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Sweet Smell of Success

This week on The Apprentice: a touch of alchemy from Melissa, a geometry lesson for Chris and a fairy-tale ending for Stella.

In the season of goodwill, The Apprentice ditched the usual catalogue of bickering, bitching and screw-ups, to bring us some real Christmas spirit — in non-traditional packaging, of course. Revered theologist Chris Bates went head to head with Iron Lady Stella English in the battle of the blue-eyed blonde bankers. Who would end up with the big prize, and whose Christmas would be ruined by the Apprentice equivalent of a pair of M&S socks and a lump of coal?

With a whiff of cordite still hanging in the air after Stuart’s summary execution dismissal last week, there was disappointment for those who hoped he’d be back to torment Stella one last time. But perhaps Herr Baggs had taken his dog and pony show back to the Isle of Man, because he wasn’t in the group of fired apprentices who slunk into the bar at the Langham hotel to hear about this week’s task.

After witnessing the candidates’ sausage-making, baking and crisp inventing skills at close hand, Lord Sugar decided it was time for a drop of the hard stuff. Stella and Chris were given three days to create a brand-new premium alcoholic drink, design a bottle and an advertising campaign, and then pitch it to a bunch of “industry experts” (old soaks). “Everything clear?” asked Lord Sugar. Well, Chris’s drink certainly wasn’t, but we’ll come back to that later.

It’s pretty much out of the question to have somebody putting their lips round the crown jewels.

This week, the contenders were assisted by a bunch of genial elves — plus Princess Paloma, who had cleverly reinvented herself as the (not-so) Wicked Witch of the West End. Chris chose Jamie, Liz, Alex and Shibby, while Stella went for Joanna, Melissa, Christopher and Paloma. That’s right, with no Stuart to antagonise her, Stella had opted to work again with the three most argumentative women on this year’s show. Was this the action of a total masochist or someone with supreme confidence in her people skills? “Anything that’s happened in the past is history” she confidently asserted.

Lord Sugar might have been wearing a hair shirt since his questionable decision to fire Liz, but on the evidence of this return visit she didn’t bring that much to the table. Perhaps it was being the only girl in an otherwise all-male team that brought out the dumb blonde in her. As Chris’s team discussed which fruits they should add to their new rum-based cocktail, Liz’s sole contribution was to ask, “What’s gooseberry like?”

Marketing guru and all-round eager beaver, Alex Epstein, identified a gap in the market for a pomegranate-flavoured rum. Liz and Shibby were despatched to a lab in Bishop’s Stortford to perfect the recipe for their as yet unnamed mix of white rum, pomegranate and aromatic bitters. After ditching the name Cube, Chris was fixating on the power of three — trilogy, trio — as though his life depended on it. Liz’s contribution to the name debate was (wait for it) Crown Jewels. Cue guffaws from Jamie. “It’s pretty much out of the question to have somebody putting their lips round the crown jewels” declared an embarrassed Chris. I can only imagine what Lord Sugar might have made of that idea.

Was this the end of Liz’s efforts to lose the task for Chris? Unfortunately not. Under instructions to come up with a clear liquid, Liz and Shibby were soon veering off into shades of pink — despite a warning from the lab technician that this wouldn’t exactly be gender neutral. “Pink’s the new blue” offered Shibby, as though that settled the debate. When he received the bad news, Chris wasn’t exactly in the pink. He was “irritated” or even “slightly annoyed”, but you knew he was just going to knuckle down and do his best.

Stella’s team had settled on reinventing bourbon for the 21st century — with enthusiastic support from booze-hound Melissa Cohen. I did have a flashback to Week 2′s disastrous book stand, when Joanna started banging on about “a heritage drink in modern bottle”. Stella’s concept of blue bourbon was quickly dismissed by a focus group of marketing experts who clearly aren’t fans of Blue Curacao. Their suggestion was to just add some spices, an idea Stella was happy to refer to her “taste team” of Spice Girl Mel C and her trusty assistant. Christopher.

Spin the bottle

The novelty about this week’s episode was that, for once, both teams did come up with pretty decent concepts for their £20-a-bottle premium brands. Chris, finally opted for Prism, despite labouring under a misapprehension about what a prism actually looks like. To put it bluntly, Chris, a prism is not the same as a pyramid. Teachers all over the country must have been shouting at their screens as the Prism bottle took shape as a pyramid with a very sharp point. Still, his tag-line “Reflects every side of you” was memorable.

Stella had an Archimedes moment in the back of the cab, as Paloma applied (yet) more make-up and Joanna floundered. She didn’t shout “Eureka!” but Stella did finally nail a name for the drink: “What about urban but U-R-B-O-U-N? A bourbon blend for the urban generation.” (They ended up spelling it URBON.) Was it luck, “genius”, or the knockout blow that would send Chris scurrying back to Surrey with his pink shirt and his even pinker brand of rum?

Karren Brady, who was following Chris’s team, had one final chance to worship at the altar of Jamie Lester. The bad news was that she had to hang around for hours while they procrastinated about the content of the ad they would shoot the next day. I found all the discussions about what you can and cannot do with alcohol advertising rather dull. Basically, you can’t suggest that booze is a surefire route to scoring a date. Lips, quips, gratuitous cleavage shots and raised eyebrows — they’re all out.

Before shooting the commercials on Day Two, the teams took delivery of their new bottles. As Stella unveiled the slim, elegant Urbon bottle, it took me right back to the excitement of seeing the prototype Cüüli in Week 2. Would Urbon prove to be an even bigger winner than the over-achieving towel? Melissa, who has now ditched the corporate bullshitting in favour of a hip, urban “yoof” persona was in do doubt: “That is bad boy!”

I found the commercial shoots a bit lacking in drama. As a film-maker, Stella’s a one-take girl, while Chris Bates is clearly advertising’s answer to Terrence Malick — he’d come up with a commercial every ten years or so. His effort looked pretty woeful to me, but perhaps it didn’t really matter when the product was so good.

The biggest opportunities for internecine warfare and ridicule came on Day Three, as Chris and Stella prepared to deliver their pitches to 100 industry experts at the Hurlingham. Apart from his achievements in the field of theology, Chris is renowned for a presentation style that is monotonous — or as Nick Hewer said, a bit like a low-flying bomber. Jamie seemed to think he could add some much-needed “va va voom” to the Bates drone, but can a leopard really change its spots?

Stella, who’d left her speech writing to the last minute, needed all her resources to deal with her team-mates as they squabbled over who had the best advice on how to begin the presentation. Poor Chris Farrell had his head in his hands. Now, if you could bottle Sang-Froid by Stella, I think you’d have a winning fragrance.

The clear winner

So it all boiled down to whether the punters would be seduced by Prism’s “iconic” bottle and flavour of “vibrant, evocative pomegranates”. But wouldn’t that sharp point prove fatal for any drinkers who lost consciousness and ended up slumped over the table? I thought it looked more like a designer perfume or a lamp than a bottle of spirits.

Then there was Stella, in her orange shoes, offering a “subtle hint of honey” and a “mixture of spices, including nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla”. Had her team really reinvented bourbon or simply come up with something that, as Lord Sugar later said, tasted “a bit pungent in the raw”?

In the boardroom for the final time, it was refreshing to see Melissa smiling instead of shouting, Paloma keeping her counsel, and Alex helpfully “sitting on the bar shelf” as he warmly complimented both Chris and Stella. In the praise being handed out for both candidates, Shibby gave a glowing tribute to Chris’s leadership skills and Liz claimed her was a risk taker. (I bet he wishes he hadn’t taken a punt on her, though.)

Chris Farrell labelled Stella “a cool cookie”, a sentiment no one could disagree with. Typically, it was the thoughtful Nick Hewer who gave the most eloquent summing up of the creator of Urbon: “You’ve let the genie out of the bottle.” There was a moment when I thought Stella was about to lose it, as she offered Lord Sugar her final thoughts on why she should be the winner. “I think I’ve got a lot of passion that Chris doesn’t have” she claimed, as her rival looked daggers at her.

Perhaps she should have substituted “passion” for “experience”, because that seems to be what swung it in the end. That, and the fact that her drink wasn’t pink. Lord Sugar, who’s clearly been in thrall to the ex-council estate kid since the first task, waved his finger around before telling her she was hired. She’s a class act all round. It’s time to crack open the vintage champagne and toast her future success at Viglen.


Close Encounters of the Absurd Kind

This week on The Apprentice: a “verbal bashing” for Chris, “mental torture” for Joanna and a third-nipple tweaking for Jamie.

Who could forget the sausage-making task that kicked off this year’s series of The Apprentice? Discord, confusion and gleaming heaps of gristle launched the careers of some and led to the instant demise of shouty Dan Harris. This week, events came full circle as Lord Sugar set his interviewing attack dogs loose on the remaining five candidates, with the apparent aim of turning several of them into mincemeat.

