Sunday, 23 June 2013

Time to give The Voice a laryngectomy

When the second series of The Voice started, I was fully prepared to give it a fair hearing, in spite of how the last one turned out. In Voice parlance, I was prepared to spin my chair again, if I liked what I heard. I lasted four weeks.

Coming back to the show for its needlessly padded-out final, I feel a lot like Cillian Murphy regaining consciousness at the start of 28 Days Later. But with better hair. The world has moved on, and I just running around screaming, “Can someone please explain what the hell is going on?” Holly and Reggie are talking about the amazing voices competing for the grand prize, as if it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. And the contestants are marvelling at having got this far, despite only apparently facing the public vote once. It’s confusing, disorienting and loud, and makes me want to blow up a petrol station.

Think I’m overegging the horror analogy? Then you clearly didn’t witness the coaches’ group sing-a-long version of Get Lucky – everything that is wrong with the show distilled into three minutes of half-hearted trend-chasing. Will’s rocking a keytar like it’s 1987, Danny sounds like a nervous eight year-old at his first yodelling lesson, and Tom’s off his meds again. Meanwhile Jessie is dancing like a bored aunt at a wedding she disapproves of. Holly points out that “Everything has led to right here, right now,” helpfully reminding us of her latest white paper on the theory of relativity.
Speaking of Holly; she and Reggie have been struggling for two years now to present as a cohesive unit and they’re not getting any better. There’s an embarrassing moment as they both accidentally read the same autocue. Amateurish and shoddy maybe, but at least they’re more coordinated than the judges’ opening performance. The most telling thing to come out of all this introductory preamble, is Holly’s admission that “Your vote will give one of them their first guaranteed recording contract.” That’s a judicious use of the word ‘first’ there, which implies that the underlings at Universal are still frantically drying the Tip-Ex on their Ts & Cs paperwork.

Representing Team Tom, Mike is a nice enough guy but he’s got all the stage presence of a low-calorie vinaigrette. He’s doing his best to sound excited, curiously adding “I feel like I jumped off the top bunk of my bed and landed in The Voice final.” Does he live in a hostel? His homecoming sees him visiting his local, which looks like the sort of place that puts out sandwiches on a Saturday night so the red-faced regulars don’t die of malnourishment. It’s full of women who show all their fillings when they laugh, and Mike has a touching reunion with his brother – a proud graduate of the Brian Harvey school (non-accredited) of hat-wearing. For his first song of the night, he’s chosen Suspicious Minds and it’s a bit of a mess. It’s probably not helping matters that someone decided to put a 50’s-Elvis shirt on someone with a 70s-Elvis body type. The buttons are straining harder than his vocal chords. The feedback is equally lacklustre, with Jessie winning ego points for commending Mike’s “improvement as a person,” because who doesn’t want their basic humanity arbitrated by the writer of Party In The USA?

Andrea is up next, with the voice of an angel and the perm of a depressed librarian. Despite the wearying condescension of the hosts and coaches, Andrea’s maintained her sparky sense of humour throughout the competition. At first, I assumed that her perpetual eye-rolling was just a side-effect of the glaucoma that took her sight, then I remembered that she’s had to spend the last couple of months with Danny O’Donoghue. There’s a nice bit of blarney as she visits home, but she’s missing a Louis Walsh to exhort the whole of Ireland to vote for her. Credit where credit’s due – the stylists have had a good go at her, and she sounds great. Of course, Danny’s doing his best Foghorn Leghorn posing and is gesturing at her like a drunk conductor, oblivious to the fact that she can’t fucking see him. By the time a pair of animated wings unfurls on the screen behind her, turning her into a giant singing sanitary towel, Twitter explodes with indignant rage. Danny says there wasn’t a hair on his body that wasn’t standing on end, and Tom says that Andrea gets him right in the pacemaker.

Jessie is waxing lyrical about Matt who’s a real ar’ist, because she really likes a good ar’ist, but it sounds as if Holly’s already bored and just wants her to get on with it. They’ve taken him to a barn where assorted friends and family have gathered. For a joyous homecoming, this all seems a little sad and under attended. He talks about a “sea of faces” when, in all honesty, there’s barely enough to fill a paddling pool. His performance begins with him sitting backstage on a production box – which is the kind of trick Kermit the Frog used to pull. As he makes his way towards the stage, a bunch of backstage staff are clearly counting down their carefully rehearsed cues, before walking in front of him like the world’s most self-conscious extras. Matt’s version of Babylon is a lot more dynamic than David Gray’s version, but he seems to have misplaced the melody on his way to the stage. Most of the judges offer indeterminate variations on “Yeah, I thought it was great,” whereas Will goes for the downright incomprehensible “Whatever happens, happens. And what happened there was something that was happening.” The Taxpayers’ Alliance are going to have a field day with this.

