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Notreallywatching: The Apprentice 2012

It’s a blogging dilemma: the return of a show you no longer like but just can’t stop writing about. So I’ve decided to go cold turkey and avoid The Apprentice 2012 when it returns to BBC1 tonight. This won’t please my eight-year-old nephew, “Gadget Boy”, who enjoys my blogs about this annual contest to find Britain’s most bombastic and self-deluded young entrepreneur. I know he’ll get over it, though. That’s why God invented iPads.

Lord Sugar’s ugly mug has been plastered all over the front cover of Radio Times — “Buy My Magazine — or You’re Fired”. (Perhaps his first act as guest editor should have been to fire whoever came up with that God-awful cover.) I don’t read Radio Times any more, since I realised that working there was like committing the longest career suicide in history. But I do sometimes listen to Pienaar’s Politics on Radio 5 Live, in which the amiable John Pienaar recently interviewed the ranting Lord Sugar.

To coin some rather graphic American slang, Lord Sugar sounded as though he had “a bug up his ass”. Of course his bad mood could have been a niggling case of haemorrhoids, or the realisation that going into business with Susan Ma wasn’t such a great idea. Ma, you’ll remember, was one of 2011’s Not So Fantastic Four finalists on The Apprentice. Skin care is her area of expertise and, judging from that RT cover, the man formerly known as “Surallan” could do with freshening up his look.

He may have thinning locks, but the former Labour enterprise tsar had plenty of opprobrium to go around. (Perhaps we could bottle his ire and use it to fix the UK’s balance of payments deficit.) He claimed the ongoing kerfuffle about banker bonuses was “electioneering”. If I understood him correctly (and bear in mind I’m not as clever as these bankers), Lord Sugar was saying that we should stop whingeing about having to pay talented bankers to fix the problems caused by irresponsible bankers. Apparently it’s really unfair to pick on RBS’s Stephen Hester, when there are lots of other fat cats with their noses in the trough, who are escaping censure.

He also wagged that famous firing finger at over-indulgent parents and their iGadget-addicted offspring, who are hampered by inflated expectations about the world of work. Of course there’s no way Britain’s youngsters could have got a warped idea about business from watching one of Lord Sugar’s programmes. A reality TV show that houses its contestants in the lap of luxury and rewards their (undeserved) victories with champagne, caviar and spa treatments, couldn’t possibly be sending the wrong messages, could it?

With The Hunger Games due to open here on Friday, you have to wonder whether a reality show in which people merely get ticked off for wasting time and money isn’t a bit tame. So I suggest the way to make The Apprentice 2012 truly indispensable viewing again is to start killing off the losers. The taxi ride to obscurity could conclude with the losing candidate being thrown from an ejector seat. You must admit, it would be more fun than watching yet more solipsistic ramblings.

Lord Sugar could liven up those boardroom sequences by doing something more effective with his digit than just wagging it in headmasterly fashion. He should take a cue from the way Ernst Stavro Blofeld gave “Number Eleven” his marching orders in Thunderball.

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Tom Pellereau The Apprentice

Finally, on The Apprentice: business plans, elevator pitches, and one long seduction lesson.

Week Twelve of The Apprentice found the “entrepreneurial elite” whittled down to the Not So Fantastic Four. Brainy Tom would be a shoo-in for the role of Dr Reed Richards, and you must admit that Susan Storm is a name that fits our highly strung skin care consultant as snugly as one of Edna’s gloves. Jim would relish employing his “dark underside” in playing Dr Victor von Doom. As for hard-working Helen, well she’s just a marvel, isn’t she?

To reference the perennially cheery golfer Phil Mickelson, it’s been a lot of fun. But all these weeks of buying, selling, brainstorming and (let’s be honest) bullshitting have all been leading up to the moment when someone finally claims the cash. Lord Sugar’s £250,000 business start-up pales into insignificance compared with last week’s £161 million Euromillions jackpot, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Last week’s pies ‘n’ sombreros fiasco delayed the much-anticipated return of Margaret Mountford. She was worth the wait, though. Before the grilling began, the candidates received the news that the final round of interviews would be even more taxing than usual. In previous years they’ve had their work cut out minding their P’s and Q’s, keeping track of all the fabrications in their CVs and, in Jamie Lester’s case, talking up that (apocryphal) third nipple. But this year’s process has been about finding a business partner for Lord Sugar, so he gave them 48 hours to write their business plans.

Bizarrely most of the candidates seemed to be writing the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. (Apparently there was a severe shortage of laptops in the house this year.) But any technological deficiencies were soon lost in the blizzard of boasting that followed. “I am the best in this house” exclaimed Susan, while Jim declared he had something “amazing” in his business plan. Tom, saddled with the worst overall record in the tasks, optimistically announced that he’d “saved it all to the last”.

