but raptures nonetheless. And with a theme as readily grasped as ‘Mad Hatters’, the subteam was also pretty clear what was required. Food colouring and gallons of it.
Alice, meanwhile, is ‘communicating her vision’. There are a lot of adjectives. “Ooze class and be innovative with a little something that’s different.” Ensconced in a luxury tea retailers with Patrick, she is still having slight difficulty with answering phones when it might have been politic to, although the subsequent call debates her price per head. As the ‘focus group trap’ looms beneath them, Andrew and Maria argue up the price till Alice stamps down and insists on£16ph and £13 concessions. (And even the idea of concessions kicks off a little.) Andrew, a ‘catering entrepreneur’, is meanwhile leading the subteam in the creation of 1940s fancies at a bakers. Adding his possibly more authentic but less fun and considerably more pricy approach to catering to Alice’s purchase of 140 tea-bags from the swanky tea-vendors, the viewer can at least see why they’re pitching afternoon tea at such a high level. Although I’ve yet to hear anyone attempt a breakeven calculation. Tut tut.
As Day Two dawns, the final nine find themselves at Blenheim Palace, where costumes (mad hatter versus wartime) have been laid on. Channelling her inner control freak, Alice is insistent about the small things. Tables must be cleared when people leave them, and tablecloths must always be tucked in. The kitchen, which is Andrew’s domain, is also neat and tidy. And fairly quickly, their tables are full of smiling people who are eating cake while losing several pounds. Stirling. A few customers have actually winced to camera about the prices and walked away, but the team don’t yield. What? Maria? Give an inch? Behave.
But after their first flush of success, a second wave of custom doesn’t arrive. Maria and Navdeep are despatched with fliers to hand out at the railway station. It isn’t too surprising that they can’t find it, given that the nearest railway platform is eight miles away. As trade drifts away, they drop their price to £7 a head, but their final casting of the nets catches only a few minnows. Maria is caught tempting fate and saying “we didn’t even have any conflicts, which is saying something for me.” As it would indeed be in whichever parallel universe she is speaking from. Despite the empty tent in the closing stages, Alice is very proud of her team (at least to camera) and we are being set up to assume victory is hers.
The Mad Hatters have, by contrast, gone with ‘show don’t tell’ as their approach to their theme. The kitchen, the taking of orders, the service – all is chaos. Four of them are in the kitchen, which looks like it may have been shelled recently, washing teapots and getting in each other’s way while no-one actually serves the customers. Sensing an almighty roasting from His Lordship, the team somehow rally. Perhaps fortunate to have picked a theme that spoke to randomness and insanity, they are rewarded by people happily drinking tea from bowls (as the team have run out of crockery) as they sit on rugs outside the tent . If you have something to giggle about, it at least fills some of the 30 minute wait for a cup of tea. Malcolm Tucker would not, however, have held back on the quips about omnishambles. Although they might have needed to bleep him quite heavily. Although only Steven was shown in a White Rabbit Onesie (not a good look, btw), the impression of utter chaos has been planted.
And so, barring only the washing up, to Squeaky Bum Time. It – rather obviously – isn’t looking good for David. The team loved the theme (his idea), and Ashleigh is happy that – having insisted that David set the price – they had a 200% mark up, but they can’t honestly say he was remotely organised. His Lordship is slightly aghast at the jam and cheese thing, but the cakes are a hit. Eye-catching, great fun and – unusually for an Apprentice food task – very tasty.
Alice is praised by the team for the second day, which was impressively organised. The £16 ph tariff, however, threatens to make Lord Sugar caramelise in a feat of spontaneous combustion. This isn’t helped by some rather underwhelming cakes. Reference to Maria’s bull-like tendencies and the risk of a ‘china shop’ moment is also raised. The others go so far as to say ‘she was much better this time’, and the viewers quietly wonder if they’ve seen the final edit yet.
David has been pulled from the toaster in the nick of time by the rest of his team, and has the grace to be rather grateful. Anyone who wanted to knock Maria down with a feather missed their moment.
Fittingly for a catering task, the knives promptly come out on the losing side. The ‘we didn’t have a strategy’ card is hoisted aloft. Andrew wisely takes the bullet for creating more expensive and inferior cakes, despite catering being his ‘expertise’. The panel remind Maria that it was actually her that pushed for the highest possible price, and even the edited version leaves in a spot of pouting at that. Navdeep blames communication, and gets picked for the final confrontation along with Maria.
The latter’s attempt at pre-emptive ‘how-could-you-how-dare-you-god-that’s-just-appalling’ is summarily silenced by the panel, who – during her subsequent temporary wait in the lobby – deadpan that she is “very feisty, isn’t she?”. Mmm. Alice meanwhile gets her card provisionally marked for bringing back Navdeep, possibly more for personality than contribution.
Ushered back in, Navdeep doesn’t help her case by joining in with the general screeching that promptly erupts. Alice makes the fairly reasonable point that Navdeep is a great speaker and presenter, but there is as yet no evidence of a business prowess beyond that. As for Maria, well … ‘working with her is very one way’. Whatever Alice’s faults, she’s certainly polite. Maria’s case isn’t helped when Nick remarks that he wasn’t ‘excited at her activity’ and he isn’t finding the screaming very professional either. Her claim to have adapted in the last two weeks gets a round of giggles rather than applause. In the final reckoning, the task was about organisational skills – Alice may have excelled at those on Day 2, but only after a fairly horrid Day 1 – and entrepreneurial spirit. At which point the invisible caption ‘Massive Fail’ hovered before my eyes. Navdeep is reminded to do more than debate, while Maria is reminded of the complete opposite. But for poor business logic, Alice is on the receiving end of the firing finger.
As a mere viewer, Andrew should have been in the final boardroom trio, as his overspend on supplies and less than inspiring creations contributed to the failure. And Patrick might have also qualified, as his input seemed to be negligible. Neither David or Maria will survive another boardroom showing, but the real loser was the programme format. We are left to contrast two one-off showings of a single themed enterprise, not a sustainable business that might learn and adapt. Nor did we have a scenario where word of mouth might affect longevity. (The Hatters experience struck me as firmly in the ‘fun, but only once’ category.) And the formatting also gave us a loud and clear ‘just go for cheap’ message that isn’t the only business lesson we might need to learn.
Now half way through, the programme is also struggling to show any candidate you might feel like cheering on. As of yet, the closest I’m getting is “Well, I suppose so-and-so isn’t too bad.” Given that we seem to have moved into nominated team leaders, we can expect Maria and Navdeep to face up to that responsibility next week. I wish the candidates all the luck that they may need, and their audience a reliable supply of ear-plugs.