Will begins by commending Leah on her extra-curricular activities, but is contractually obliged to sing Jessie’s praises first. Leah is another in a long line of talent show contestants to misinterpret I Will Always Love You as a beautiful love song, and I’m getting tired of pointing out how wrong they are. She tells us that the people in Ireland have shaped her and made her into who she is today, which I guess is her way of giving a shout-out to her colourists. Sadly, the other people who made her what she is today, are the stylists who thought a hot pink blouse, leather hotpants and clumpy black trainers would suit a jazzy rendition of the Dolly classic. The key change is a shouty mess, and by the end of it she sounds like she’s been possessed by Pazuzu. Holly tells her that she always puts her own twist on a song, when in fact she garrotted this one with a bootlace. Tom calls her a freak, but forgets to qualify it with a compliment, and Danny says “God didn’t just kiss your throat, he made out with it.” That kind of sacrilege could get him excommunicated.

After a brief but painful catch-up with the finalists, hosted by Reggie in one of Shakin’ Stevens’ old suits, our host tells us “For the first time tonight, you are in control.” If that was true, we’d be watching repeats of Hi-De-Hi. Not to worry, let’s see what Tom and Mike got up to on Denmark Street. They’re in a little music shop where Tom first kicked-off his career in the in the days following Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. Overcome with emotion, and oblivious to the reaction of bystanders caught in the crossfire, Tom launches into It’s Not Unusual. Mike looks like he’d rather be anywhere but here – but I guess that’s just life as a Voice contestant. I’m wondering whether Tom makes a habit of this – did he get kicked out of Morrisons last week for having a crack at Delilah in the cheese aisle? Their duet is the Green, Green Grass of Home, and they manage to make a relatively brisk three minutes feel like one of those experimental Giorgio Moroder 12-inchers.

Danny whisks Andrea off to the Isle of Wight, ostensibly to join him on stage at a festival. I don’t know if she was expecting to sing with the band, but she spends the entire time in the wings, washing the roadies’ tea mugs. Back in the studio now, and they’re doing Hall of Fame. To be honest, it’s less a proper duet, more like one of those ‘meet your idol’ things that Jim’ll Fix It used to do, pairing Kim Wilde with an awkward nine year-old from Cardiff. Final word goes to Danny, who says “That was great, it’s like the Script wasn’t my band anymore.” Meanwhile, the rest of the group are in his dressing room, shitting on his vanity unit. At least Jessie lets Matt join her on stage when they head out on her tour bus. For their duet, they’re mangling Never Too Much, which is an ironic choice given that, where Jessie J is concerned, it’s always too much. Leah doesn’t get to sing with her coach, but I don’t think she’s too worried, since he’s flying her out to Cannes on a private jet. Tonight they’re doing Bang, Bang – Will’s contribution to the Great Gatsby soundtrack. It’s a big old mess, fusing Charleston, Nancy Sinatra, big band and rap music, and it’s been staged like a two-tone cheese nightmare. Still, there’s production value to spare and at least it looked like everyone was enjoying themselves. As all four finalists and their mentors return to the stage, Will’s the only one who even looks as if he’s met his act before. The rest of them are shuffling awkwardly in place, like they’re awaiting a blood test.

Time for a quick guest appearance now from Robbie Williams and Dizzee Rascal. As they roll around the stage on their modified mobility scooters, like the bloated baby people from Wall*E, it’s hard to tell which one of them wants to be here the least. Eventually, Robbie stands up to reveal the giant Megaupload sign he’s painted onto the back of his jacket. It’s always nice to see a multi-millionaire industry puppet striking such a powerful blow for freedom of the internet. Where once Robbie seemed refreshingly unpredictable, he now has the depressing air of those middle aged men who spend all day at bus-stops, hoping to strike up a conversation with any passing teenagers.

