Thursday, 11 July 2013

Fail to plan, plan to fail - The Apprentice Week 11

This is the one that the die-hard Apprentice fans have been looking forward to. Lord Sugar has finally uncaged his beasts, cranked up the heat, and taken out Margaret’s ball-gag. It’s the interview round; a task so grueling that it could reduce The Rock to floods of tears at the sight of red biro on his CV.

There’s a lot to get through tonight, so there’s just time for a quick reminder of how Jordan almost came a cropper last week, when he introduced a notional third party into the prospective business negotiations with the gruff investor: “What bleedin’ world do you live in?” Lord Sugar asked of the diminutive entreprenobhead. My guess would be Munchkinland, but I’m not the one in the big leather chair.

The housemates, sorry, candidates have had a lie-in today. It’s already 8am and they’re just lazing around the kitchen island having a game of business cliché bingo. Just as they’re getting into ‘stepping it up another level’ and ‘working hard to get here’, they’re interrupted by the dildophone. Neil answers, but has to wait a few seconds until one of the sound technicians presses ‘play’ on the prerecorded message from Lord Sugar. They’ve got 24 hours to get their shit together, before going up against four of Alan’s most trusted advisors.

As well as prepping their business plans, the final five also have a chance to psyche themselves up for the horrors that lay ahead. Jordan is as smug as ever, Neil is displaying a level of self-belief that would make Jesus look wracked with insecurity, and Francesca thinks that being nice makes her a unique candidate. Luisa talks about the advantages of being a strong woman as if she’s just invented the concept of feminism, and Leah damns herself with faint praise, saying “I’ve really blossomed, and now I think I’m as strong as the other candidates.”

The following day the candidates make. Their way to. The Institute of. Directors. As the voiceover. Becomes increasingly. Staccato. Alan and his minions greet the gang, as millions of viewers at home all think the same thing – that jacket might look nice, but if Karren doesn’t take it off, she won’t feel the benefit when she gets outside. Lord Sugar cautions the candidates that they’re about to meet four of his most trusted advisors, and that there’ll be no pulling the wool over their eyes. Unless, of course, one of the interview tasks is helping them try on an Aran sweater. Unlikely, I know, but stranger things have happened on this show.

The interviews kick off with an introduction to the people who’ll be grilling the candidates. We see our old favourite Claude getting testy with Luisa, when she dares to draw a parallel between herself and Lord Sugar. “Don’t compare yourself to him, ever,” warns Claude with a tear in his eye and a suspicious bulge in his boxers. Margaret is back too, and still looking utterly unconvinced by everything anyone says. New face Claudine Collins is here to expose the real people behind the self-promotion, but I’m concerned that she’s in for a big disappointment when she pulls back that metaphorical curtain. And finally, there’s Mike Soutar, who’s a pioneer in the ‘free magazine industry’ and is busy being told what a fucking mess he is by Leah, who’s recommending a bunch of Botox and fillers to try and salvage his sagging features. I can see that exchange going particularly well.

The theme for tonight’s episode is established early on, as Neil sticks out his blotchy neck and attempts to convince four different interviewers that his online real estate portal isn’t a waste of time. Claude tries explaining that the market’s full, to which Neil responds by saying, “Maybe I’m just not explaining it properly.” “It’s crap,” barks Claude, attempting a more direct form of communication. Neil looks quizzically at him, as though he’s momentarily lost the ability to understand English. Faced with Claudine, Neil tries a different tactic, and launches into the motivational speech he gave a few weeks ago in a marquee in Hertfordshire. By the time he gets to his desire to make his dead dad proud, Claudine’s eating out of his hand. “I think your dad would be very proud of you,” she says with a noticeable wobble in her voice. Sorry, but I’m here for The Apprentice, not Surprise Surprise. Thankfully, things get back on track in Mike’s office, where Neil’s still struggling to comprehend how anyone would doubt his business plan. They clearly all love Neil, so Mike even offers him the chance to come up with a new idea, or change part of his existing concept. Neil refuses, repeating that he can make this work. Hours later and they’re no further along. Outside, Luisa announces “I’d rather give birth than do this again,” and I’ve a feeling that Mike would second that emotion.

Jordan starts off by facing the formidable Margaret Mountford, who appears to be gradually transmogrifying into an angry-looking Christmas pudding. Madge has obviously been told to go easy on Jordan, so she complements his impressive intellectual prowess, but neglects to commend his ability to find pin-stripe suits in Mothercare. The smugness is almost off the chart as Jordan makes a bid for Claudine’s affection. I guess he’s aiming for enthusiastically passionate, but it comes across as borderline psychotic. But we glimpse the first chink in his armour when Claudine challenges his business experience: “I’ll admit, the only real kind of business I’ve run for myself is selling things on eBay as a teenager.” If you didn’t already want to punch him right in the quiff, you certainly would when he punctuates the word ‘business’ with air-quotes.