Margaret Mountford The Apprentice

The interview panel had a bit of a facelift this year. Marvellous Margaret and the choleric Claude Littner were joined by freemium magazine pioneer Mike Souter, and Matthew Riley, who was Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. The new boys were less humourless and intimidating than Bordan Tkachuk and Alan Watts, but no one took long to detect the shortcomings in the Not So Fantastic Four’s plans for world domination.

Teflon-coated Jim managed to retain his sense of humour during what must have been a trying day. During the interludes he tried to (not so subtly) undermine the other candidates. Sadly, there was no hiding place from the scorn of Claude who was unimpressed by his War and Peace-length application form and extravagant claims about a “meteoric rise from zero to hero”. Jim’s stableful of equine analogies gave Margaret the (correct) impression that he is “a bit of an ass”. The biggest laugh of the night for me was when she enquired: “How do you set yourself apart? By swallowing the Oxford Book of Clichés?”

“I’m exactly what it says on the tin.” (Jim Eastwood)

Mike, who’s clearly been following this year’s show closely, also cut to the chase with Jim: “Do you have difficulty expressing yourself succinctly?” More damning was his conclusion that the Ulsterman’s “AMsmart” e-learning proposal for schools was “a feeble attempt to curry favour” with Lord Sugar by riffing on the Amstrad name. When we finally got a straight answer to a question, it turned out that he hadn’t actually spoken to any head teachers about his proposal to teach employability skills in UK schools.

Helen, who was looking very stressed throughout the interview process, admitted “Susan is driving me potty today”. All that youthful enthusiasm was a little overwhelming, as Matthew found out when he invited her to give him an elevator pitch on her “niche” organic skin care range, targeted at the mass market. Can you be both niche and mass market? A bigger problem was that Susan’s costings didn’t allow for testing the products. “This smells like bullshit” concluded Matthew, and he was right. As for her garbled line about “turning over £1 million pound profit in the first year” — forget it. It’s a very long way from Greenwich Market to going global.

“I am a really good sales guy and thank you for pointing that out.” (Jim Eastwood)

With her flawless manners and (almost) unblemished Apprentice record, Helen might have been expecting an easy ride. Margaret seemed mildly surprised to hear her ascribe some of that success to luck. Ironically, the woman whose big idea involved helping people find that crucial work/life balance is a workaholic. Challenged to tell an off-the-cuff joke, she floundered. Helen’s plan for a nationwide concierge service to deal with all those day-to-day chores was fatally undermined by her lack of contacts and the fact that it wasn’t a new idea. “Can you get me a table at the Ivy?” asked Matthew. Helen didn’t look as though she could even locate it without help from Google Maps.

“Would it be fair to say that your career is flagging?” You can always rely on charming Claude to kick you in the gonads. He did have a point. Affable Tom has lots of great ideas but isn’t great at following up on them. Come to think of it, he’s not that great at adding up figures either. (A common thread in this series.) Tom’s “confusing and obtuse” plan was all about reducing the incidence and cost of back pain. Put simply, it was about creating a really comfortable office chair. Unfortunately, Mike’s close scrutiny revealed that “one hundred per cent of your business plan doesn’t mention the word chair”. Tom looked suitably flabbergasted.

After the Schadenfreude, came the cosy sitdown with the experts. I really couldn’t guess who Lord Sugar was going to pick:

  • Helen had shown herself to be “incredibly organised” (according to Karren Brady), but lacks entrepreneurial flair. Her plan was “deeply flawed” as she hadn’t done enough research. Should have stuck to what she knows — ie baking.
  • Jim has a terrific sales patter but trying to pin him down was like “nailing custard to the ceiling”. Nick summed up his pitch as “one long seduction lesson” and Mike said it didn’t work without Lord Sugar.
  • Tom “the mad professor” and inventor of the curved nail file was criticised for not seeing things through. Karren wisely observed “He’s the one who’d most benefit from your involvement.”
  • In a flashback to the Paris episode, Susan was again dismissed as “naive”. But Margaret did see her as a genuine entrepreneur. That’s what the series is all about, yeah?

Pleasingly, Jim was the first out of the boardroom door. When it came to “Show me the money” it turned out that his e-learning scheme was likely to be non-profit. He didn’t have a clue about the financial aspects of last week’s task either, did he? His appeal to Lord Sugar’s philanthropic side fell on deaf ears: “Don’t play the sympathy thing with me.”

Susan was next to go, which seemed wrong to me. She did have a good idea, even if she was overreaching herself by a trifling few million quid. “I understand that I don’t understand” she flapped, as that dream of sharing her flawless skin with the rest of the world went south.

It was great to see Helen and Tom attacking each other (albeit politely) as we counted down to the big announcement. Lord Sugar had pronounced himself “terribly disappointed” by Helen’s proposal, which seemed to drain all the colour from her face. There was a Plan B — something to do with a chain of bakery stores — but it was all too late. In previous years she would have walked into the job, but this was a different ball game.

