The Apprentice is back: series five, week one. It used to be something of a cult, on some cable channel called BBC2, now it’s totally overground and the nation grinds to a halt when it’s on: pubs close early, general elections are moved, the streets are empty. (Hyperbole aside, it had around 4 million viewers for series one; the climax of series four almost hit 9 million: it’s big business.) Older readers will know that, since 2006, I have been providing a unique service by reviewing every episode on something called a blog. This used to be quite something. Children would gather round. I would watch the programme, then write a review that night, or the next morning, based on memory. Unless I am looking back through rose-tinted glasses, I don’t think the excellent Apprentice website even had clips to watch in 2006 (or if they did, my connection wasn’t fast enough to watch them). Now, you can watch last night’s show on iPlayer at your leisure, and as for blogging: every fucker’s at it. You can’t move for live blogs, tapped out as the programme airs, but then, this was never a live blog. Who wants to type while this fabulous programme is actually going out? Or, for that matter, read about it while it’s going out? I expect Twitter is full of it this year. I’m not complaining. That’s progress. Deal with it. But I come to you this year in a very different context. I can sense a backlash against the programme coming. It’s no longer “ours”. It’s about selling your grandmother to make money and worshipping the market and praying to Canary Wharf and wearing braces (well, one of the boys this year wears braces), and that all seems a bit misplaced and quaint as the recession rolls in. It’s usually good sport to point at the silly Thatcherite wannabes as they chew the insides of their faces off for fear of not becoming a millionaire before they’re 29. Now they seem a bit sad. A bit last year.

Still, I shall be content to offer my own personal view each week for the next 100 weeks, and invite anyone interested to pass comment – as is traditonal, a number of you will, once again, demand that I watch The Apprentice: You’re Fired on BBC2 straight afterwards, which I never will, as I have absolutely zero interest in seeing the fired candidate with a new hairstyle being clapped by a studio audience and then forced to watch themselves, edited, in footage filmed almost a year ago, and then either made a mockery of, or reevaluated in kinder terms. (This year, presumably we’ll hear how they are now unemployed.) The showbiz side of it is unnatural*, and for me, it does not add to the gaiety of the show, which is an hour long, and no longer than an hour long. Nor have I read any previews, as for me it’s a pure experience: 60 cleverly edited minutes of twats in shirts with prominent jaws and 90s gel, hustling for a job they don’t really want, as it will be beneath their talent.

So, the all-important Week One. (Expect not a full roll-call of names, it’s not what Episode One is all about, and that’s why it’s so good.) What should have been a hardcore of 16 but was actually 15 – due to “matey” having “bottled it” – defied the economic downturn by putting their continued faith in the kind of bullshit and business jargon that used to wash but frankly doesn’t any more. Was Sir Alan having some kind of larf? Getting them all to go out and clean? After all, it’s what the entrepreneur of the recession-ravaged future will be doing! I loved the sheer sadism of this first task: putting a bunch of people who don’t know what a duster is (seriously – one of them, doesn’t matter who at this stage, held up a feather duster and asked one of the other ones, doesn’t matter who at this stage, what it was) out on the streets with buckets and pressure hoses. Sir Alan’s opening address was way too long and too rehearsed. He didn’t even stumble over any of the words, or use a malapropism. (“I’m gonna find out if you’re the real deal, or just a bunch of empty designer suits and dresses … I know the words to Candle In The Wind, but it don’t make me Elton John. Right? … I’m as hard to play as a Stradivarius. You lot, I can assure you, are as easy to play as bongo drums.”) Boo! Let not slickness infect Sir Alan. He sold van aerials out of the back of a car.


A woman: “What’s this?”
Another woman: “A duster”

Boys at a disadvantage, not due to raging testosterone (after all, the girls on this show have plenty of that), but being one “matey” down. It’s all so crushingly yet thrillingly familiar – thank God they haven’t fucked with the format – boys choose a name and an ubergruppenfuhrer really quickly, after quashing all the Latin ones from the Asian teacher man (“Carpe Diem – it means I am a cunt”) and risking a cloak of uninvited irony upon the multicultural group by calling themselves Empire (“I think Strike sounds a bit Arthur Scargill”) and putting forward the seemingly spineless and definitely hapless Howard as their scapegoat. Girls take about two hours to choose a name, and a further three hours picking a leader: Ignite and Mona, which is pronounced “Monna” and sounded in the voiceover like “Momma” the first few times. She seems perfectly OK until it becomes clear she is saddled with the wrong kind of Efrican eccent, less No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, more Nicky Hambleton-Jones crossed with that grotesque gym beast on Harry & Paul. Luckily, for her, she didn’t say much. Or project lead much.