Alan Watts, Claude Littner, Bordan Tkachuk and the fearsome Margaret Mountford subjected Chris, Jamie, Joanna, Stuart and Stella to a lengthy process of grilling and roasting, before skewering them mercilessly and serving them up at a specially convened boardroom banquet. Reputations were trashed, characters were assassinated and the man who emerged looking liking a total prat was the boss himself, Lord Sugar.

When it comes to making compelling television, big personalities are more important than eye candy. That, I’m afraid, is why Lord Sugar’s decision to fire Liz Locke and keep the faith with Stuart Baggs makes sense — sort of. Without the podgy Manxman’s bag of mixed metaphors and outrageous promises, this week’s show might have boiled down to Liz looking demure, Stella smirking and Joanna fighting back the tears. In other words, it might have been very dull.

You’re not a big fish. You’re not even a fish.

Claude “the Rottweiler” Littner is a very angry man. So angry, in fact, that if they decided to remake Fawlty Towers, he’d be a shoo-in for the role of Britain’s least hospitable hotelier. He warmed up by threatening to rip Chris Bates to shreds before the interview had really started. Fortunately, Chris opted to take the “easy” route, by allowing Claude to piss all over his academic career, which began with a short-lived flirtation with law and ended with a first-class degree in theology. “You look to me a bit like a quitter” spat the disgusted Claude, who clearly doesn’t set much store by “ologies” or people who start things and don’t finish them.

Chris survived the “verbal bashing” pretty much unscathed, but he was just the warm-up man for the candidate who’s been running the longest and most extravagantly worded marketing campaign this year. Claude was not amused by the self-styled Stuart Baggs “the brand” — he was incredulous. “You’re a 21-year-old kid, you’re not a brand” he cried, trampling all over Stuart’s patient attempts to explain to him exactly what this might mean. “You are NOT a brand!” he insisted as Stuart deadpanned, “I think I might be.”

Let’s give Stuart credit for not crumbling in the face of such withering scorn. Clearly, whatever kind of brand he is, he’s durable. Nasty Claude wouldn’t even allow him to get away with a relatively innocuous declaration about being a big fish in a small pond. But I did feel that with his “You’re not a big fish. You’re not even a fish.” put-down, Claude might be exceeding his purview as hatchet man and straying into the realms of cod philosophy. Seriously, what does this exchange really have to do with the £100,000-a-year job?

You’re laughing. I’m not.

Of course, Claude wasn’t the only one who was angry this week. Margaret Mountford returned from her self-imposed exile in the Groves of Academe (otherwise known as UCL) to find that things have gone a bit soft in her absence. Karren Brady’s penchant for mooning over Jamie and sticking up for the candidates has stripped the show of its sternness and intellectual rigour.

Stuart managed to upset her before he’d even sat down (not that surprising, I know). “Mr Baggs greeted me like a long-lost friend” she later declared, explaining how he’d breached protocol by calling her “Margaret” when he walked into the room. “I feel like I’ve known you” he countered, after she ticked him off. Margaret 1: Stuart (and his field of ponies) nil.

“What’s the most interesting thing about you?” Jamie, it seems, has a third nipple. Well, not really. That was a small joke he inserted into his application form to provide a convenient answer to a later question: “What’s the worst lie you’ve ever told?” For his wife’s sake, I do hope that Jamie is in possession of an extra set of bollocks, because I’m pretty sure Margaret tore off one pair with her savage response to this tomfoolery. She called it “puerile” because she knows more words for “stupid” than Jamie does. Ouch.

But this was just an appetizer for the ravenous Margaret, before she feasted on the hapless Chris Bates. Margaret, of course, was once a successful corporate lawyer and, like Claude, wasn’t overly impressed by the record of this “revered” theological scholar. “Are you fixated with intellectual ability?” she demanded, as she tried to ascertain whether Chris understood what revered means. I’m with you, Margaret: he is a pompous ass. Who gives a toss about his mastery of theology?

I’m seeing a little bit of a blagger.

Bordan Tkachuk wasn’t as nasty as Claude or Margaret. He didn’t need to be. His role, explained Mark Halliley’s voice-over, was to dig deep and be “a stickler for detail”. This is another way of saying that he exposed some lies in Stuart’s claims about running a fully licensed telecommunications operation in the Isle of Man. Apparently, Stuart only holds an ISP licence for broadband, which any Tom, Dick or Stuart could obtain for £350.

Are we really surprised that Herr Baggs has been caught out in an exaggeration regarding his business empire? Not really. But it is a shock to discover that Lord Sugar doesn’t vet his candidates more stringently. Stuart “I never caught your name” handled this exposure well, but you sensed that he might be nearing the end of the road.

You’re just a very, very good PA.

Stella and Joanna enjoyed a relatively smooth ride this week, but that’s probably because they didn’t choose to embellish their application forms with all manner of lies, exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims about their mammaries.

Joanna did commit the cardinal sin of not doing her homework about Lord Sugar’s business empire. She won’t be the last person to mispronounce Viglen, or appear vague on the details of what the company actually does. Her faltering exchange with the mildly pissed-off Bordan, “Well I’m asking you, you should be telling me.” led to the conclusion that she was unprepared rather than unprofessional.

After a run-in with Claude about her plans not to grow her cleaning empire, a tearful Joanna complained “This is like mental torture”. But the truth is that Claude was in a relatively avuncular mood by the time he got round to quizzing “I don’t want to be known as Joanna the Cleaner” about her future.

“I promise you, Stella, there is no way you will sail through there with not a bit of criticism.” warned Stuart, as she prepared to test her mettle against Lord Sugar’s answer to the Furies. Chris confidently predicted, “I think Stella will take criticism the least well out of the five of us.” That’s always assuming she actually gets any criticism.

Well, we didn’t see very much of Stella’s interviews, which leads me to the conclusion that they were rather dull and unrevealing. Apart from being incredibly insulted by Alan Watts’s patronising characterisation of her as a “very, very very good PA” and explaining that she wasn’t here to make friends, that was about it. If there were any “curveballs” hurled in Stella’s direction she obviously handled them with aplomb.

I am a key cog in a wheel.

By the time Lord Sugar’s team of torturers had assembled in the boardroom, we were getting strong hints about which candidates would go through to the final. Everyone liked Joanna, though she was felt to be a bit clueless on the fundamentals of business. Chris was described as “monotonous” by Bordan, even though he hadn’t been forced to sit through one of Mr Bates’s boring presentations. Margaret had another swipe about Chris’s fixation on his academic record. Get over it, Margaret.

Jamie “I am a key cog in a wheel” had also failed to win over Margaret, who claimed she couldn’t find much to say about him at all. Unlike Karren, she must be impervious to his boyish charms. After being hauled over the coals by Bordan about his recession-hit property dealings in Cyprus, you felt Jamie wasn’t just lacking in confidence, he was looking a bit weak.

Though dismissed by Bordan as being the “admin queen”, Stella drew perhaps the strongest defence of her record from Nick and Karren. So when the candidates were eventually recalled for another nail-biting, gut-wrenching showdown, it was no great surprise that Stella was the first candidate to be put through to Sunday’s final.

Before that, viewers enjoyed the indescribable pleasure of seeing Stuart become the first person to be fired from this week’s show. Now that Lord Sugar was belatedly in possession of the facts about the Baggs telecommunications empire, he realised he’d been duped. “They said to me that you’re full of shit” was his blunt summation of what the four interviewers had concluded about Stuart.

To be fair, the viewers had heard it couched in much politer terms like “gilding the lily”, but perhaps this was the time to stop talking about fish and ponies and get down to brass tacks. Lord Sugar was annoyed — “sick” even — that his misunderstanding of Stuart’s claims had led him to fire Liz prematurely. Out came the finger, “Stuart, you ARE fired!” and Baggs departed in a cloud of cheap aftershave (I’m guessing there). Judging by his rapturous reception later on “You’re Fired”, I think he’ll be coming soon to a screen near you.

Joanna looked as though she was about weep all over that highly polished boardroom table. Hold on, though, because Lord Sugar had some kind words “You’ve done very, very well”, before he directed her towards the exit. Another five years’ experience and I think Joanna could have been sitting where Stella is. Next out of the door was Jamie. I’m sure Karren Brady had a little weep later for her lost love.

Stella vs Chris is probably not the final most people wanted, but based on competence it is a decision that makes sense. I have a feeling that Lord Sugar will give Stella a job regardless of the outcome. The real fun will lie in witnessing the return of Melissa, Paloma, Alex and all the other preening narcissists who’ve entertained us over the past 11 weeks.