Timid Tom, usually so reluctant to blow his own trumpet, finally won it with a killer anecdote. It turned out that he got his famous nail files into Walmart stores by using his “creativity” and hand-delivering his parcel to the key buyer there. His chair idea might need some serious “tweaking” but, hopefully, it will be coming soon to an office near you. He was a deserved winner.

Food for Thought

Natasha Scribbins The Apprentice

This week on The Apprentice: hot pies, cold nachos and a lukewarm reception.

“Melody was lost for words” shrieked recapper Mark Halliley at the beginning of Week Eleven of The Apprentice. Just moments after we relived Ms Hossaini’s crushing disappointment, there was another one: Margaret Mountford would be not be wielding a clipboard in anger this week. The penultimate week of the show is traditionally given over to the interview process, in which CVs are deconstructed, egos deflated and lies exposed by Lord Sugar’s attack dogs. Sometimes we even stray into the realms of existentialism: “You’re not a big fish. You’re not even a fish.”

But this being a BBC show, they can never just leave well alone. So instead of the fearsome Margaret and Claude, our wannabe entrepreneurs faced a different sort of grilling — another catering task. The teams were invited to set up their own fast-food franchises in the City of London. Lord Sugar and some industry experts would then drop in for a free lunch, to assess them on criteria like edibility, speed of service and size of sombrero.

If the mere thought of Apprentice candidates in aprons has you licking your lips in anticipation, just think how much more fun this would have been in Week Twelve. If this had been the final, we could have enjoyed the spectacle of returning candidates buggering things up for the favourites. Remember Leon’s struggles with the juicing machine in Week One? Edna could have donned her Eartha Kitt gloves once more; Zoe could have mooned around with a face like a wet weekend; and Vincent would doubtless have dished out more (Belgian) waffle. But I digress, none of these things happened because the Final Five were on their own.

“All the air’s been cleared” declared Susan optimistically, implying last week’s squabbles with Natasha could now be swept under the enormous carpet that (eventually) silences all this show’s most voluble candidates. But would the three minds of Venture really be better than the combined brain power of Tom and Helen? It didn’t look likely. After watching Natasha fail to grow the team’s assets and almost blow the previous task, Jim wasn’t taking any chances. He appointed himself PM and, in one of those super-smug asides to camera, claimed that the girls would “appreciate a wee bit of direction”. Yeah, right. Meanwhile, Tom was more than happy to take orders from Helen (aka Little Miss Bossy).

I do like sizzling fajitas, but I associate nachos chiefly with evenings spent downing pitchers of watered down and grossly overpriced margaritas. For me, Mexican “cuisine” is an oxymoron, which is perhaps why Venture’s decision to go down that route was doomed from the outset. They had Natasha “can’t cook, won’t cook” Scribbins, who failed to live up to her BA (Hons) in hospitality management.

Then there was Susan “What does el mean?” Ma, whose ignorance of all things French is obviously just the tip of a very large cultural iceberg. To that combustible mix of personalities, we must add Jim, who confused Caracas (the capital of Venezuela) with maracas (a Latin-American percussion instrument). That’s how you end up with a franchise called “Caraca’s — a fresh mix of Mexican food”.

It all looked much more promising over at Logic. Helen immediately came up with the idea of going British and, following on from Week Nine’s “Mini Men”, decided that mini pies were the way to go. For reasons that escape me, Tom went looking for a branding concept in a baby boutique. (Nick Hewer looked suitably perplexed.) He did eventually get his act together by misreading a sign in shop window that read “We’re on QYPE are you?” This led him to the brilliant MyPy — pronounced MyPie rather than MePee. Even Helen was impressed.

Meanwhile PM Helen showed she could cook up a mean pie in three mouth-watering varieties: steak and red wine; chicken and mushroom; and spinach, broccoli and cheddar. True, she did have a little help from a Heston Blumenthal lookalike, but that left her more time for thinking about the all-important profits versus taste equation. Yes, Helen had it all: recipes, a business plan and brainy Tom’s wacky ideas about marketing.

While Natasha “I’m better on branding” and Susan squabbled over the relative merits of “iconic” peppers or sombreros for their branding concepts, Jim was basically doing everything else. After some market research that was only slightly more impressive than Melody’s effort in Paris, he came up with chilli beef, a fajita “kit” and Mexican soup. It sounded as though the self-styled “macho nacho man” had bitten off more than he could chew.

I wouldn’t want you to think that everything Logic did this week was brilliant. Let’s gloss over the way they branded their unit to look like a BA check-in desk. Even the lovely Helen didn’t really pull off that blue apron and red scarf look. Oh, and I don’t think there was ever an explorer called William Drake, or that Christopher Columbus was an influential British person.