Let the task begin – that is, the task of the world-class Apprentice directors and editors, who must produce an hour-long soap with 17 characters in (including gay icons Nick and Margaret), and create enough intrigue and comedy to keep us hooked. They deftly leave clues as if they are directing and editing a Poirot set in a suit hire shop: we learn very early on that the girls have spent £196 (“under budget”) on cleaning stuff; we also see very clearly that the Asian girl with a face like a Persian cat (whose name, Anita, we will know by the end) is supposed to be in charge of the money, even though she kind of isn’t. Taking notes? She wasn’t. No footage of the boys balancing their budget: it wasn’t going to be a subplot. I liked it when we saw the girls wiping their chairs before sitting down in the “mafia den” warehouses: subtle.

No room for any really intricate interplay between the as-yet mostly anonymous candidates (ooh look, there’s an American, she thinks the team should be called “Shazam!”, at which the editors drop out the sound to make it look as if her suggestion has been greeted with damning silence perhaps because she started the Iraq war; ooh listen, there’s one from Birmingham; ooh look, one of them has his head on upside down … unless that’s, like, a religious beard he’s got there, and whoops, racism! No, it’s too sculpted for a religious beard, surely? Phew, we can mock it after all! Oh dear, he said he leaves the cleaning to his wife, does that mean he is religious after all? It’s a bladdy minefield!) – we must make do with two basic stories: team leader and “sub-team” leader fall out in a pathetic, too-early power struggle. Over car cleaning. Dusters at dawn. Or whatever those sticks with a sort of fluffy bit on one end are called.

Momma has a bit of a mobile-phone spat with a flat-faced woman with dark hair, while Hapless tuts a bit about a man with a Geordie accent, let’s call him Geordie until he becomes the County Durham Lee McQueen (I doubt it). They all wash some cars really unprofessionally, taking about an hour per vehicle, not including the time it takes to go back and actually do it properly. Momma breaks the first rule of sexual equality by selling Ignite’s pathetic services to a man on the basis that they are women. She didn’t actually offer blow jobs but the implication was there. They also ask a man – the client – to help them with the pressure washer – nooooo! There are feminists watching! (She and her non-sub-team also gave us our first bit of hilarioius overpricing repartee, led by a woman whose sentences go up at the end called something like Pashmina: “We’re going to do all three Hummers for £300.” “Hmm, our supplier does them for £60.” “NO WAY DOES HE DO IT FOR SIXTY POUNDS! I DON’T BELIEVE YOU! GET THIS LOSER ON THE PHONE!” “He does it for £20 a Hummer.” “Yes, but we’ll give you a blow job.”)

One too many comedy cutaways of Nick, looking unimpressed, but a fun episode, with a bit of slapstick, an equal number of useless car-washers among both genders (Margaret on the boys: “I’ve never seen so few cars cleaned by so many people”), some running around Whiteleys’ shopping centre car park squealing at “consumers” and the now-traditional knocking on doors of random suburban houses as night falls, to make a final few pence. Those damn editors made me think it was going to be a victory for the girls, with a Hapless-versus-Geordie clash of the idiots in the boardroom, but by spending … ah yes! I remember! … £196 on pressure washers that are just too boo-hoo hard to operate with their hoses and fittings and everything, the girls lost by a tenner. Inglorious.

Both teams made the cardinal error in the boardroom, which is to turn on the project manager before Sir Alan had even declared a winner, thus opening up early fissures in solidarity (Momma hates Flat Face and Persian Cat Face; Hapless hates Geordie, and Geordie hates Hapless because “turnover is insanity, profit is vanity” or something). After an awful lot of shouting over each other from the girls, Sir Alan found himself “straggling” and without “a bladdy clue”, eventually picking Persian Cat off from the herd and sending her packing, with her earlier claims of having “a rainbow” of talents still ringing in our ears. How could he split up Flat Face and Momma, now that they’d drawn knives?

Sorry if any of these observations have already been made on live blogs or other websites. Next week, more portent of the new economic climate, as the candidates are tasked to walk naked through the empty streets of the City wearing sandwich boards saying WILL WORK FOR FOOD.

Oh, and for nostalgics everywhere: all 2008 entries can be accessed here.

* That said, I long to be invited on as a pundit. Why won’t they recognise my qualifications? I’ve been a fan since the beginning. I remember Paul and Saira. Don’t they know I have to be invited onto every TV show once and then never asked back? It’s the rules.

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