Don’t ask, don’t tell

How many lists, countdowns, recaps and unnecessary retrospectives can you cram into just one month? It’s only mid-December and already I fear I’m about to be buried under the sheer weight of top 10s. In the spirit of the season, the BBC has already served up the “Final Five” in this year’s series of The Apprentice. Unfortunately, that select group doesn’t include Liz Locke, who perished at the end of Week 10 in the stampede caused by Stuart’s “field of ponies”. What a crushing disappointment.

“Tonight we press pause on the posing and posturing” claimed Mark Halliley as he prepared to unleash a full 60 minutes-worth of insightful discussion about Chris Bates, Stuart Baggs, Jamie Lester, Stella English and Joanna Riley. This was a lie. Seconds later, the booming tones of Bates were declaring once again “There’s absolutely nothing mediocre about me. I’m supremely intelligent.” Oh, I get it: before we “press pause” we have to rewind through all the boasting and bullshitting, without which The Apprentice would struggle to fill 10 minutes of running time.

This being the BBC, I’d already resigned myself to the disappointment of not hearing any unpleasant revelations about the candidates or their families. For scandal and spoilers you’re probably better off just reading the tabloids. This not very surprising story in the Daily Mail suggests that Lord Sugar might make less of a prat of himself if he vetted the applications from next year’s contenders more stringently.

So, as tonight’s marathon interviewing session looms, what more did we learn about the Famous Five and (more to the point) what would we still like to know?

Stella English

She’s got Knightsbridge restaurants on her speed-dial, but Stella hails from the distinctly unglamorous Thamesmead Housing estate in south London. Film fans will know that scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange were filmed in what has been memorably characterised as “an unspeakable concrete disaster”. Discussions about Stella’s personality have focused on unflattering descriptions like “wooden” and “corporate”. I dare anyone to use those words in front of the Iron Lady’s two (cute) young sons, or her formidable great-aunt “Big Stella”.

Character in a nutshell
“Stella’s greatest strength is her ability to be a cool cucumber” intoned the much-missed Melissa Cohen, doubtless impressed by Stella’s mastery of figures in the Week 1 sausage task.

On herself
“I actually find being labelled the queen of the calculator amusing.”

Not so hot on
Sniffing out cheap truffles or grinding out low prices in Week 9′s discount buying task.

Ever wondered . . .
What happened to that horrible red lipstick she was wearing at the beginning of Week 2?

Jamie Lester

Ask most people in Britain what they think of estate agents and you’ll probably get a response littered with four-letter words. According to Jamie’s mum, Linda, that didn’t stop our budding entrepreneur from entering the profession at the tender age of 14, and then playing rival firms off against each other in a bid to increase his salary.

Character in a nutshell
“He may just think about himself and not be able to work as part of a team” moaned Joanna about Jamie’s inability to take orders.

On himself
“My name is Jamie and I do not bite.”

Not so hot on
Regurgitating facts about London landmarks or sourcing kitchen work tops.

Ever wondered . . .
Can he ever learn to be a number two or does he always have to big the big cheese?

Joanna Riley

Mother-of-two Joanna grew up on a council estate in Leicester and had, by her own admission, a pretty miserable childhood. The focal point of some boardroom argy-bargy in Week 2, Jo seemed to have a knack for shouting, ruffling feathers and generally getting her point across. She started her cleaning business at the age of 22, which makes her less precocious than Brand Baggs. But then Stuart, who cruelly mocked her finger-wagging negotiating style, has never had to cope with any big babies — apart from himself.

Character in a nutshell
“What you see is what you get. She’s to the point, she’s direct, she’s strong, she’s opinionated . . .” A glowing testimonial from Princess Paloma, who’s also been known to speak her mind — at every opportunity.

On herself
“As a child growing up I was a pain in the backside . . . I was a ticking time bomb.”

Not so hot on
Speaking slowly in “export English” or refraining from nagging.

Ever wondered . . .
Where she bought those oversized hoop earrings?

Chris Bates

He may have been on the losing team six times, but Epsom-born Chris was also a record-breaking PM in Week 4. Nicker Hewer was impressed by how he grasped the potential of the hideous Babyglow: “A 24-year-old bachelor: what does he know about babygrows?” Unlike some of his rivals, Chris is also a university graduate and enjoys team sports.

Character in a nutshell
According to his sister, Lauren “Everything he does, he always wants to be the best.”

On himself
“I’ve never professed to be a creative mind. I work in an investment bank.”

Not so hot on
“We were all completely amazed by Chris’s pitching style. It was dull, it was monotone and it was boring.” Alex sums up what Stella had tactfully highlighted as early as Week 2.

Ever wondered . . .
Does he ever get a clean shave?

Stuart Baggs

“Legal almost everywhere”, 21-year-old Stuart grew up in his parents’ pub in the Isle of Man. According to his mum, he’s never read a fiction book in his life, preferring “boring” manuals. With his “money back” guarantees and “ridiculous” statements, Stuart has piqued Lord Sugar’s interest and pissed him off in equal measures.

Character in a nutshell
“Is he hero or zero? I don’t know.” Stella reflects on the enigma that is Baggs.

On himself
“I’m essentially like the office IT geek, but maybe with a little bit of a personality.”

Not so hot on
Tact, diplomacy, or writing things down.

Ever wondered . . .
Where he met this “girlfriend” he claims to have and why she doesn’t buy him some nicer shirts?


Sliced ‘n’ Diced or Overpriced?

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Wandsworth Bus Garage (pic Derek Harper)

This week on The Apprentice: a pearly king, the artful dodger and Sweeney Todd.

“Think London’s brilliant?” runs the current poster campaign to recruit ambassadors for the 2012 Olympics. After the latest tourism-bashing episode of The Apprentice, I think there is at least one outstanding candidate who should be on Boris Johnson’s wish list.

Following her petulant outburst at the end of last week’s episode, Liz was struggling, once again, to disguise her utter stupidity. (No, putting on more make-up won’t help.) “A bus station? I’ve no idea what we’re doing” she claimed, demonstrating that she also needs to take lessons from Stuart or Jamie in the art of giving a good sound bite. I haven’t had my intellect blunted by working in investment banking, so I figured that a meeting at Wandsworth Bus Garage probably meant it was something to do with buses.

The exercise was a simple one: each team was given an open-top bus for one day and charged with running tours that would “show off this great city of ours”. Shuffling the teams for the zillionth time this series, Lord Sugar gave Stella and Liz an early Christmas present in the person of Stuart. Joanna joined Chris and Jamie in Synergy. In the interests of not giving people what they want, Lord Sugar also parted Karren from her beloved Jamie.

After Stuart’s sterling (I mean Stirling Moss) performance as PM in Week 7, who wouldn’t want to see him take another crack at being the boss? Hey, maybe he could even drive the bus! Londoner Stella, stung by accusations that she’s “too corporate” expressed her passion for all things Cockney and volunteered to be the guide for a walking tour of the East End. Did someone point out that she’d have no chance of stumbling over any truffles or overpriced Knighstbridge restaurants this week?

Stuart “Stella needs to put up or shut up” predicted that the team’s success would stand or fall on her ability to project her fun side. This seemed like a massive error of judgment to me. This task involved setting prices, selling to the public and, above all, O-R-G-A-N-I-S-A-T-I-O-N. Common sense says they should have had Baggs the bullshitter on the bus and Stella pulling the strings.

Trouble and strife

There were no such problems for Synergy, where thrill-seeker Jamie was already warming up his act for the Ghouls & Ghosts tour. Joanna initially seemed to be having problems enunciating clearly (“Golden Ghosts”?), but this didn’t trouble her for long. No sooner were they in the cab than she was on Jamie’s case, in his ear and generally undermining his confidence about the task ahead. “How do you feel?”, she asked. Ready to throttle her, I suspect.

As Jamie and Joanna attempted to plan the tour route, relations quickly deteriorated, with Nick Hewer looking on. “You’re acting like a mad man!” she cried as poor Jamie finally lost his cool and accused her of being aggressive. Yes, it was the unwelcome return of “gobshite” Jo from Week 2. I like to think this experience was helpful to Jamie when he got in character for the Sweeney Todd element of his tour.

Both teams had the chance to get punters by striking an exclusive deal with the London Visitors Centre, who’d take a cut of their takings. On the basis that the price can never be too high, Stuart and Liz came up with an eye-watering £35 per adult for their Cockney extravaganza. “Do they keep the bus afterwards?” quipped the boss at the Visitors Centre. But the joke really was on Stuart, as he deemed their 35 per cent cut too steep. His counter offer of 25 per cent went down like a lead balloon.

Synergy went for a more modest £25 per head, £10 per child and £50 for families. Banker Chris gave the Visitors Centre a more innovative proposal of 20 per cent of their total revenue. It sent Joanna into a tailspin, when it dawned on her that this really did mean a cut of everything — including their own ticket sales. But it soon became clear that getting punters onto the buses was going to be a challenge, so having the Centre on board would be important.