But let’s face it, while Venture were agonising about what colour to paint their walls and how big their sombreros should be, they forgot about all the important criteria. Their service was dilatory, their planning non-existent, and Jim’s nachos looked like dog puke (in Lord Sugar’s expert opinion). Most embarrassing of all was the macho nacho man’s failure to perform basic mental arithmetic. Who needs “direction” now, smartass?

In the boardroom it came as no surprise to find that the experts had scored Venture’s Mexican meltdown at a measly 4/10. (I’m guessing the branding was the only element that didn’t suck.) The hot pies and another ace presentation from Helen had given Logic a much more impressive 7/10.

Instead of a treat, Helen and Tom went straight through to next week’s final. This left everyone scratching their heads and wondering what would become of the remaining three candidates. Lord Sugar then announced that he would only fire one more person. This was annoying, because only Susan had contributed anything vaguely intelligent this week.

I think it’s fair to say that Jim got just about everything wrong — starting with his decision to make Natasha and Susan work together again. No one had really considered how many customers they needed to serve during a two-hour period. (Sixty people spending an average of £7 per head does not add up to £4,200.) Karren Brady was right to observe “There is nothing fast about this fast food restaurant.” But did she really need to bring up that whole caracas business again? “Be honest, you thought it was a made-up word, all of you.” I’ve got some made-up words for you, Karren, and some of them contain expletives.

Natasha and Susan both rounded on Jim, who (naturally) accused the girls of not playing ball. (I guess that’s what happens when you don’t have any direction.) Lord Sugar tried to get to the bottom of Natasha’s curious reluctance to put her BA to practical use — apparently it was all a “long time ago”.

I was quite interested in hearing Natasha’s thoughts on Jim’s “dark underside”, which I sincerely hope was a reference to his tendency to pull people’s strings. In the end she was undone by her own lacklustre performance in recent weeks. I’m still trying to figure out her contribution to Caraca’s. Was it that misplaced apostrophe?

So Natasha was fired, leaving Jim and Susan to resume their spat in the cab back to Richmond. Tune in next week to see Margaret get stuck into the (sexist) macho nacho man. Based on this week’s task, I make Helen the strong favourite.

Frozen Assets

This week on The Apprentice: blarney in the market, a coup in the kitchen and bluster in the boardroom.

Pay attention, because Week Ten of The Apprentice was a bit difficult to understand. According to Lord Sugar it was all about “turning your money over”, “increasing your assets” and (crucially) “smelling what’s selling”. Simple, right? So why did Natasha Scribbins make such a complete “Horlicks” of this week’s task?

If you’re none the wiser after reading that opening paragraph, I don’t blame you. After the usual gratuitous shots of Jim slipping his pants on, the six remaining candidates were summoned to a wholesale warehouse in Enfield. Their mission was to take £250 of wholesale goods and turn them into a healthy profit, which they’d reinvest in yet more “old tut”. (Wasn’t he an Egyptian pharaoh?) The good news was that Lord Sugar’s pallet of merchandise didn’t include any teapot lights, pop-up postcards or hybrid digestive biscuits.

The big question on everyone’s lips was whether the unstoppable Helen Milligan could make it ten wins out of ten. But the omens were bad as Lord Sugar packed her off to Team Logic, to join the dysfunctional duo of Melody and Tom. Would you want your unbeaten record resting in the hands of motormouth Melody and Professor Branestawm? I thought not.

Over at Team Venture, Susan’s bid to be PM didn’t get far, because Natasha was clearly much better qualified. “Yeah?” But, as it turned out, neither Natasha nor Melody (PM of Logic) grasped the point of this week’s task. It was about building up a business — not just shifting vast quantities of umbrellas, chocolate colour duvet covers, naff watches and nodding dogs.

Tom, whose uncanny resemblance to a nodding dog has irritated Lord Sugar, showed that he could sell them, too. His patter with the kids was creepy but effective. No one, though, could hold a candle or a Blarney Stone to the efforts of Jim. He was, in the words of the overly effusive Nick Hewer “a tour de force”. Registering dangerously high levels of charm, I’m pretty sure Jim could sell out of umbrellas in the Sahara Desert. As it was, he made a killing in Covent Garden.

But the real story here was that Helen and Jim showed how much they really, really wanted to win. Unfortunately, they were saddled (respectively) with Melody and Natasha, whose leadership skills could fairly be described as non-existent this week. Jim showed surprising patience in trying to manage Natasha’s near-meltdown, by steering her towards the purchase of more stock. “We can’t be conservative, we need to reinvest.” It didn’t work. Convinced that this was a high-stakes version of Pontoon, Natasha opted to stick, rather than twist or bust.

Logic’s emergency mobile phone charger went down better than Tom’s emergency biscuit did last week. But the real surprise package was Helen’s daring but futile bid to unseat Melody as PM after the first day. For reasons that escape me, Melody and Helen thought that selling to retailers would be a good strategy. Even if that were the case, offering £25 watches to the proprietor of a Pound shop doesn’t add up, does it? Even more ridiculous was Helen making a four-hour round trip the next day to get stock for a bulk order of duvet covers. “I don’t understand the logic” said Karren Brady.

