Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Here, there be dragons

Why do people watch Dragons’ Den? Is it because we’re fascinated about the machinations of modern business, and want to see how the big money investments are made? Or is the show just like You’ve Been Framed for anyone who has to make presentations for a living?

If you’ve ever had to stand in front of an intimidating panel of decision makers, with only an 80-slide PowerPoint deck and a cheap Next suit between you and appointment at Jobcentre Plus, it’s heartening to see how badly other people pitch their ideas. You keep hoping that they’re going to trip on their way up the stairs, and end up with the leg of a flip-chart stuck in their armpit. £200 for every clip shown.

Or maybe we love it because it gives us an insight into how some the UK's most powerful businessmen and women really operate. They may want us to think that they eat their lunch off the naked bodies of nubile young serving wenches, but the reality is that they're as hopelessly uncoordinated as the rest of us. Hilary revealed that she went from running a hundred million pound business to not being able to put her own pyjamas on, after suffering a stroke. But as tonight’s outfit can attest, she heroically overcame that particular setback.

It may be attempting to portray the hardships of life at the cutting edge of business, but it still treats its audience as if they're as stupid as the idiots who turn up to pitch a pair of clockwork socks. I know that not everyone who owns a TV is a high-flyer in the city. But are we all so far removed from the world of pin-striped business that we need an explanation of what just happened, after every line of dialogue? Here's how it goes:

Wannabe Entrepreneur (let's call him Dave): "Basically, I'm looking for £100,000 in exchange for a 20% share in my business."
Theo Paphitis: "I'm not sure you've got your numbers right."
Evan Davis: "Theo is concerned that Dave hasn't got the numbers in order."
Theo Paphitis: "Because of that, I'm out. Deborah?"
Evan Davis: "Theo is out. Now it's up to Deborah to help Dave raise the £100,00 he needs."
Deborah Meaden: "Have you safety tested the product?"
Dave: "Yes."
Evan Davis: "Deborah discovers that Dave has had the product safety tested."

The perpetual feedback loop goes on and on, until your mind starts to collapse in on itself. For a similar sensation, try watching The Prisoner of Azkaban and listening to Stephen Fry’s audiobook at the same time.

As for the contestants, this week's would-be entrepreneurs are a fairly agreeable lot. We have Nick, Richard and Sebastian, who've invented an automated pint-pouring device to help bar staff multitask. Hilary helpfully points out that “I’ve been in and out of pubs all my life.” My parents had a name for women like her.

Next up is a woman who's developed an interactive crime scene workshop to engage schoolkids in the world of science. The Dragons gamely dress up in the white forensics kit and attempt to figure out what crime has been committed. Once again, Hilary's wardrobe is in the frame.

Bola, from Kent, has devised a rubber-tipped pair of tweezers to take snot from babies. Personally, I prefer candy, but hey-ho. If you've ever lamented the fact that primetime TV doesn't spend nearly enough time debating the safety issues around solid and semi-solid mucus extraction, you clearly missed a treat with tonight's show.

As the programme progresses, one thing becomes increasingly clear. There's a weird sexual undercurrent running through tonight's instalment. After Bola's rubber tipped apparatus, we see a double-ended plastic dog toy (that seems to appeal to Deborah and Hilary more than the guys) and a therapeutic rehabilitation swing that could keep Sting tumescent for days. To be honest, it's not the best investment prospect - when the inventor is asked if she's ever run a business, the kindly 71 year-old answers "I used to milk a cow before school." Tying all this latent sexuality together is the creepy spectre of Evan Davis, by all accounts a popular figure on the edgier side of London’s gay life. Davies prowls around the basement of the warehouse, protecting his masters’ lair and sending in the fresh meat, like Renfield with a Prince Albert.

It’s not all sex though. Along the way, we're also treated to a low-fat snack range created by the man who invented Cup-A-Soup croutons, and a man who makes wooden motorbikes for kids who're too young to pedal. Stirring stuff.

Hunched over in a pair of ridiculous shoulder-pads that make her look as though she's attempting to extricate herself from a DFS sofa, Hilary's clearly the star of the show. Barking questions like Vera Duckworth trying on a Cleopatra fancy dress costume, Hilary has freshened up the show's format with her blunt northern charm. 

But why stop there? After six years on the air, it’s all starting to feel a bit stale and predictable. The ridiculous set design doesn’t help matters – all those shots of industrial staircases, knackered brickwork and clanking chains would be more at home in a Saw sequel. In fact, maybe that’s how they can refresh the concept. Next time, on Dragons’ Den, our plucky inventors wake-up to find that they’ve been drugged and handcuffed to a giant carousel, with a shotgun pointing at them. As the roundabout begins to turn, they have forty five seconds to make their pitch. The person with the best pitch walks away with fifty grand of start-up money and a face that’s still attached to their head. Now that’s a show I’d happily Sky+.

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