Feast your mince pies on this

When the action finally got going the following day, it was laughs all the way, though perhaps not for some of the bewildered tourists — “juicy money bags” according to the gleeful Herr Baggs. Tour highlights included the sight of Liz, Stella and Stuart setting out in their shapeless red uniforms, looking like a trio of Butlins Redcoats.

But while Apollo may have had the colourful clobber, there was no doubt who was dispensing the most in the way of local colour. In a phrase that will surely come back to haunt him, Jamie confidently asserted that the River Thames is “the second largest river in London”. (Cue the sound of that London Ambassador application form being shredded and binned.)

But let’s not get too hung up on facts, or whether Big Ben is really “20 diameters in width”, because Jamie understood that personality is what you need to bring these tours alive. He did go completely over the top with his gory descriptions of Sweeney Todd’s throat-slitting and pie-making operations, but we didn’t actually see anyone throwing up or fainting. Clearly Jamie isn’t afraid to make a complete gherkin of himself.

I would have bet my house on Stella’s ability to get her facts right and not lose any of her punters during the course of the day. Sadly, without her Lotus and GPS, she was unable to guide her flock to the jellied eels stand, leaving the trailing Karren Brady looking distinctly unimpressed. Still, they did get to meet Larry the pearly king and feast their eyes on a wall of graffiti. Was it the work of Banksy, or some bored teenager?

But the real action was back in Trafalgar Square, where Stuart was attempting to pull out all the stops to sell tickets on the remaining two tours. By then, he and Liz had already figured out that their prices were too high, so they opted for trying to “neutralise” Joanna’s prospective customers before they reached the pick-up point at Embankment station. Even more cheeky was his attempt to grab tourists outside the Visitors Centre, on the basis that “it’s a free country”. This flagrant touting was quickly shut down, leaving a rueful Stuart to reflect that they needed “a better strategy”.

The highlight of “tout wars” was when Chris and Stuart almost came to blows — “seriously, f**k off” — as things got nasty under Nelson’s Column. Stuart condemned the swearing as being “unprofessional”, but it seemed that his cheeky chappie persona wasn’t actually selling many tickets.

The spectre of defeat

With neither team managing to fill their seats on all three tours, it was looking like a relatively close contest in terms of revenue, though Jamie had obviously won the battle for hearts, minds and (strong) stomachs. Back in the boardroom, he earned unstinting praise from Nick Hewer. Lord Sugar was less enthusiastic about mouthy Joanna’s attempt to renege on the deal with the Visitor Centre.

But while Chris and Stuart tried to play down their schoolboy spat, there was no escaping the figures: a profit of £834.30 for Apollo, as against Synergy’s £1,099.33. A resounding victory, considering that they handed over 20 per cent of their takings to the Visitors Centre. So Synergy took off to Jersey for oyster-collecting and a Michelin-starred meal. Apollo embarked on a bout of soul-searching, with graffiti enthusiast Stella predicting “the writing’s on the wall for Stuart”.

Liz and Stella might have been pointing the finger at Stuart, but Lord Sugar had other ideas. Despite the fact that Stuart had totally screwed up on the pricing, it appeared that the boss wasn’t being quite as scathing as he might have been as he dissected the failure of the task. Further evidence that Stella is one of his big favourites came in the form of the pronouncement “you’re very, very shrewd and very, very clever”. So, no damning with faint praise there. You knew that her ploy of staying out of the business side of things had paid off this week.

Even more worrying for Liz, was the realisation that the Sugarmeister has a big soft spot for Stuart, whose antics seem to arouse a degree of paternal affection and amusement. He sold only £260 worth of tickets to Liz’s £505, yet her superior sales record over the series wasn’t enough to save her.

When your back’s against the wall in the boardroom a great sales pitch can save you, as Stella demonstrated last week. By contrast, a feeble effort (Joy, Laura) or being too strident (Paloma) can turn the tide against you. So it wasn’t a great surprise to see Liz undone by Stuart “the artful dodger” and his “I will make you so proud of me” appeal. Now in full metaphor-scrambling mode, Stuart declared “I’ve got a field of ponies waiting to literally run towards this”, while Stella wore the broadest smile we’ve seen for weeks. How could Liz compete with that?

As we saw last year with Debra Barr, Lord Sugar is more likely to be seduced by chutzpah than a good track record, or plain common sense. Stuart, an overgrown teenager aged 21, probably couldn’t have sold even one Babyglow outfit — let alone 10,000. But he has mastered the art of marketing his own dubious charms and that is what counts.

The crestfallen Liz became the tenth casualty of the boardroom, leading to scenes of utter astonishment back at the house. “Noooo waaaay!” shouted Joanna, echoing the feelings of those who had their money on Liz to win.

Yes, Stuart’s in the final five because he has “that little spark” and, let’s face it, because he’s good for viewing figures. Time will tell whether he’s really a bright spark, or a cut-price brand with a limited life span.


The Star of the Show

If looks could kill, Stuart Baggs would already be pushing up daisies

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was renowned for her ability to thrive on very little sleep. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the indefatigable Stella English, the Apprentice’s answer to the Iron Lady, stays up into the wee small hours plotting how to nobble rivals Stuart Baggs and Liz Locke. Then again, I’m not sure she even thinks of “the Brand” as a genuine threat – more of a cheeky schoolboy who’s just wandered into the wrong class.

Watching Stella’s audition video I realised that she and Stuart share a love of fast cars. Yes, while the rest of us were breaking crayons and covering ourselves with glitter, the four-year-old Stella was drawing pictures of red sports cars.

This year, the female candidates on The Apprentice have been extremely voluble before, during and after their boardroom exits. Who could forget the “karmically” deluded Melissa Cohen with her penchant for neologisms, or the upselling Paloma Vivanco, who (hopefully) has now been upcycled into a less bombastic version of herself. More recently, there was the lovesick Laura Moore, with her self-generated and very unladylike “shit storm” in Hamburg.

But while these ladies were finding new ways to talk themselves out of a job, one candidate was taking a leaf out of Stuart’s book and reining herself in. Experienced Stella watchers will know that the Bionic Woman usually prefers to unleash a piercing stare or a toss of her blonde mane when she’s irritated or threatened. Shouting, swearing and panic-stricken bluster aren’t her style.

So when, after a long run of wins, she finally got dragged into the boardroom last week it was a little worrying to hear her utter the dreaded phrase “skill set”. (Melissa memorably tried to promote her own extensive bundle of assets in Week 4 and ended up getting fired.) This kind of talk is the last resort of desperate job seekers and those who are about to be cut down by Lord Sugar’s overworked finger.

Despite the odd truffle-related lapse in judgment, Stella has spent the past nine weeks wowing us with some devastating one-liners, withering put-downs and meaningful silences. How else would you survive close encounters with the mad, the bad, the rude and, in the case of the droning Chris Bates, the just plain boring?

Model behaviour
In Week 2 Stella was dispatched to Synergy in an attempt to turn them into a classy outfit. Little did she suspect that the kind of “classy outfit” banker Chris and creepy Christopher had in mind would be a bikini — with tassels. They claimed it was all about marketing that over-achieving beach towel (aka the Cüüli). But women everywhere knew it was a crude attempt to undermine the PM, just because she happened to have breasts. Stella weighed up her options, wore the damned bikini and “took one for the team”. Nice try lads.

Mum’s the word
In Week 4 the sight of “the world’s softest thermometer” caused Stuart to overheat and gave Stella her first sight of motormouth Baggs in full cry. As Synergy attempted to cosy up to the nice lady who invented the Babyglow, Jamie was busy talking up his team’s parenting credentials. But Stuart’s ham-fisted attempt to negotiate (or demand) a 50 per cent price reduction, stuffed things up for everyone. “That was, quite frankly, embarrassing!” admonished Stella as she prepared to impale “the Brand” on her (specially sharpened) Bic biro. Luckily, Jamie was in the way.

The bubble bursts
Week 7 brought the ultimate clash of styles between super-organised Stella, who writes everything down and Stuart, who (apparently) hasn’t yet mastered the art of reading and writing. In the boardroom he attempted to justify his dodgy pricing tactics to Lord Sugar and claimed Stella’s concerns were the result of her being “much older” than him and “too corporate”. Ouch! Her restrained response was “I found it very, very taxing.” Celebrating their (undeserved) victory with vintage champagne, Stella winced at Stuart’s undisguised lack of sophistication: “You don’t like mature, complex characters, do you?”

A vote of (no) confidence
“We can’t stop Stella from planning”, sneered Stuart as he attempted to ambush her before the Hamburg Crisp wars had even commenced. But while Herr Baggs did get to eat a lot of sausages and show off in German, PM Stella was the one making the big decisions. “I don’t see any issue” she told the furious Laura and the mildly irritated Stuart, after demoting them from an important pitch at the Hyatt chain. Revenge, unlike sausage, is a dish best served cold.