Clearly ace saleswoman Helen wasn’t on top of her game this week. Buoyed up by those huge orders in the previous tasks, she overreached herself with that attempted “coup in the kitchen”. Tom looked on in astonishment as Melody frostily rejected the idea that she should concentrate on sales, while Helen deployed her superior business skills to get them out of the big hole they’d dug for themselves.

With only six candidates left, we no longer have to endure the charade of team members sucking up to their PM — only to recant minutes later when they realise they’ve lost. So, cutting to the chase, Helen said Melody was a “terrible team leader” and she was right. But when the assets were totted up, Logic’s £728 was only a few nodding dogs lower than Venture’s equally unimpressive £751. Lord Sugar had already fined Natasha’s team £100 for their lack of reinvestment on Day Two. Jim’s last-minute dash to buy more umbrellas failed to add lustre to their “hollow victory”. Instead of helicopter trip to Goodwood, they were packed off back to the house to eat humble pie.

Natasha should have been fired this week, because Venture’s narrow victory was achieved thanks to Susan taking a punt on some bracelets and the lean, mean selling machine that is Jim Eastwood. But who said this process is fair?

Melody, who’s used to mixing it with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, had to overcome Helen’s astonishing track record and Tom’s highly effective nodding dog act. Would Lord Sugar punish Helen for having one really, really bad week or would he finally tire of Melody’s metronomic drone? Expressing “regret” he decided to give his ears a rest and the Global Youth Consultancy dynamo was out.

Over on The Apprentice: The Final Five, we learned that Jim and his wife are the “Posh and Becks” of Cookstown; that Susan is a bit of a Shanghai Surprise; and that demure Helen used to be a blonde bombshell. I expect to see two of those three in the final, but perhaps inventor Tom will come up with something even more astonishing than his curved nail file.

A Recipe for Disaster

Zoe Beresford - The Apprentice

This week on The Apprentice: snapping from Zoe, sharing with Jim and “innovating” from Melody

Week Nine of The Apprentice looked as though it might be a new spin on the (Not-So-) Great British Bake-Off. Instead of the perky Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, we got the increasingly grumpy Nick Hewer and Karren Brady. Yes, Lord Sugar was in the house again, and this time he invited the candidates to create their own new brand of upmarket biscuit and sell it to three of Britain’s biggest supermarkets.

A warning: if you found Melody Hossaini irritating during last week’s Parisian jaunt, stop reading now. She doesn’t improve on further acquaintance. It probably didn’t help that Lord Sugar’s Sunday evening surprise visit caught her off-guard and lounging (alone) in bed. The even worse news was that Helen, Jim and Natasha were making up this week’s Team Venture. Everyone else was in Logic (aka World’s Biggest Losers), which gave Melody a second bite at Timid Tom.

Melody’s chief rival for the title of Biggest Bitch in this Year’s Apprentice is, of course, Zoe. Have you noticed that when people say “With respect . . .” it usually prefaces something that is entirely disrespectful? Susan, who tried to equate experience in creating skin-care products with knowing how to knock up a killer biscuit, got short shrift in her bid to be PM. Nick Hewer helpfully likened Zoe’s latest put-down of Susan to “slapping down a yapping puppy”.

After her rubbish performance as PM on the refuse task, you’d think Zoe might have learned some lessons. With a background in the beverage industry, this task should have been meat and drink to her. But as Melody was pitching her concept of heart-shaped cookies to share with your loved ones, Zoe was hard at work digging her own grave with the aid of that oversized gob.

After saying that she wanted to be at the development kitchen in Wales, Zoe soon allowed herself to be dissuaded by Susan and Melody. “A good product sells itself” she declared, before announcing that she was “happier working with Susie”. Roughly translated, this means she hates Melody’s guts. Clearly Zoe is not familiar with that old adage about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

Down in Swansea, biscuit development boffins were on hand to help both teams come up with something to tickle the nation’s taste buds. For Venture, PM Helen had appointed Jim as head baker, and this seemed to have gone to his head. To be fair, he did enjoy his best week in the competition so far, but he was also so smug that I could cheerfully have dropped him into one of those gleaming vats of molten chocolate.

Venture were way ahead from the outset, since they had decided on the concept of a biscuit aimed at kids. Jim’s suggested calling it “Munch Men”, which had Helen chortling about “men that munch”. (Natasha “the Slapper” Scribbins was quick to see the Viz-like connotations there.) After schmoozing with some mums and kids in a focus group, he settled on a flapjack topped with a chocolate star. Who cares about childhood obesity issues?