This is the last show of the series, so it’s time for the BBC to put its blinders on, and stick fingers firmly in its ears, as it presents a highlights reel that blithely ignores the public’s widespread indifference to this failing format. According to the video, the whole country has gone Voice-crazy, spinning their chairs at home and playing along with the blind auditions. They’re supposed to be everyday viewers, but the contrived nature of their comments suggests they all came straight from Central Casting. 

The votes are in, and Matt is the first to leave tonight’s final. “I never thought I’d get this far,” he tells Holly, which is precisely why he was never going to win. “This has allowed me to work with the best artists in the world,” he adds, as Jessie nods sagely, assuming that he’s talking about her.

Trying to drum up the last few votes, Holly asks the audience “Who’s your winner. Whose album would you buy? Whose concert would you go to?” as if those three things were, in some way, connected.

Onto the final performances, and Mike sings Don’t Close Your Eyes dressed like a vicar. He’s really cranking up the Garth Brooks comparisons now, and it’s the best he’s sung all evening, but I’m afraid I’m damning him with faint praise. Andrea sings Angel in another dress that’s a foot and a half too short, but her voice sounds lovely. Although, I’m wondering whether the technical crew ran the angel-wings footage on the wrong track. Finally, Will threatens to come round to everyone’s house if they don’t vote for Leah. She’s doing Loving You, which is one of the most annoying records ever made, but it’s a great showcase for her multiple personality disorder vocal stylings.

Don’t worry folks, it’s almost over. Jessie points out “We’ve learned over two series what’s worked and what hasn’t worked,” but neglects to mention the disparity in size between those two lists. Holly reflects back on the series and comments “The talent has all been so high,” so maybe Tulisa’s been helping out backstage, now that she’s out of her X-Factor contract. 

After a quick guest performance by Michael ‘sponsored by Greggs’ Buble, Reggie and Holly make a final call for next year’s contestants. Holly reminds us that the lines close tomorrow, which Reggie helpfully explains by saying “You’ve only got one more day” for those of us struggling with the concept.

There’s just time for one more upset, as Will’s extensive Twitter campaign falls flat and Andrea is announced as the winner. Making yet another accidental sight reference, Holly comments “She was the one we were looking for the whole time.” Danny weighs in, adding “With a great song you can smash down anything we put in front of you.” Which sounds like a particularly cruel way of amusing yourself with a blind girl. Not to worry – no matter what happens with her recording contract, at least Andrea can take comfort in the fact that she won’t have to watch The Voice when it returns in 2014.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Don't Fancy Yours Much - Ad Week on The Apprentice

I don’t mind admitting that I’m excited about tonight’s edition of The Apprentice. The advertising task is now as much of a reality TV staple as Big Band week on X-Factor, or a racial sensitivity debrief on Big Brother. It’s a chance for an agency full of rolled-up Diesels to swivel their magnified eyeballs in horror, as a quartet of pin-striped pricks bumble their way through a mangled pitch.

It’s another early morning, and Leah is looking entirely confused by the sounds emitted by the dildophone. Things don’t get any better when she answers it, inadvertently revealing what we’ve known all along – there’s no-one on the other end. The boys are all preening in the bathroom in matching underwear, like the Primark Chippendales, but they’d better get a wriggle on, since Lord Sugar’s expecting them at Marylebone town hall.

Apparently, this place is home to hundreds of weddings a year, which gets us one step closer to the reveal of tonight’s task. Something about weddings and relationships and dating websites. Honestly, these explanations are getting so convoluted, Ted Rogers would struggle to follow them.  

Lord Sugar rattles through his set-up to make the point that the “onlike dating industry has exploded.” He even throws in a market size statistic to emphasise his point, but no-one takes him to one side to explain that apps are eating into the viability of these creaking platforms. What do you want from The Apprentice? Actual business insight? Anyway, the teams are told they need to come up with a new dating concept and a TV campaign to promote it. Given that dating websites usually get advertised on the channels that have a presenter in a living room thinking of a number and inviting viewers to call in and guess, the anticipated lack of production values may actually stand them in good stead for once.

As the challenges of this week’s task sink in, Maleficent Milquetoast reveals that he first saw his wife online. “But it wasn’t a dating site,” he adds cryptically, prompting his colleagues to wonder whether they hired the other girl as an au pair, and kept the cup as a souvenir.