Cheap shot
Failed PM “Little Miss Perfect” Liz Locke was distinctly narked at losing the discount buying task and — even worse — having to confront her own inadequacies. After failing to deliver the coup de grace in the boardroom, Liz later railed at the unfairness of Stella having criticised her leadership skills. “I disagree with you”, she whined as Stella wearily pointed out the patently obvious, this is a C-O-M-P-E-T-I-T-I-O-N. After nine weeks I think I can confidently sum up Stella’s unspoken response as they glared at each other from opposite sofas: grow up, get a life and get out of my face, bitch!


Less is More

This week on The Apprentice: A bunch of headless chickens, a catfight and some dogged negotiating skills.

As an infrequent visitor to the BBC’s Apprentice site I’ve only just noticed that you can watch a condensed version of last week’s episode in fast-forward mode. This will only take up 4 1/2 minutes of your valuable time. Alternatively, for some genuine insights, you could carry on reading this blog.

What better antidote to the endless coverage of “Frozen Britain” than the white-hot business talent demonstrated by our thrusting young apprentices? Judging by last week’s volley of expletives, you could probably warm yourself for several days in the heat generated by yet another Laura Moore meltdown.

A 5.30am wake-up call found a grumpy Stella answering the phone and berating her “lazy” housemates. Viewers enjoyed the rare sight of Chris Bates having a shave — not a very close one, I fear. While steely eyed Stella was droning on about this competition being a test of “mettle”, Stuart told us what we’d long suspected, that it all boils down to who can get the most sleep.

Week 9 brought us to my favourite task, the one I like to think of as the “headless chickens” exercise. As it turns out Lord Sugar uses similar terminology to describe what happens when you give someone 10 hours to shop for 10 items that don’t include anything you can find in your average branch of Tesco. With £1,500 burning a hole in their pockets, the teams had to lay their hands on a Singer sewing machine, 50 grammes of Alba White truffles, some chicken feet and a plain single tikka (no, it’s not a curry). For the first time since Week 1 the (three) boys of Synergy would go head to head with the four girls of Apollo.

After the rocket science that was inventing new flavours of crisps, Lord Sugar’s shopping list should have been a piece of piss, shouldn’t it? After all, they weren’t being asked to conduct their negotiations in German, though I can see that this might have put Stuart at an immediate disadvantage.

How low can you go?

Team leaders Jamie and Liz immediately demonstrated their contrasting approaches. The boys zeroed in on getting the best prices for each item. “Start at 70 per cent lower than what he’s looking at” advised Jamie, as Karren Brady looked on approvingly. More intriguingly, he counselled the importance of finding the right “story” when you’re involved in tough negotiations. Apparently, the exercise of “busting someone’s balls” is made more palatable if you explain exactly how desperate you are. For Jamie it’s a clear case of Boardroom-phobia, isn’t it?

I wasn’t sensing much energy amongst the girls as Liz handed out assignments and banged on about that 6.30pm deadline. As they formulated their geographical approach — trying to establish the right areas to target — I detected lingering resentment over Stella’s high-handed behaviour last week.

After failing to be the early bird that catches the worm in Hamburg, Jamie had some serious catching up to do and he opted to go it alone on his five items. At first it looked as though the girls were going to wrap this task up without breaking a sweat. After a quick phone call, Stella established that the tikka could be obtained in Southhall, which is the Indian equivalent of Hatten Garden. Jamie, who’d opted to hit the road rather than the phone, trailed wearily round the real Hatten Garden only to be met with blank incomprehension. “What does it do?” enquired one baffled diamond merchant, who could no doubt sell you all the carats your little heart desired but, alas, had no tikkas.

Stuart and Chris fared no better in their search for the Bluebook. Joanna had already impressed Nick Hewer by getting the correct definition from some bloke on the end of the phone and she hadn’t even left the conference room yet! The trusting boys, who were already in the field, got a bum steer from a woman who told them it was an American military periodical from the 20s and 30s. Confident that they’d stolen a march on the girls, they headed off for Charing Cross Road, home of musty old volumes that no one’s ever heard of. If they’d looked more closely at their shopping list, which mentioned “London runs”, they might have figured out a lot earlier that these volumes were sets of routes for aspiring London cabbies. Wouldn’t the drivers who ferry the candidates around have been able to point them in the right direction?

In Southall, Stella and Laura were looking at a hefty £195 for the much-prized tikka and Laura immediately offered £160. Job done. The pair departed looking satisfied and Laura declared it to be an “awesome” deal. Nick Hewer’s expression said otherwise. Meanwhile, Jamie was in Wembley showing us all how it should be done. Threatening to take his custom elsewhere (Southall) if he didn’t get the £130 price tag he was looking for, he eventually settled on £135. An admiring Karren Brady was quick to identify his “key talents” as a negotiator, but I suspect she was really thinking how cute he was looking.

Check mate

Karren was less impressed, “fearful” in fact, as she trailed up and down Regent Street as Chris and Stuart went hunting for two metres of Modern Mackenzie tartan. Luckily, Synergy’s other big asset was Chris’s hitherto unsuspected gift for telling porkies. Perhaps he’s learned a thing or two from listening to other people being economical with the truth. He came up with a yarn about a Scottish wedding and a birthday gift for his nan. More important, he said he couldn’t spend more than £25. They got it for £23. Nan was going to be a happy woman. He used a similar technique with a line about his taxi driver brother, when they finally tracked down those elusive Bluebooks — Caledonian Road not Charing Cross Road.

Narrative gifts and strong negotiating tactics were, I sensed, proving more successful for the boys than being well organised. Still, Jamie “This kitchen worktop is haunting me” did fail to source three of his five items. But the task was best summed up by the fact that Stella opted to go truffle shopping in Knightsbridge, when Laura thought East London might have been a better bet. After failing to get Marco Pierre White or Gordon Ramsay on the blower (seriously?), Stella headed for her favourite eaterie, Zafferano’s restaurant, where a clueless Laura struck a deal for 50 grammes at £200. The boys took a less ritzy route and paid £150 in an upmarket food emporium.

Despite all the twists and turns, I suspected that turning up late to the boardroom would prove to be the least of Apollo’s problems. There were some amusing preliminaries, with Lord Sugar accusing Stuart of getting his jokes from a Christmas Cracker, conveniently forgetting that his own quip to Liz — “You’re taking so much on board you sound like a container ship” — was equally feeble. Let’s face it, neither of them has a future as a stand-up comedian.

But the real shocker for the self-satisfied ladies of Apollo was that their 10 items had cost them a total of £1,094.40, while Synergy only spent £1,020.50, despite incurring £511.50 worth of fines. The tortoise had trumped the hare — well, sort of. Lord Sugar summed it up “You’re bad negotiators”, as Liz looked nonplussed and Jamie wore a Cheshire cat grin. Synergy took their Three Stooges act to Paris, where they pranced around in berets.

The heart of the matter

Some of the boardroom encounters have been a bit anaemic, but this one didn’t disappoint. Could Apollo explain why they’d handed over £69 for that bit of tartan, while the boys had paid just £23? Perhaps Liz, Laura and Stella (the three in the firing line) have set too much store by their ability to bat their eyelashes and slather on the lip gloss. Sometimes getting what you want means you have to be very pushy and risk making a prat of yourself. I think only Joanna really grasped that concept.

We’ve heard some lame attempts at arse-covering in the boardroom, so it was good to hear Liz admitting that she’d completely missed the point of the exercise, which was to buy C-H-E-A-P-L-Y. Stella, the world’s least effective truffle hunter, sensed that she might be staring down the barrel herself and mounted an impassioned defence of her stellar record.

Laura, had a different very view and launched into an attack that centred on Stella’s mistreatment of poor Stuart in Week 7. Yes, she’s been carrying a torch for the lumpen-faced man from the Isle of Man. “But you weren’t stuck in a room with him all day” retorted Stella, causing a wry smile to flicker across Lord Sugar’s face. Liz put the boot in, accusing Stella of giving off a “negative, cold persona” that didn’t get the best out of people (ie Stuart). I thought the fallout from this task would be all about overpriced truffles, but Stella was well and truly sandbagged by the Baggs apologists.

Stella, of course, blamed Liz for the failure of the task. Laura blamed the “corporate” Stella. It was almost too close to call, but Laura’s dire record of no sales at all in the Week 2 task counted against her when compared with the records of the other two. She was fired. Stuart wasn’t on hand to say “Hasta la vista”, but Liz wore a wistful expression as she confirmed that Laura would be missed.

So Laura is out, but the big news is that Stella has been making enemies as she’s been racking up wins over the past two months. Back at the house, banker Chris gloated about how this loss would “cut her down to size”. Does anyone find it ironic that a banker should accuse someone else of smugness?