Special Stars “any time is treat time” was a tag-line with in-built contradictions, but no one gets anywhere on this show by being consistent. (Natasha’s subsequent attempt to explain her theory about “opening up time” to a bamboozled designer was one of the highlights of the week.) The best news for Jim, though, was that Helen just agreed with him on everything. “I like her personality. Probably because it’s passive. Who doesn’t like that?”

Logic, lacked both passive personalities and good ideas. If only Tom’s bizarre concept of an “emergency biscuit” had been the dumbest thing we heard this week. Sporting a pontiff-like red hat, he had the herculean task of trying to live up to his billing as an inventor, while keeping Melody’s extreme masculinity at bay. He failed on both counts. One of her innovative suggestions — a bizarre concoction of biscuit mix, mini marshmallows and corn flakes (?) — looked like the leftovers from a riotous toddlers’ tea party.

After much bickering and whingeing from Zoe and Melody, Logic eventually came up with the “snap and share” wonderbiscuit known as Bix Mix. It sounded more like a dog snack and perhaps that would have been the ideal market for this two-in-one cookie — a digestive, with butter crisp centre and chocolate on one side. “We’re not going for a luxury product” enthused Tom. Shame that, because with its £1.99 price point, Bix Mix was supposed to be high-end.

Not surprisingly, Logic failed to make a good impression in their pitches to Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose. Melody had pointed out that they should be aiming their product at a specific group (dogs?), but Zoe wanted to leave it open to the mass market. They opened with a toe-curlingly awful improvised scene, with Tom “Hi Honey” and Melody as a happy couple snapping and sharing a Bix Mix moment. Irony, anyone? It was hard to say who looked more embarrassed — the supermarket buyers or Nick Hewer.

Venture were having a bit of an issue with their “any time treat” — something that might not go down well with mothers. Jim and Helen were on the same page, but Natasha’s insistence on trying to deconstruct that theory went down like a lead balloon. The message was clear: shut up and let the grown-ups do the talking.

Last week Helen wowed the buyers at La Redoute with her pitch for the rucksack car seat. Not to be outdone, Jim went for broke with his “go big or go home” approach to Asda. Karren tried to pour cold water on his ideas about TV advertising, a Harry Potter tie-in and the hard sell to the mass market. She was wrong.

It was hard to believe that Logic could do worse than last week’s drubbing. But they did score some orders then — if not from La Redoute. This time it really was a big fat zero for Bix Mix. Just to rub digestive crumbs into the wound, Asda had ordered 800,000 units of Lucky Stars, making Helen a winner for the ninth consecutive week.

“Something fundamentally wrong here” declared Lord Sugar. But was it the toxic combination of Zoe and Melody, the fact that Tom “didn’t know the price of biscuits”, or a product that just didn’t taste very nice? Tom correctly diagnosed a “disconnect” between the product and the packaging, but that almost got drowned out in the cat fight that followed between mortal enemies Zoe and Melody.

Melody’s attempts at covering her arse in the boardroom included reviving her “daring” concept of making biscuit the new popcorn. (That was the marshmallow nonsense I mentioned earlier.) Last week she’d insisted that the opinions of four French Metro users constituted valid market research. Luckily, wisdom has now taught her that the negative verdict of “10 people in Swansea” on her ideas is of absolutely no consequence.

Luckily for Melody, being a stuck-up bitch and a hypocrite doesn’t get you fired from The Apprentice. But Zoe, who had failed to demonstrate expertise, leadership or courtesy, was soon on her way out. Melody failed to offer a goodbye hug or even an air kiss. I’ll leave the final words on Zoe, to Susan:

On a personal level she’s one of the bitchiest and most back-stabbing people I’ve ever met.

French Rejection

Leon Doyle

This week on The Apprentice: Susan is immature, Melody is intractable and Leon is impressed.

In last year’s series of The Apprentice Stella English showed us that “taking one for the team” can involve donning a bikini and turning a blind eye to your sexist colleagues. Judging by her performance this week, that concept has never been explained to Melody Hossaini. She’s more about taking one from the team and smirking while she does it. Yes, somewhere between Week Seven and Week Eight, the glamorous Global Youth Consultancy expert turned into one of those ball-busting ladies for which this show is infamous. This was very bad news for geeky Tom and lacklustre Leon.

Perennial winner Helen Milligan seems to sprinkle a little gold dust wherever she goes. But in the interests of “balancing the teams”, Lord Sugar sent her back to join Zoe, Jim and Susan in Venture. This was the second clue that Logic’s fortunes might be about to take another nosedive this week. (The first was Tom’s failure to stow his suitcase safely in the car boot.)

Before the candidates had even assembled at St Pancras International, we already knew that they could barely scrape together a GCSE in French between them. Melody announced “I used to speak six languages” (and she can be condescending in all of them), while Jim tried to talk up his “petits pois”. But when it came to total ignorance of all things Gallic, Susan “I know nothing” Ma was clearly way ahead of her colleagues. Given that the task involved selling new British designs to the Parisians, it made total sense for Susan to be PM — n’est ce pas?