Over on the other team, Alex is waxing philosophical about life’s rich pageant: “Some people are gay, some people are lesbian, some people are heterosexual. There are so many variants…” Well, that’s three. Sensing his colleagues’ indifference, he adds that he’s "the Christian Grey of The Valleys". Which is bullshit - that's Tom Jones. Alex is the Noseybonk of the Valleys. 

At agency Karmarama, Jason announces that he used to run a dating website, which saw him known as ‘Mr Cupid’. He even does air-quotes to emphasise his point. Meanwhile, Alex and Jason are both pitching for the role of PM. Leah and Maleficent go for Jordan, because at least he doesn’t look like a child’s painting on a balloon. Slipping effortlessly into his leadership role, Jordan tells us he wants another 50,000 foot view. I’m sure this obsession with heights comes from the fact that he buys his suits in Baby Gap. He runs through the allocation of roles, and points out that Alex is going to be strong on “the tech side of things.” Which should come in handy, if building a dating website means they also need to rewire a pleasure-giving Fembot.

The other team has decided to focus on the grey market, despite the fact that they talk about over-50s as if they’re discussing an exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Luisa says she wants to throw a spanner in the works, but that’s behaviour suited to more specialist websites. Across town, Maleficent and Leah are staging a photoshoot in the city and have managed to pick a man so posh that he makes Boris Johnson look like a character on Shameless.

Neil and Francesca decide on some market research, and choose a run-down pub where several pensioners appear to be in hiding, after breaking out of a retirement village. These may not be the ideal consumers to grill, given that four of them seem to be sharing a single mineral water. No such worries for Jordan, who’s entertaining the other team by channelling the spirit of a strong, sexually-liberated independent woman. By this point, Karren’s cringing so hard that she’s accidentally unhooked her own bra.

While Alex is pitching the not entirely terrible CuffLinks (for young professionals), the other team are leaning towards Friendship & Flowers for their over-fifties website. It’s all sounding a little bit ‘open casket’ – a problem that isn’t helped by a logo design that wouldn’t look out of place etched into a headstone. Luisa’s lost her patience with Jason’s chronic indecision, and decides that the best approach is to repeatedly yell ‘Make a decision, make a decision’ into his ear. As they wander out into the street with their argument still in full flow, it looks as though half of the agency have set up comedy Tumblr’s dedicated to the bickering pair. In the end, Jason decides to relinquish his leadership and pass the role onto Luisa. Having dismissed the rest of the team as a “nest of vipers,” Jason now attempts to post-rationalise his defeat as a boldly courageous step. Like hiding under a school desk as an effective defense against nuclear attack.

The CuffLinks website is looking stuffy and corporate, which disappoints Karren who was hoping they’d settle on something that says “Come here, you can have loads of fun.” I’d love to know what dating sites she’s got in mind.

With the website designs settled, it’s time for the teams to start thinking about their TV ads. Maleficent has decided that they should build their concept around the worst date ever, using a comedy character who represents “a proper Herbert.” Still in full flow, the silver fox also proposes casting half-man Jordan as a strapping six-footer, but I’m not sure their production budget can stretch to a stepladder from HSS Hire.  

Having already cast himself as the definitive Herbert, Alex is now trying to come up with some interesting camera angles for the shoot. “I’m quite a visionary person” he intones, as he smears mascara around his eyes. There’s just time for him to squeeze his awkward frame into a wet t-shirt and jorts before the cameras roll.

The oldies are also filming their ad, and without wanting to pre-empt anything, I can’t see this winning the task for them. For all their talk about dynamic and vibrant older people, the ad looks as if it’s going to end with June Whitfield in a bath-chair, flogging funeral insurance. Nick looks profoundly disappointed that he wasn’t asked to star in it. He even moans that “They’ve gone for mumsy, cosy, huggy. This is my age group.” Francesca is doing what she can, begging them to be “a bit more animated,” like Viktor Frankenstein on a fashion shoot.

With the pitch drawing ever closer, Jordan is worrying about what happens when Alex is left to his own devices, and Luisa is trying to keep Neil the terrier at arm’s length. We finally get to glimpse the finished ads, and I’m happy to report that they’re worthy entries in the Apprentice advertising Hall Of Fame. A young business woman shambles towards the camera moaning into her phone “I’m so late for my online date.” Is she in a rush to log on? Is there no Wi-Fi in the park? And we mustn't ignore Leah’s voiceover, which sounds like a pissed-up Jim McDonald trying to sweet-talk Liz through the letterbox. There are concerns that Alex’s character work might be getting silly, but I’m more concerned that I won’t be able to sleep until the middle of next week.