The stage is now set for Liz vs Stella: a fight to the death. Still smarting, Liz told the shocked survivors that Stella had had the temerity to call her a “bad manager”, as though this was somehow not playing by the rules. Armour-plated Stella deflected the criticism, but she knows that minor skirmishes don’t win you the war.


The Man With a Plan

Guardian reader “Anduin” has threatened to eat his/her big hat if Stuart Baggs wins The Apprentice. From where I’m sitting, Anduin, you’d better stock up on the bicarbonate of soda, because I think the lad is in with a shout.

After confessing elsewhere on this blog to being smitten with Ray Wilkins (back when he still had hair), I feel no embarrassment whatsoever at revealing my growing passion for Brand Baggs. I did say that he came across as a cut-price Ben Clarke in Week 1, but unlike that smarmy, Sandhurst-obsessed stockbroker, Stuart does have staying power.

Stuart’s got a knack for spewing out good sound-bites, a gift for mimicry and the balls to go head-to-head with the emasculator-in-chief Stella English week after week. Last week his proficiency in German was a bigger asset to Apollo than their rather prosaic choices of crisp flavours. Let’s not forget that Joanna and Laura were having difficulty even speaking English coherently!

He may be tactless and have lousy taste in shirt/tie ensembles, but Stuart’s straight-talking has impressed me from the outset. What do rivals Chris Bates and Johnny Vaughan lookalike Jamie Lester have to offer apart from designer stubble and smugness?

I believe Lord Sugar has a certain affection for the show’s youngest ever candidate and, frankly, they’d be mad to eject him before the interview sessions. But, on the off-chance that Herr Baggs comes a cropper on this week’s bargain hunt, here are some reminders of what makes him the Apprentice candidate you’d most like to take down the pub:

Joie de vivre
You can’t fail to be moved by the positivity of the message in his audition video: “I’m alive. There are so many people that aren’t alive.” There’s a hint of altruism, too, in his vow to help others “where appropriate”. A philanthropist in the making.

Speed king
He may use a lot of hair product, but there’s no doubting that Baggs also enjoys his manly pursuits. No one who witnessed his futile attempts to rein in his “extreme masculinity” at Brands Hatch should be in any doubt that he’s this year’s most macho candidate.

You’re nicked
Last year the incomparable Nick Hewer seemed just a little diminished by his run-in with the Amazonian Debra Barr. This series has seen him back to his best, particularly when pronouncing on Stuart’s antics. His verdict on Stuart’s stint as PM in week 7: “Stuart’s leadership style leaves me trembling with anger. Who does he think he is?” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

“Hasta la vista, gravy!”
Stuart penchant’s for livening up dull cab rides with a spot of mimicry has been a highlight of the series. He really came to the fore in Week 6 as the voice of the ill-fated Germ-o-nator — the cleaning product that somehow failed to clean up. Even moaning Laura was impressed.

If looks could kill
On paper, Stella English has been this year’s strongest candidate, but I’m not sure we would have seen her funny side if Baggs hadn’t been around to act as her chief antagonist. The range of despairing, angry and downright incredulous looks passing between this pair has been well served by the BBC editors. Don’t forget, Stuart, she’s only 30 not 31.


Crunch Time

This week on The Apprentice: “export” English, pidgin German and some salty language.

We Brits have an unhealthy obsession with scoffing potato snacks. According to a recent, fact-filled article in The Guardian (not the type of publication I’d ever use to wrap chips in) our great nation consumes around 6 billion packets of crisps a year — 150 packets per person. That’s an awful lot of salt, fat and artificial flavours.

Of the eight remaining candidates in this year’s Apprentice, I suspect Jamie is, like me, one of those who chooses not to eat his full complement of 150 bags. There’s just something about him — bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and insufferably vain — that suggests he’d be more at home with a pot of organic hummus and some crudités. Brand Baggs, on the other hand, looks like he could down his own body weight in packets of Walkers and still be hungry.

There was excitement in the house at the prospect of a foreign business trip. Well, if you’d spent the past few weeks hanging around Westfield and the Trafford Centre, you’d be gleeful. Stuart, showing an uncommon degree of insight, predicted “a war zone or somewhere hot”.

In Belgravia there were a couple of bad omens for Synergy when Jamie failed to identify the German flag “it’s like a German flag with an eagle in the middle” and creepy Christopher announced that he hated the Germans. A shame, because this week’s task was all about getting Hamburg hooked on crisps.

Lord Sugar was on hand at the German Embassy to dispense this week’s fascinating fact — “Germany is our largest export market” — for the benefit of viewers who’d like this to be an educational show. For those of us who’d just like to be entertained, there was the prospect of each team representing a small UK crisp manufacturer to bring two new flavours to Hamburg and get those all-important orders. Stella was licking her lips at the prospect, or she might just have been relishing the prospect of another bout with Baggs.

Stuart immediately ruled himself out as PM, declaring himself to be “absolutely knackered” after last time. Which part do you think was most taxing on his reserves — zooming round Brands Hatch or arsing around Westfield? He then appeared to give Stella his wholehearted backing as the best choice for this week’s PM, before revealing this to be all part of his “I can’t lose” strategy. He reasoned that she wasn’t the best person for the job or a good PM, so that if they lost she would be the one leaving in a black cab. Really, Stuart?

Avoiding another close shave

Stella, who has only been on the losing team once was going up against banker Chris, this year’s least successful and consistently worst-shaven candidate. Synergy really needed to come up with some great new crisp flavours. Thank goodness they had their ideas man, Jamie, to champion the cause of goulash. Apollo were trying to brainstorm some traditional British flavours as an increasingly strident Joanna was “bulldozing” through her curry ideas, to the irritation of her team-mates.

Laura got some brief respite from her role as Stuart’s sidekick, as she remained behind with Stella to cook up some bitchin’ new flavours. Meanwhile Herr Baggs (geddit?) and Joanna prepared to assault the Germans with a pocket dictionary and a whole lot of attitude. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? It turns out that Stuart does, sort of. Well he has a go, and to my ears (as a non-German speaker) he sounds a lot more deferential when he’s not speaking English.

If you’d thought you’d seen the last of sausages in this year’s Apprentice, think again. Jamie and Christopher’s fact-finding mission to Hamburg saw them chowing down hungrily on the country’s worst-kept gastronomic secret: currywurst. I’ll be honest, they did look more appetising than the bangers we saw in Week 1. Of course the boys predicted a glorious future for currywurst crisps. “I reckon we’ll nail it” said creepy Christopher with a conviction you felt was misplaced. Stuart also identified sausage as a gap in the market that needed to be exploited — and then eaten by him in large quantities. That hunk of “white sausage” he sampled looked particularly disgusting.

Another familiar sight was the teams standing around in white overalls and hair nets (green and blue this week), trying to cook up the kind of flavours that would whet German appetites and send beer consumption through the roof. Apollo went with “traditional” Stilton and paprika, with Aberdeen Angus beef and chilli as their second choice. Tellingly, Stella asserted her authority, leaving Laura to swallow her objections and the absent Joanna to wonder whether she’d got her point across about the importance of curry, curry and more curry . . . Synergy pinned their hopes on the much-vaunted currywurst and a cheeky little goulash, which was pronounced “remarkably good” by Karren Brady.

This week’s “light-bulb” moment for seasoned Apprentice watchers came as Christopher and Jamie tried to line up an appointment with the Marriott Hotel chain and, inexplicably, opted to go for 1pm rather than 9am. Did anyone else spot that not being the early birds might be a bit of a pratfall or even a gift from the gods for Apollo? Stella and Joanna got in there early and they made a sale.

Herr Baggs knows best

The sales element this week was notable for a series of communication breakdowns, a meltdown from Laura and an outright lie from Jamie and Christopher. Stuart tried to coach Laura in the practice of what Lord Sugar later called “export English”. This is the art of speaking very S-L-O-W-L-Y in business pitches for the benefit of the stupid foreigners. To be fair, Mr Sandwich (I think that was his name) was also having trouble recognising his mother tongue as spoken by Herr Baggs. Of course, Laura didn’t take any notice and delivered her patter at a mile a minute.

Still, Laura’s irritation with Stuart and with the dumb-ass Germans was nothing compared with the tantrum that followed Stella’s decision to take the meeting at the Hyatt hotel chain herself. Despatching her underlings to what Laura moaned was the “independent tiny store”, Stella displayed the no-nonsense approach that (presumably) impresses Lord Sugar every week and annoys the hell out of everyone else. In the cab, Stuart declared this decision to be “disappointing”. Laura’s assessment was much blunter: “total bollocks” followed by “I don’t even give a shit any more”. There were several more utterances of the word shit, as Stuart and I wearily concluded that Laura probably needs to get her head out of her backside.

Meanwhile, Jamie and Christopher were slogging round cafés and bagel shops to no great purpose. The flavours got a lukewarm reception and our intrepid salesmen failed to establish whether the nice lady in the bagel shop actually had the power to make decisions about important issues like crisps. Then they lied to the trusting Chris about their progress, giving him the erroneous impression that they’d done “some really good sales today”.