One half of each team made a head start on consuming coffees and croissants in Paris. Bizarrely this meant they’d be exploring the market for products they hadn’t actually seen. Susan and Zoe excitedly sized up the usual array of wacky, overpriced or just utterly useless products — including a bean-bag couch, an electric bike and a pop-up postcard complete with cress garden. Karren delivered her brutal verdict on Susan: “incredibly decisive . . . but very immature”.

But it was when Susan started firing off a volley of inane questions like “Do the French like their children?” that Karren delivered the coup de grace, with the words “beyond stupid”. This seemed a bit mean, given that the subtitle for this series should probably be “Business for Dummies”. Clearly Karren has suffered a massive sense of humour failure.

Endearing though Susan is, the real story of this week’s episode was Logic’s failure to secure the right products. PM Tom had identified a child’s booster seat that folded into a backpack as the best thing on offer. He felt there was a “massive market for it in Paris”. There was just one problem: Melody couldn’t see the “common sense” in carrying a car seat on your back. Why wouldn’t you just leave it in the car, dummy?

Poor Tom looked for market research to back up his selection. Unfortunately for him, Melody’s methodology wasn’t too far away from Natasha’s crude “How do you blow your load?” vox pop last week. Does soliciting opinions from just four Metro users constitute a cross section of the French population? But the crucial point here was that Melody was able to converse fluently en francais and understand what the respondents were saying. Leon could only have been more impressed if Melody had stripped to her lingerie and serenaded them with a few bars of “La Vie en Rose”.

So Logic ended up with the pop-up postcard and the very uninspriring teapot light (140 euros). Paris is the City of Light, but would the French really be wowed by this overpriced porcelain white elephant. Like PM Tom, wasn’t it about as much use as a chocolate teapot?

Venture fared better with their flexible gadget grip (18 euros), which looked to me like a bunch of pipe-cleaners with an inflated price tag. Good for holding your mobile phone — or you could just use your hand. Thanks to Jim’s superior grasp of market research, they had bagged the rucksack seat. Despite her lack of fluent French, Helen did a great job pitching it to La Redoute — “the leading home shopping brand in France”. You sensed this would be the key moment of the whole episode.

Speaking of La Redoute, Melody failed to do her market research on them, either. She was too busy lining up appointments with snooty Parisian shops to bother finding out about the major retailer Lord Sugar had lined up for them. When Tom timidly suggested they could start with just 10 units of the iconic (ie useless) teapot light, the froideur amongst the assembled buyers was palpable. Nick Hewer pronounced it “ludicrous” — he meant Tom’s proposal, not the porcelain.

In short, Melody hung Tom and the rest of the team out to dry this week, as she attempted to fill her own order book. Of course this is not a team game, but sometimes you do need to see the bigger picture. The French capital is also renowned for being the City of Love: in Melody’s case make that self-love.

In the boardroom I felt sure that Logic had lost it. Thanks to Helen’s “fantastic” pitch to La Redoute, Venture secured an order for the backpack seat worth 214,000 euros. Logic, on the other hand, registered what Nick described as “nul points”. Inventor Tom, who’d seen the potential of seat, looked gutted. It was, in the words of Lord Sugar “an annihilation”.

So Helen won again — that’s eight weeks in a row. Tom, Melody and Leon returned for a bout of mud-slinging that made it absolutely clear which one of the three actually has some cojones (not a French word, obviously). Tom had utterly failed to control Melody, whose arrogance and failure to follow instructions was a major reason that they lost the task. But he was really squirming as Karren reminded him that he’d resorted to that tried and trusted business technique “paper, scissors, stone” to establish who should take the pitch to La Redoute. Professional or juvenile?

Lord Sugar complimented Melody on her “hunger”, though he might have asked whether this black widow was now satiated after having both her team-mates for breakfast. Tom survived because he’s polite, brainy and chock-full of geek appeal. Leon, whose remarkably well-conditioned hair has been his main contribution to the show so far, got the boot.

24 Carat Sold

This week on The Apprentice: Jim passes the buck, Susan sits on the fence and Natasha avoids the booby prize.

It’s Week Seven of The Apprentice and I’m still pining for Stuart Baggs and his much-vaunted “field of ponies”. But this year’s candidates seem more at home with double entendres and wilfully obscure tag-lines than extravagant metaphors. Perhaps it’s time to address the elephant in the room: these guys just aren’t as bombastic or as funny as they should be.

Lord Sugar’s latest shock and awe tactic was a (semi-impressive) lift descent in front of the assembled masses (well, nine candidates) at Rupert Murdoch’s former gaff, 65 Fleet Street. After immersing the teams in a load of rubbish, his latest assignment involved the equally grubby world of publishing. The teams were instructed to create a new “freemium” magazine and then sell the advertising space to three media buyers.