The agency team has assembled to judge the ads through their splayed fingers, and they’ve been joined by some dating industry big-wigs. The CEO of sent her apologies, saying she was stuck on Channel 5 for the moment. Luisa steps up first, having told Neil that although he's a great presenter, she's going to do it anyway. There are chuckles and looks of disbelief when the Friendship & Flowers website is revealed, since it looks like an abandoned Geocities page. CuffLinks don't exactly come out smelling of roses either, when Francesca explains that the nightmarish Herbert "Is the face of what we're trying to achieve." Smeared in shit and leering threateningly. In the end, the agency experts have a tough time trying to determine a winner from the two teams. The best they can hope for, is to help Lord Sugar identify the least awful. 

Over to the boardroom now, where Sugar is trying to get to bottom of the enigma that is Alex, which is as thankless a task as prizing the lid off the Ark of the Covenant. "Why don't people listen to you, Alex?" he asks, plainly ignoring the obvious and curiously spherical answer that's staring him in the face. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he doesn't hate the Herbert ad either, commenting "There's a lot of humorous ads out there, so they must be successful " Don fucking Draper there. Of course, Alan's never truly happy, so he slates the corporate look of the website and the disconnect between the two, and there's a great shot of a humiliated Jordan taking a hate-gulp of water. Nick also lays into Luisa, telling the vacant Furbee that she was ungracious and rude.

In the end, CuffLinks is good but disjointed, and Flowers & Friendship had the right market but wrong delivery. For no particular reason, CuffLinks are the winner, and they dance out of the boardroom on their way to sample caviar. Somewhere in West London, Jordan is observing that it "tastes like fishy pate," which is just what the woman serving £35,000 worth of Beluga wanted to hear.

Back in the boardroom, and Lord Sugar shows his disdain for market research people. Then again, this is the man who, in 2005, confidently predicted that the iPod would be dead and gone by Christmas. He seems surprised that Jason and Luisa can't agree on who to bring back in, having forgotten the fact that their entire failure was based on a lack of agreement between the two of them. As they continue to bicker, Francesca looks like a bored gooseberry content to check her nails and pout at Karren. When the two women both turn on Jason, Lord Sugar gives him the floor. Jason waxes lyrical about teamwork, prompting the crusty 'business icon' to smile like he's listening to his favourite Chas & Dave tape. Ultimately, it's clear that Jason doesn't have the business instinct so he gets his marching orders, along with the first "with very great regret" of the series. In the aftermath, Karren announces she wants to stick close to Luisa to see if she'd be too much for Alan to handle, making next week's episode sound like one of those after-midnight broadcasts that offers a free minute of unscrambled action.

And finally, as Luisa and Francesca return victorious to the house, we see where Alex got his inspiration for Herbert. That, or Jordan's been raiding the Welsh wonder's wardrobe. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Candidates are Getting In Tents

“There are people in this room that are hungry for this deal” growls Lord Sugar, fingering the lid of his Bargain Bucket. That’s right, it’s time for us to revisit the blue boardroom of doom, as our luckless egotists face yet another contrived and largely unrealistic sales task.  

At least this time around they’re going to have actual products to flog. Last week’s reprise reminds us of what happened when these loathsome twunts had nothing to sell except their own deluded sense of self-worth. But it’s week seven, and there’s no rest for the wickedly hopeless.

After the cursory London glamour shots, it’s a race to the candidates’ house where Neil is running around in his pyjama bottoms and answering the phone. Then it’s a quick bellow through the house, before dragging a bladeless razor over his neck. Told to pack an overnight bag, Jason attempts to stuff an enormous teddy bear into his carry-on luggage. Possibly for comic effect, but where Jason’s concerned, it’s hard to tell.

Today’s briefing venue is the Tower of London, and given that Lord Sugar has been plugging tonight’s camping theme all day on Twitter, it’ll be interesting to see how he segues from one topic to the next. Ah, OK. Tower of London goes to tourist attraction, tourist attraction goes to UK holiday-makers, and UK holiday-makers goes to camping. Still, at least we got through that without anyone using the word ‘staycation.’

