We all think we're above The Apprentice. That we've grown out of the ritual humiliation of Britain's greatest egotists. At this point a new series arrives. We're reminded there's something timelessly hypnotic about supremely arrogant people failing at project management. Once I get going on a new series, I pause only to furiously hammer out sarcastic text message commentaries to friends. For the uninitiated, here's an introduction to the formulaic yet unfailingly entertaining world of BBC's The Apprentice.
Originally aired in the USA in 2004 with Donal Trump as hard nosed head honcho, Britain's BBC Apprentice stars the slightly less charismatic Alan Sugar. While Señor Trump enjoys top banter with Obama, Lord Sugar keeps a slightly 'lower' profile. Still, the opening credits will dispel any doubt that Alan Sugar is a retired has-been, as we see him chauffeur driven around central London in his Bentley.
Once we're all clear on Lord Sugar's boss-man status, and last week's recap is over, the episode begins in earnest, with a phone call. It's 5AM and bleary eyed candidates rush to the phone to be told Lord Sugar's cars will be with them in twenty minutes.
The candidates arrive at a vaguely famous London venue. Lord Sugar, flanked by the trusty Nick Hewer and Karren Brady, explains the tenuous link of the venue to their task. Eg: "You're here at Canary Wharf, Canaries were often used in mines to warn of poisonous gas, GAStronomy is an ever growing trend in London where huge profit can be made."
A Note on Nick and Karren
Lord Sugar's chronically unimpressed lieutenants play a secondary role but steal the show, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. For some, they're the only reason to tune in. They follow each team, taking notes and casting judgemental and incredulous looks. Impassive blank face = good. Any kind of expression, ie the Nick squint, or the Karren face palm = big trouble.
The Task begins with selecting a Project Manager (PM). A confident team member may declare their divine right to lead. Or more likely is a blanket reluctance as everyone desperately clarifies that their skill set just isn't quite suited for this one. Once settled the teams begin batting around limp ideas like a deflated football and soon it's clear that managing a team of strong minded management types is hard work/hilarious viewing. Soon nobody is happy. Except the audience.
Now the PM selects a sub-team (aka Team Undermine). A frequent occurrence at this point is the sub-team conducting Market Research with a focus group, only to have the focus group's opinion ("none of us would buy a jacket with flashing lights on") totally overridden by the PM ("I've decided we're making a jacket with lights on"). This is an age old Apprentice tradition.
PitchingLord Sugar will lay on appointments with serious IRL companies for the teams to pitch. Individual candidates are chosen to pitch, but don't worry if you're not selected because you can butt in with (un)helpful corrections whenever you like. Expect much deep heartfelt praise for a dodgy product invented in the last 24 hours and liberal usage of the (now meaningless) phrases "highest quality", "luxury brand", and "finest materials". If you're lucky, a candidate will dry up completely and the camera will cut from raised eyebrow to stalled jowl via tapping fingers. The BBC knows how to edit a silence.
SellingNow to sell. Witness a handful of socially inept entrepreneurs work a humble market stall, awash with people of average ego size. Watch the public do their best to avoid a violently keen man in a sharp suit try and convince them to buy a hot dog for £10. For the most part though it's a fist in mouth cringe-fest. Though sometimes a PM will identify and deploy the natural born sellers in their team. These charismatic natural born sellers will charm the pants of any old ladies within a square mile.
Toward the end of the day's trading there's a flurry of panic-selling to get rid of all extra stock. Sometimes the candidates will (literally) run to nearby shops, pubs, and restaurants. A hyperventilating gaggle of suits bursts in. They lunge for the tills flaunting tragically cheap products at a terrified till worker. Trading time over, end of task.
A few soothing shots of Canary Wharf later, and we're in the boardroom (Don't be fooled, the board room is not in 8 Canada Square, it's in a distant, unglamorous television studio).
The candidates file in and play a high pressure game of musical chairs and some candidates have to look like they meant to not find a seat. There is some warm up lambasting of each team before Nick and Karren declare the winners. There's often a confusing numbers game when gross profit, expenses, and total profit are announced. The arithmetic and decimal points are confusing, and sometimes it takes a moment for teams (and audiences) to figure out who actually won.
N.B There is no correlation, I repeat no correlation, between performance on task, and winning. Team Omnishambles will often come out on top, and Team Quiet Confidence will be left to nurse a surprise loss. Of course it would undermine the entire premise of the show to acknowledge this, so no one ever does.
The winning team get sent on a treat which could be low budget and boring but could be a snap holiday to Iceland. Of course the real treat is being able to pretend that no one doubted victory, and no one has to get their hands dirty with the blame game. Not so for the losing team, exiled to the mysterious Bridge Cafe in darkest West London. No consolation fry up here though, candidates have to sip the bitter tea of defeat. Conversation turns to 'Who is to blame?' which roughly translates as 'Who is easiest to blame?'. This conversation soon boils down to a stony silence of glowering, brooding, and planning of boardroom strategy.
The losing team are brought in, and after a mild full team melee the team leader is asked to pick two team members to face the final ordeal with them. Until now a double firing was a PTSD inducing event. In this series, TRIPLE firing has become the new double firing.
The final three go up against the wall. Soon, one will be sitting in a taxi telling the camera why Lord Sugar was wrong, WRONG I TELL YOU! This sequence is masterfully edited by the BBC for maximum embarrassment to all involved. American viewers might expect the British Apprentice's boardroom to be more demure, perhaps even polite. Rest assured it's a glorious masterclass on back stabbing, brick wall head bashing, and mud slinging.
After endless huffing and puffing and final pleas, someone is told "You're fired!". Now here comes the best bit of the show: the freshly fired candidate is made to sit in the lobby, while the two survivors file past and give them a begrudging handshake. Sometimes THERE ISN'T EVEN A HANDSHAKE. This brief moment is perhaps my most frequent pause/repeat moment on iPlayer and the insincere handshake or total blanking makes for great Snapchatting.
And there it is! One hour of supremely edited project management pornography. One week in which to digest, rant, and rave about the despicable acts we've seen committed by these over confident entrepreneurs.