Jordan’s astonishing downfall continues apace, as he compares himself to Steve Jobs and then fails to complete a Rubiks Cube in three minutes at Mike’s behest. However, his fate is sealed when he enters Claude’s office. “Hello, I’m Jordan,” he announces cheerily. “Yes, I know,” replies the battle-weary interviewer without looking up from his notes. Is it just me, or did it just get cold in here? Claude can’t even be bothered conducting the interview, telling Jordan: “This isn’t your business. You’re feeding on someone else’s idea, someone else’s business. You’re a parasite. This interview is terminated. You can leave now.” I hope someone uploads this clip to YouTube – think I’ve just found a new replacement for Fabio being hit in the face with a goose, as my favourite video ever.

Francesca’s interviews are fairly unremarkable, as she comes across as a pleasant but entirely inconsequential also-ran. She’s the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter of the series. Claude gives her some decidedly underarm questions, even imploring her “Don’t let me down here.” Unfortunately, she fucks it up by admitting that she made up the £5 million turnover on her CV because it was the first number that popped into her head – the reality was more like £36,000. Let’s just take a moment to remind ourselves that these are supposed to be the finest business minds in Britain. Post interview, she admits to Luisa. “That wasn’t the highlight of my career,” although it’s unlikely that there’s stiff competition in that category. Luisa seems to be making the situation worse by grilling all the candidates after every interview, although it’s mostly an opportunity to talk about herself. She even tells Francesca, “I hope you’ve seen how much I’ve changed.” Fran nods graciously, but her expression looks like she’s trying to swallow an unpeeled avocado.

Luisa’s a bit of a dark horse in this competition though, and her post-interview tactic could all be part of her sinister plan to undermine the other contestants. She’s certainly got every reason to feel confident, since she nails most of her own interviews. Claude applauds her business acumen and asks why she wants Lord Sugar’s investment. “I’m successful, but I always want more,” she grins flirtatiously, as Claude fidgets with his collar and lets out a jet of cartoon steam. Margaret’s not so easily swayed, picking apart Luisa’s girly-girl persona. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a bit of personality in business,” is Luisa’s commendable defence. But she’s talking to a woman who earned a PhD in old bits of paper for fun, so her argument is falling on indifferent ears. Mike interrogates Luisa’s strategy for selling cupcake ingredients, glitter and sprinkles to independent businesses. “Your business plan is half baked,” he jokes weakly, missing the opportunity to point out that she’s pitching to Lord Sugar, not a My Little Pony. “Luisa, I think you’re crazy,” he concludes, leaving her to lean in hopefully, as if to say “Crazy, like a good thing?”

And finally, there’s Leah. She’s looking to set up a chain of non-surgical aesthetics clinics, in a bid to make the rest of the country as inexplicably emotionless as she is. Margaret puts her through her paces for being obsessed with appearances, which is as pointless a criticism as telling a chef he looks a little well-fed. By the time she’s in Claude’s office, she’s got her game face on, even though that’s hard to tell where Leah’s concerned. After a brief interrogation about her ethics (“I’m a very moral person”), she launches into a spectacular presentation of her entire business case, all delivered in a single breath. Claude looks utterly bamboozled, like he’s just watched both seasons of Twin Peaks at 16-speed.

The café of broken dreams is taking a hit this week, as no-one’s heading out for a weak cappuccino to discuss what went wrong. Instead, Lord Sugar consults with his advisors to get the lowdown on his final five. Margaret tells Alan that Luisa just wants his black book. “Yeah, well, I can just pick up the phone and call a supermarket,” he boasts. He doesn’t add that it’s only when he needs to change his Ocado order. The advisors all lament Neil’s inability to get past his own self-confidence, which disappoints Lord Sugar deeply. Leah’s business case prompts a load of weak jokes from the grizzled business icon, followed by a smattering of ingratiating laughter. I imagine this is a pretty close approximation of what Richard Blackwood hears inside his head.

Jordan gets taken down pretty sharply, with the criticism “He’s not an entrepreneur, he takes credit for other people’s work.” Interesting, that certainly sounds like one to me. Not to worry though, he’s obviously fired before he’s even clambered up onto his chair. Luisa, on the other hand, knows how to keep Sugar sweet. She only gets as far as “If we was going to go into business together…” before he cuts her short, if only to disguise his excitement at finding another grammar-mangling kindred spirit. In contrast, he’s unsure about Leah’s proposition, since he distrusts “scientists, doctors and boffins.” One more clue as to why Amstrad remains such a dominant force on the technology landscape.

And so to Neil, the prodigal candidate and Karren’s clear favourite throughout the entire process. Alan’s inconsolable about Neil’s shitty business plan, wailing “It don’t work. It don’t make sense.” Neil is still refusing to see sense, adopting “I take that on board” as the grown-up equivalent of “La, la, la, I’m not listening.” Sugar tells him that if this was about giving someone a job, Neil would have it tomorrow. If only someone hadn’t fucked about with the format of the show. Neil gets a “with regret” prior to the inevitable “You’re fired” and skulks off to BBC Two to spend twenty minutes telling Dara Ó Briain how his plan really does work.

So with three women vying for two places, it’s down to Lord Sugar to make one last weak joke – “The dance studio has got legs” – before sending Francesca on her way. In a refreshing first for the series, the women are all pleasantly supportive of one another, and seem genuinely happy for each other’s success. Let’s see how long that convivial sisterhood lasts when they go head-to-head in next week’s final.

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