The voiceover tells us that the caravan industry is worth £6bn in the UK alone. That’s five million for the caravans, and the rest on the bright blue toilet chemicals. Our teams are going to be selling items at the Motorhome and Caravan Show in Birmingham, which must be the second least appealing sentence in the world, after ‘Now, turn to the side and cough’. 

‘Silver Fox’ Malleus Maleficarum tells us that caravans are banned in Monaco, so he’s unlikely to be much use in tonight’s task. So it falls to ‘health drink entrepreneur’ Kurt to step up to the plate. In the other team, Jason is agitating for a go in the hot-seat. He’s never been in a caravan, and he’s never been to Birmingham, so maybe tonight’s not his night. Throughout the show, caravanning comes in for quite a bit of stick. Obviously, none of this lot have ever experienced the bracing wonders of a week in Filey, or the joys of doing the washing up whilst speeding down a B-road.

The first challenge is selecting the products to showcase. Neil’s team are getting up close and personal with foldable chairs, electric bikes and a roofbox that doubles as a boat. Not that the design team have gone overboard with the concept – it just looks like a regular roofbox with an oar stuck in the side.
Malleus is still talking about his glamorous life, and the fact that his time in Monaco allowed him to hone his ability to smile at A-listers. He’s pulling out all the stops to impress the product developers, telling a man that he loves his chair and wants to know the philosophy behind it. Well, one day, I found myself wanting to sit down somewhere… The other team is admiring a box with a lot of oomph inside. It also appears to contain a bunch of camouflaged crap for kids.

Project Manager Neil and Jason are wandering around the NEC, sitting in things. Neil thinks Jason’s a big girl’s blouse, but Jason’s too oblivious to care. Instead, he asks rhetorically, “Who gets on a bike and doesn’t want to pedal?” as we crash cut to Luisa doing just that, and piling straight into a desk. Her eyes widen in shock, which makes her look like a hentai character designed to give ophthalmologists the horn. Either way, bike lady isn’t too impressed with their cavorting and shuts down any attempt to secure a discounted pricing model. Team Evolve are doing much better, as Luisa, Francesca and Jordan manage to win both their supplier pitches.

As Myles takes the call that his sub-team have failed to secure any of their preferred products, Nick lurks threatening in the background, jotting notes in his Moleskine. Given that he was with the purchasing team just a couple of short scenes ago, this lapse in continuity indicates that the producers have finally dropped any pretence at caring. Which means we’re all on the same side now.

While Neil and Jason investigate a trendy VW camper van, Kurt and Alex are looking at a fold out trailer tent. Neil tells his team he wants to go for the foldaway, and they agree it’s a no-brainer, which wins them a “well done team.” Staying on his good side must be a piece of piss. Kurt has gone for the pricey VW as his big-ticket item, and wants Myles to do the selling because of his high-roller background. He also thinks Alex is too young and lacks the gravitas to sell a van with a draining board, when in actual fact it’s clearly those fucking eyebrows that are holding him back. After a quick grumble Alex resigns himself to the task in hand; demonstrating chairs to people who’d struggle to stand unaided. He also focuses on the USP of the roofbox boat –it’s a box, and then it’s a boat – and even manages to sell one.

Jason is trying to sell a foldaway trailer tent, but is so strange and curiously inappropriate, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Help The Aged officers were monitoring him from the awning. Neil, on the other hand, would rather just whip people’s wallets out their back pockets. Luisa manages to sell one of the thousand-pound electric bikes, prompting Jordan ask her what she’s doing that he’s not. She sagely resists the urge to respond “Steering clear of parachute pants.”

Natalie has clearly done her research and knows all about the cubic capacity of the rooftop boat, but lets herself down by thinking that the bench is a table. Elsewhere, Jason is about to make his first sale, which is making Neil’s genitals audibly shrivel up inside his body. Nick leans into the camera and warns us all that there’s no tomorrow, like a grey-faced harbinger of the apocalypse.

This week’s big ‘that’ll come back to haunt them in the boardroom’ moment comes when Kurt decides that the women might be more use if deployed as eye-candy; suggesting that his extensive camping experience amounts to little more than watching Barbara Windsor’s bra flying off during some outdoor calisthenics. Alex is sounding similarly pervy as he asks some poor, unsuspecting woman, “Hello Madam, want to have a look at my boatbox?” Then, with a final flurry of paperwork, it’s time to pack up and return to the mothership with their empty carry-on luggage.