Chris’s bad day concluded with a chastening experience at the Marriott, when he learned that the buyer there had already done a deal with some other bunch of crisp vendors from England. He attempted an “unprofessional” Melissa Cohen-style hard sell approach that went down a bit like a cup of cold goulash. Liz Locke (still not wearing that ribbon dress) was, for once, unable to bat her eyelashes and utilise her winning sales technique.

I felt pretty sure Apollo had won the task. Perhaps there weren’t as many red herrings, the crafty editors weren’t on their game, or it was simply impossible to gloss over the many gaffes made by Synergy this week. A combination of crap flavours, wrongly booked appointments and a dilatory approach from Jamie and Christopher proved costly. Synergy’s total sales were 17,995 euros, while Apollo racked up 19,327 euros — largely as a result of their own appointments.

New shoes for Stuart as another candidate gets the boot

Apollo departed for a shopping spree in Mayfair, which left poor Stuart rather glum as it dawned on him that a pair of designer boots costs the same as a car. But wouldn’t be a nice car, Stuart, would it? Then he got some harsh words about his footwear from Joanna, whose own fashion sense leaves something to be desired judging by Stella’s incredulous reaction to the dress she was modelling.

Lord Sugar claims there’s no such thing as luck in business, but I have to agree with Chris’s assessment that he’s been pretty unlucky. Perhaps it’s his ponderous pitches or the fact that no one really likes merchant bankers. The best boardroom moment was Lord Sugar’s revelation that he knew that Synergy had been offered a 9am appointment with the Marriott group, but had opted instead for 1pm. Chris and Liz looked suitably dumbfounded. She got lucky and was despatched back to the house, leaving Jamie to battle it out with the brace of Chris’s.

So could Jamie enlighten us about his really bad decision not to take that early meeting? “I’m trying to recall it in my own brain and the early word catches the bird without a doubt.” (I think that might sound more convincing in German.) After warning Jamie once again that his Apprentice career was on a downward trajectory, Lord Sugar decided to let the nation’s favourite property developer off the hook.

Christopher Farrell who’d earlier been characterised as a “hole-digger and wall-builder” was pronounced lacking in that “spark of entrepreneurial genius” and sent packing. The other two were dismissed with a clear message that their position was becoming “untenable”, so they should keep their ugly mugs out of the boardroom.

What would banker Chris give now for Stella’s winning touch, a brush with the armour-plated Brand Baggs, or perhaps a night with the lovely Liz Locke . . .


Driven to Distraction

To paraphrase the great W.C. Fields, “Never work with children, animals . . . or Stuart Baggs.”

Is it just me, or has this latest series of The Apprentice been lacking a little je ne sais quoi? I’m not referring to the startling lack of business acumen on display (Shibby); an unwillingness to keep your gob shut at crucial moments (Melissa and Paloma); or even the inability to perform basic arithmetic (Melissa again). Lord Sugar’s “treats” have been a bit lacklustre, haven’t they? Karaoke, barbecues and belly dancing don’t exactly shout life in the jet set.

Last week we discovered that poor Laura didn’t have much of clue about the connection between “blitz” and multiple casualties in World War II. As a film fan it pains me to report that some of the candidates were equally clueless about the role of Pinewood Studios — “Britain’s Dream Factory” — in our domestic film industry. Sandeesh’s guess: “I’m sure it’s a furniture store.” As Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”

Inspired by the mammoth blue screen at Pinewood, this week’s task was all about creating the big-screen experience for punters at London’s biggest shopping centre, Westfield. The teams had to persuade gullible customers to pose in front of an “all-action background”, while they were filmed for their very own take-home DVD movie. Sounds naff, doesn’t it?

Lord Sugar decided to mix things up again by sending Sandeesh and Chris to Synergy, with Stella and Joanna moving to Apollo to join forces with Stuart and Laura. Sadly, we missed out on the chance to see the candidates squabbling over the PM role, because “He Who Must Be Obeyed” had already decided that Stuart and Sandeesh would be in charge this week. Don’t worry, there was still plenty of bickering to savour.

Relations between Stuart and Stella were frosty from the word go. Stuart, who’d grasped the technical niceties of people acting in front of a filmed backdrop, was impatient to get on with things. With a toss of her hair and a flick of her pen, Stella made it clear that the only backdrop she wanted to see Stuart in front of was a firing squad — or perhaps a guillotine.

After choosing background footage from the archives, the teams had to think up and shoot some scenes of their own. Not content with being the big brain behind last week’s Octo-Kleen, ideas man Jamie was at it again, suggesting a skiing video would provide lots of dressing up fun for the family. As it turned out, Jamie would be the one putting on the costumes.

Stuart decided that his target demographic was affluent people who like motor racing, and proceeded to bulldoze this idea through by dismissing his colleagues as “woolly”. Nick Hewer grimaced: “Stuart’s leadership style leaves me trembling with irritation.” Stella already looked as though her head would explode under the strain of not punching the annoying little jerk.

I must admit that I didn’t really understand why the teams had to go off and film their own backgrounds when they already had perfectly good archive material available. The answer was that it gave Jamie and Christopher a chance to pose around a dry ski-slope in Milton Keynes. To make it seem like more fun for the kids, Jamie donned a penguin outfit. More to the point, this exercise gave us a chance to experience the raging hunk of manhood that is Stuart Baggs.

Dodgy manoeuvres are Stuart’s stock in trade

Yes, not content with being the man of a thousand comedy voices, Stuart also knows a lot about cars. At least he thinks he does. With Laura once more assuming the role of straight woman, they headed off to Brands Hatch to film some track footage. At this point I realised that what this year’s show had been missing so far was a good-old fashioned injection of testosterone. “I have to rein in my own extreme masculinity in this task” declared Stuart, as he jumped into a BMW M3 and tried not to mow down his colleague.

What did all this have to do with actually winning the task? This was a question that probably taxed Joanna and Stella, as they struggled with the boring stuff like trying to market their product. “Is he taking the piss?” asked Jo, on discovering that Brand Baggs couldn’t come to the phone because he was behind the wheel. Yes, he was. In perhaps the most audacious U-turn we’ve seen this year, Stuart belatedly decided that their target market would after all be kids and not adults. All that messing about in cars was a waste of time.

One of my favourite moments of the week came as Stella and Joanna went to buy props for their videos. They selected a dinky red car that probably would have attracted the attention of the mini-Brand Baggs a few years ago. “Where’s Stuart?” asked Nick Hewer, as he quizzed a weary Stella about their PM’s activities. “He hasn’t actually told us exactly what he’s been doing.” I think arsing around covers it pretty well, Stella.

For those, like me, who think The Apprentice is a bit like a whodunnit, there was a really dull conversation between Chris, Liz and Sandeesh about how many blank DVDs to buy for the next day. I almost nodded off, but I think it might have been important . . . Then, in an inspired piece of editing, we watched Stuart in one car using his “psychic instincts” to predict what Stella and Joanna (in a separate vehicle) were now saying about his decision-making abilities. This didn’t sound like a team pulling together.

Talking of disharmony, Sandeesh made a couple of dodgy decisions when she despatched Christopher to be the tech guy on their team, even though he hadn’t been given the “crash course” in how to use the equipment. Jamie, who ranks very highly in his own estimation, was sulking at not being chosen as one of the sales team. Meanwhile, Apollo failed to share Stuart’s “vision” as they reviewed the racing footage he’d shot. To be fair, I think Stella was having a vision — of Stuart’s imminent demise.

Over at Westfield, it was the usual procession of trials, tribulations, tantrums and the occasional sale. Sandeesh’s team were late getting started because they had to brief Christopher on the intricacies of burning DVDs. When they did get their act together, punters for the skiing experience were in short supply. Jamie was convinced that Chris and Liz looked too corporate. Perhaps they could have enticed more punters if they’d worn penguin suits, or if Liz had squeezed herself into that ribbon dress from Week 5.

Apollo got off to a bright start with their shiny red racing car — until Stuart had the genius idea of hiking up the price from £10 to £15. But the real action was the backroom clash of styles between Stella, who writes things down and Stuart, who keeps everything stored in that big brain of his. His role was quality control, but he didn’t do a very good job, because some customers ended up with DVDs that had other people’s kids in them. Another Homer Simpson moment.

It was hard to tell who was doing well. Apollo made DVDs for customers who never came back. Synergy made a late — and inspired — decision to get their own toy car, which proved more popular than “Jamie’s ski adventure”. Unfortunately, Sandeesh had already agreed to a huge drop in price by that stage of the afternoon.