PM Jim got a free transfer to Venture, while Leon joined Logic — still flushed with success after their recent adventures in recycling. Viewers sat back to enjoy the usual irresistible mix of half-baked ideas, incompetent negotiating and internecine warfare.

Did I say irresistible? Actually irrepressible would be a better way to describe Natasha Scribbins, whose tendency to call a spade a spade is finally starting to win me over. As PM of Logic, no-nonsense Natasha was in no doubt about where her publication should be positioned in the market. Some might call it T&A; Ms Scribbins would probably prefer B&B (that’s boys and business). Still, “Covered” is a pretty good name for a publication aimed at today’s financially savvy lads. (Is that a calculator in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?)

Natasha just about restrained herself from stripping off for “Covered’s” first centrefold. (Melody was keeping her assets under wraps, too.) But that was more or less the limit of the PM’s decorum this week, as she dragged poor Leon off to conduct the kind of vox pop that has no place on posh channels like BBC1. “How do you blow your load?” she brazenly asked a selection of bewildered young men around London. (I’m guessing that the best answers to that are languishing on a cutting room floor somewhere in west London.) She really needs a good slap round the head with a man bag.

Let’s give Natasha some credit, she does have a Baggs-like belief in her own ideas — even if those ideas are at least 15 years past their sell-by date. Talking of which, Venture’s brilliant publishing concept was a magazine aimed at the over-60s. You know, those “coffin-dodgers” like Lord Sugar and the watching Nick Hewer, who have problems mastering new technology like mobile phones. Watching Susan and Glenn chatting with some golden oldies at a bowling club, I realised this wasn’t so much a generation gap as a yawning chasm.

Venture’s names ideas were all so crappy that I’ve already erased them from my mind. Urged to come up with something humorous, they wound up “Old Boot” Nick for a few minutes. Just as he was about to demonstrate some real pensioner power by inserting his clipboard into one of Glenn’s orifices, Zoe suggested “Hip Replacement”. Geddit?

Hard-nosed Media buyers at Carat, Mediacom and Maxus had the enjoyable task of grilling the candidates about their publications. In one corner, we had Logic with “Covered: the work hard play hard guide”, featuring a model in black underwear and hard hat, carrying a surfboard. I’m sure Natasha would happily have removed her top, if she thought it would generate more sales. Instead she contented herself with emasculating Leon with her constant interruptions.

Bringing up the rear were Venture, who hoped that “Hip Replacement: Out with the old in with the new” was a concept that would mature like a fine wine. Sensing that this was a loser, Zoe and Susan wisely left the presentations to Jim and Mr Cat Size himself, Glenn. If anyone can appreciate the wit, irony and breathtaking originality of a name like “Hip Replacement”, it’s the decidedly square design engineer from Hertfordshire.

In the boardroom figures were finally revealed. (No, not Melody and Natasha.) “Hip Replacement” had overcome its dodgy name and creaky cover design to win more ad sales from both Mediacom and Maxus. Unfortunately, Carat had failed to bite. This might have had something to do with Jim’s refusal to offer them any sort of discount off the rate card prices. They won it for Logic by buying every page of “Covered” for a grand total of £60,000. Logic went fencing, allowing the victorious Natasha to lower the tone yet again: “We certainly haven’t been given the booby prize!”

I must admit that I really wanted to see Jim fired this week. His capacity for governing by committee and never taking a decision on his own has not gone unnoticed in the boardroom. Inexplicably he chose not to bring back back Zoe, leaving Glenn and Susan to fight it out.

Events followed a familiar pattern, with Susan complaining that she never gets a fair hearing because she’s only 21 and has a flawless complexion– “It’s so unfair!” Glenn (correctly) admonished her for playing the age card yet again, while Jim sarcastically observed “It looks as if we’re all trying to shoot Bambi.” But as Lord Sugar pointed out, “It was actually Bambi’s mother that got shot”.

Channelling the spirit of 2009’s Lorraine “Cassandra” Tighe, it seems to be Susan’s role to point out other people’s glaring errors. This is a losing strategy, because listening to other candidates is a sign of weakness on The Apprentice. My advice: get off the fence and try ending all your sentences with a forceful “yeah”. It works for Natasha.

Jim didn’t get sacked, but he did get worked over by Lord Sugar’s sidekicks. He was branded a “control freak” by Nick, who didn’t appreciate being contradicted over his recollections about what Susan had or had not said this week. Karren, who has never turned up to work sporting just lingerie and a hard hat, then hit Jim with a charge of being “passive aggressive”.

Glenn gave quite a good account of himself in the boardroom, but for reasons that escape me he was fired. Apparently, it was something to do with Lord Sugar not being able to work with engineers. Given that Jim is a patronising, passive-aggressive control freak, Glenn can consider himself hard done-by.


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