On Team Endeavour, Myles blames Leah’s lack of passion for their failure to bag the best products, and she’s barely sentient enough to even mount a defence. Lord Sugar settles into a particularly aggressive groove, and there’s an extended montage of dancing eyebrows to characterise the candidates’ response.

Leading Team Evolve, Alpha-Neil throws some shade on Jason, who attempts to rationalise his slightly creepy sales patter. In the silence that follows, you can almost hear Nick’s pinstripe unravelling itself. In the end, Jason dodges a bullet, since Neil’s team scores a whopping £33,000 in sales, compared to Kurt’s meagre £1,500. They’re off to Manchester to stare at Chris Hoy’s bum, while Kurt’s despondent lot decamp to the Cabana Café somewhere on the set of World War Z. Hang on a minute, there’s just time for one last shock as Lord Sugar asks Jason to be sent back in. “I just wanted to say, well done, one of those sales was down to you,” growls Alan, to which Jason responds by saying “I hope to keep impressing you Lord Sugar.” Let’s not get too carried away.

Endeavour shuffle back into the boardroom, and Frank Sidebottom is the first one in Lord Sugar’s sights. After a light mauling, he turns to Kurt, whose standard defence-mechanism is to adopt the Droopy Dog eyes. Myles, on the other hand, is too busy regretting describing himself as “the Jedi Knight of sales” on his CV. After reminding Leah that she was just there as eye-candy, it’s time to pick on Natalie. She makes a good stab at defending herself, but astutely observes that there’s no point arguing with Lord Sugar – you can’t apply logic to the man who invented the email phone.

Kurt picks Natalie and Alex to come back in the boardroom and lets Myles off the hook – presumably they don’t have showdowns in Monaco either. Sugar mocks Alex for his tombstone business, but this is a man who took one of Britain’s “most promising young business people” and gave her a job selling digital signage to hospitals. Natalie gives a rousing defence of her contribution to the task, but loses it when she turns on the waterworks. It’s a double-header tonight (steady on) and both Natalie and Kurt feel the business end of Lord Sugar’s finger. I’m really sorry, I don’t know what’s got into me.

Back at the house, Alex walks in and dramatically slams to door as someone asks “Who’s behind you?” Glasses are chinked, and then one of the boys notes “It’s only the high calibre left now.” Yeah, keep telling yourself that.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Leaving a bitter taste

As a lowly student, I spent many years working as a waiter. In that time, I had to endure the indignities of ignorant customers, the mood swings of the chefs and, in one painful instance, the violent allergic reaction to a catering pack of Thousand Island dressing tipped over my head. Happy Birthday to me.

So it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, to learn that I see Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares the way prison officers must view the Oz boxset. At best, it’s a busman’s holiday. At worst, the grotesque exaggeration of an all-too-painful reality. And then there’s growling Gordon himself; a corrugated cardboard cut-out of the clichéd angry chef, in a pair of Simon Cowell’s hand-me-down jeans.

Even so, something told me I needed to watch tonight’s edition of the long-running reality yell-fest. This may be the USA edition of the show, but it’s the exact same format. As far as I can tell, the only real differences are the size of Ramsay’s car (an SUV he could invade North Korea in) and the fact that he calls coriander ‘cilantro.’

Tonight’s struggling business is Amy’s Baking Company, in Scottsdale Arizona, run by husband and wife team Amy and Samy Bouzaglo. The restaurant itself is half high-end patisserie, half Olive Garden pizzeria – an incongruous mix as confusing as the mismatched pair who run it.  According to their meet and greet with ‘Chef Ramsay’, Samy’s a former playboy who managed to score better women than Hugh Hefner, despite looking like Steve Carell in a half-hearted SNL skit. His wife, a former showgirl, answers the question ‘Whatever happened to Nomi Malone?’ for the seven of us that asked.

Amy’s one of those Christians who believes she’s got a direct hotline to God, and uses her celestial connection like a spiritual Ocado. She asked the Almighty for a husband and a restaurant, and ended up with both. As much as they might try to convince us that they’re soulmates, as a pair they’re about as appealing as Huntley and Carr.

But what of the restaurant itself – what’s going wrong, and why has someone projected the silhouette of a cock into the night sky to summon Chef Ramsay? According to Amy, they’ve been suffering from a series of unwarranted attacks by ‘online bloggers and haters’ who post dishonest reviews of the food and service. Amy’s done her best to rectify the situation, by personally attacking anyone with the temerity to review her restaurant. But now, they’ve decided to use a prime time TV show to stem the flow of negative coverage. This can’t possibly end badly.