Sandeesh masters the art of doing “naff all”

In the boardroom, Stuart’s team leadership abilities got the thumbs down — in Jo’s case eyes down — from the ladies of Apollo. The Brands Hatch balls-up drew criticism from Lord Sugar, who accused him of trying to have a treat before he’d even won the task. The simmering argument between Stuart and Stella came to a head when he accused her of being 31 (“I’m 30 actually”), and declared that she obviously didn’t like taking direction from someone who was 10 years younger than her. All over the country, mature women must have been carving up the Baggs-shaped voodoo dolls they’d made earlier in the day.

Sandeesh has previously been accused of doing “naff all” by Lord Sugar, but at least she got a warmer reception from her troops. It didn’t help her, because despite Stuart’s many failings this week, his team ran out narrow and undeserved winners. Apollo made a profit of £262.50 and Synergy finished with £222.97. Cut to a great shot of Stuart vainly trying to rein in his “extreme masculinity” — or perhaps it was a touch of wind. As they headed off for a spot of champagne tasting, Laura, Jo and Stella had a touching group hug outside the boardroom, which Stuart belatedly tried to join. Later he had one final go at riling Stella by claiming that vintage champagne “tastes like paint stripper”, to which she retorted, “You don’t like mature, complex characters”.

After all that, Synergy’s boardroom roasting failed to produce any real fireworks. Sandeesh sounded a lot more reasonable and less deluded than most of the other failed team leaders. Her problem was that she chose to bring back Chris and Liz, both of whom were clearly stronger candidates than her. I would have gone with Jamie, whose skiing obsession didn’t deliver much in the way of sales. Oh, and she definitely sold those DVDs way too cheaply.

Banker Chris’s boast that at least they’d sold more units than the other team brought forth this stinging rebuke from Lord Sugar: “I haven’t been blessed with working in a merchant banking environment where there’s no actual real product.” Yeah, take that you smarmy, sharp-suited, mega-bonus-grabbing merchant w****r!

So Sandeesh ended up being the most likeable of the losing PMs this year, but you don’t get into The Apprentice hall of fame by blathering on about integrity and honesty when your neck is on the line. What happened to the Sandeesh who almost got into a brawl in the middle of Soho? Where were the scary eyes? She departed in benign fashion.

Back at the house, Stella gave this withering assessment to the Synergy survivors: “Lucky for us that you’ve made so many screw-ups, because you could’ve actually won. You should have won.” She then gave Stuart the evil eye.


Total Wipeout

It is an immutable law of The Apprentice that one team will immediately come up with a crap idea, while their rivals will dither around for hours before returning to their original (equally crap) idea.

Last year the Pants Man debacle provided a much-needed wake-up call for bumptious estate agent Philip Taylor. This time a number of candidates were caught with their pants down — or in Jamie’s case with his flies open — as they failed to rise and shine for Lord Sugar’s surprise visit.

Yes, after weeks of flogging sausages, muffins and overpriced schmutter, it was time for the advertising task. Brand Baggs didn’t get off to a good start by appearing in front of the boss in shorts and T-shirt. Joanna was still in her pyjamas. Lord Sugar looked suitably unimpressed by this motley crew, as he announced they had two days to create a new brand of household cleaner and formulate a campaign around it.

After slaying the wicked Princess Paloma, Alex declared that his marketing powers were undiminished: “If I was an apple pie the apples inside would be orange.” I have no idea what this means, but I do know that Alex is all mouth and no trousers. His Apollo colleagues were obviously suffering from collective amnesia, because they picked him over Stuart to be this week’s PM. Synergy’s choice was made for them, as scouser and former marine sniper Christopher Farrell was the only one who hadn’t already been in the firing line. (Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one.)

It is an immutable law of The Apprentice that one team will immediately come up with a crap idea, while their rivals will dither around for hours before returning to their original (equally crap) idea. That, to cut a long story short, is how we ended up with our very own Apprentice Monster Mash-up: Octo-Kleen vs Germ-o-nator. Not coming soon to a cinema, or even a supermarket shelf, near you any time soon.

Would you Adam and Eve it?

Synergy got their octopus idea from someone else, which was probably the smartest move anyone’s made in this series to date. Over tea and posh cakes with some upmarket mums, a lady called Eve came up with the concept of the overworked housewife who wishes she had extra pairs of hands with which to multi-task. Jamie, who thinks octopuses say “bathroom” wasn’t sold and neither was Jo, who runs a cleaning company. But Christopher “we can smash this one out of the park” proved to be real autocrat, not to mention a male chauvinist pig.

The creative stage of the task was notable for Alex’s failure to come up with any good ideas. He does know his way around a flip chart, which is an improvement on his ability to navigate the Trafford Centre. I quite liked Sandeesh’s Swipe, and Chris’s Germinate had a certain juvenile charm, but Laura’s Helping Hand rightly got short shrift. The best bit was when Laura came up with the cheery “Blitz”, only for Alex to snootily remind her that it “was like a big bombing thing, years ago in London”.

After failing to “turn the thing on its head” or come up with “the one you need”, Alex was forced to capitulate to the power of the Germ-o-nator. This, despite the fact that the mums in the focus group agreed with him that the idea was laughable. In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, Chris and Stuart had already brainstormed an advertising campaign in which a little kid unleashes the cleaning power of Germ-o-nator with the immortal words “Hasta la vista, gravy!”

Who knew that influenza — “let’s hide down ‘ere” — has a Cockney accent?

Following another time-honoured Apprentice tradition of ignoring the patently bleeding obvious, Apollo opted not to brand the Germ-o-nator (“terminates germs and dirt”) in traditional colours of yellow and green. No, they went for “dark and mysterious” red and black, which I think we can all agree are not characteristics you normally associate with household cleaning products. Karren Brady was baffled by this decision. Synergy picked orange, with the tagline “8 arms are better than 2″, which says schlock horror to me, not unbeatable cleaning power.

We’ve been waiting for weeks to see the best of Brand Baggs and, I must say, he did not disappoint here. I’ve finally figured out that Stuart’s “comedy” voice reminds me of Nigel “these go to 11″ Tufnel, the dopey drummer from This Is Spinal Tap. Laura was definitely surplus to requirements in the recording studio. Stuart took to the mike like a duck to water, to become the voice of the Germ-o-nator. At times he sounded as though he was trying to emulate the fruity tones of the great Vincent Price with his “Oh no it’s the Germ-o-nator” routine. It was educational, too: who knew that influenza — “let’s hide down ‘ere” — has a Cockney accent?

Stuart’s unrehearsed brilliance was by far the best thing about either of the campaigns. Casting for Synergy’s Octo-Kleen ad, consisted of Stella twittering about citrus fragrance, while creepy Christopher tried to weed out the “mingers” among the actresses who were auditioning to be his on-screen wife. To be blunt, the one he selected wouldn’t win any awards in the looks or the acting departments, and the final product was embarrassingly cheesy. The harassed house frau morphs into an octopus so that she can clean up quickly and then get cosy with her hubby. Yuck! It was also, as Nick pointed out, unforgivably dated in its sexual stereotyping. As one of the bosses at the Lowe’s advertising agency later asked: “Are you selling marital harmony?”

At least the sight of the pint-sized Germ-o-nator bursting through the door armed only with bottles of cleaning fluid (“Move over big guy!”) was funny. Well, sort of. The professionals at Lowe’s were smiling — through clenched teeth — as they sat through both these presentations. Afterwards, words like travesty and bad taste were bandied about as they delivered their verdict to Lord Sugar.

A technical KO

This week’s boardroom bust-up was a little lacking in the suspense of recent weeks. For a start, there were no figures to read out and no chance for Laura to improve on her record of scoring zero in Week 2. A rather weary Lord Sugar informed Synergy that they were the victors with the words, “I wouldn’t say you’ve won, but technically you haven’t lost.” Their reward was a private karaoke night, the highlights of which I enjoyed with the sound on my TV muted.

Down at the Bridge Cafe, on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Alex got a big hint that his team-mates weren’t exactly overwhelmed by his management skills. Perhaps he should have helped himself to a slice of humble pie after last week’s task and learned something from Paloma’s catastrophic errors. Of course he didn’t.

Lord Sugar really doesn’t like people telling him how to do his job, so Alex’s opening gambit — claiming the wrong team had won — was an own goal. He compounded his error by picking Chris and Sandeesh to come back for the final showdown. Only moments earlier he’d been congratulating Sandeesh on her great pitch. Those big Bambi-like eyes went into overdrive again, as Sandeesh realised that the movie she was stuck in was not Germinator 2: Judgment Day, but Groundhog Day.

Effortlessly outstripping Paloma in the volume stakes, Alex tried to shatter Lord Sugar’s frosted glass door with his angry protests, denials and self-justifications. He failed. Lord Sugar, who obviously thought Sandeesh had been ambushed this week, dismissed her from the room before giving Alex the finger. There was a touch of regret there, I felt.

Hasta la vista, Alex! Let’s hope he didn’t get lost on his way back to Manchester.


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