Unfortunately, 24 hours before Gordon even rocks up, Samy is threatening customers with the audacity to ask after their pizza, following an hour’s wait. For a moment, it looks as though Amy is attempting to call the police in order to pacify her violent husband, only to then chase the customer into the car park herself, calling him a ‘pansy ass’. Given that Gordon’s idea of a disaster usually involves restaurateurs attempting to pass off Grano Padano as Parmigiana-Reggiano, he may well be in over his head.

From the moment that Gordon arrives, it’s clear that Amy and Samy have misread their contract. They seem to think that the crinkle-cut chef is here to give their hellhole a televised endorsement that will silence their critics, once and for all. And for a few minutes, it seems that their wish might come true. Ramsay’s certainly taken with the refrigerated cabinet full of chocolate-coated mammaries that pass for desserts. With a spring in her step, Amy returns to the kitchen, and that’s when it all starts to fall apart.

It doesn’t take long for Gordon to notice that none of the staff are allowed to take orders; Samy’s skills as a server make Mrs Overall look like the model of professionalism; and the reality of the customer experience is kept well hidden from the highly-strung head chef. Ordering a variety of dishes from the menu, Gordon’s in for a long wait as the items come out at twenty minute intervals, which at least gives him time to get to the bottom of the restaurant’s staff retention issues. It’s probably not helped by the fact that Samy pockets all the tips earned by the hard-working servers. That might not seem too shocking to a UK audience, but when you factor in the fact that US serving staff pay income tax on estimated gratuities, irrespective of whether or not they’ve earned them, that becomes a much more egregious abuse of the minimum wage employee.

Our hungry host chomps his way through a parade of disappointing dishes. Watching him working his way through a rapidly disintegrating ‘Blue Ribbon’ burger could rival Embarrassing Bodies for ‘shows not to watch when you’re trying to eat.’ The pizza is sickly sweet and barely cooked, and the salmon burger could pass as cat-food; criticisms all delivered with Ramsay’s characteristic bluntness. The problems really start, when he takes his feedback directly into the kitchen. Amy reacts to his comments the way Mariah Carey might, if she was told she could only travel with one item of carry-on luggage. Finally, Nigel Farage has a rival in the swivel-eyed lunacy stakes.

Het up from all the negativity, Amy decides to take it out on her luckless servers, firing one girl on the spot, then berating her for walking away and missing out on the rest of her diatribe. What originally felt like a nice dose of schadenfreude, has now become a discomfortingly unflinching descent into madness. Colonel Kurtz with a piping bag.

Rolling her eyes and screaming in such a way that suggests crucifix abuse might be on the cards, Amy rejects every piece of criticism, citing unnamed sources for a variety of glowing testimonials. The handful of customers who haven’t been poisoned by the food or roughed up by the maître d' don’t seem overly convinced. Gordon reminds the defiant pair that, until they’re willing to accept feedback, nothing will ever change. Amy storms off and hides in the walk-in freezer.

The following morning, Amy and Samy haven’t shown up for work, so Gordon stages a hastily arranged interview with former staff members, who confirm his worst suspicions. Missing tips, abused customers and the kind of staff turnover that only the Sugababes could rival, all seem like oft-told tales. Later on, the emergency summit with the Bouzaglos doesn’t go much better, and for the first time in six series, Gordon has to walk away.

The bitter aftertaste from all this, is that since the show aired in the US, viewers have let loose with a barrage of criticism on the Facebook page for Amy’s Baking Company. Unsurprisingly, the couple didn’t take the comments too well, and told everyone to go fuck themselves, before tearfully appearing on various news shows to announce that their Facebook has been hacked and the FBI have been notified.

Of course, the real losers in this whole sorry affair, are the TV viewers, who can now look forward to a new reality show being built around the dysfunctional duo. Despite having not a single appealing characteristic between them, they’re likely to be rewarded with a show of their own that will focus on their idiosyncratic approach to customer service. As with most of these shows, the element that made them compellingly watchable in isolation, will be magnified, accentuated and over-engineered, so that a generation of kids will grow up learning erroneously that bad behaviour will always pay off. And they still won’t be able to cook a decent fucking salmon burger.