It’s that time of year again. Alan Sugar has taken a break from his haphazard Twitter habit to gaze menacingly upon the Gherkin. Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” is blasting. And a new group of aspiring entrepreneurs, fluent in LinkedIn hyperbole, have packed their best block-colour shift dresses and blue shirts with white collars into wheelie suitcases. Yes, it’s BBC One’s The Apprentice, and this lot are ready to bulls*** their way through 12 weeks of challenges designed to test their commercial nous (or, more accurately, to dramatically reveal their shortcomings).
Somehow, the show is in its 18th season. It’s remained exactly the same for almost two decades, aside from one switch-up, which now means that contestants must provide a “business plan” for their grumpy Amstrad overlord to peruse – cut to staged footage of the hopefuls queuing to drop off their folders with one of Sugar’s lackeys, like kids handing over a WordArt-laden homework project. There’s also the addition of a few shoehorned references to economic turmoil. It’s still possible, though, to predict the narrative arc of this opening episode pretty much beat for beat. And that’s precisely the fun of this ludicrous show, which gave up all pretence of being a serious business competition a long, long time ago (back when the boss was better known as “Suralan”).
As the new crop of wannabes introduce themselves, it’s time for a brief game of corporate bingo. “I didn’t come here to make friends, I didn’t come here to play games,” one of them declares. Exactly, mate: you came here to coast through the first few episodes, then get eliminated after spectacularly failing to sell a single can of dog food from a made-up organic brand. Another contender inevitably claims that competitive spirit is “in their blood”; a third resorts to the glaringly obvious, telling us, “I’m not here to lose, I’m here to win.” Tick, tick, tick.
By some mysterious quirk of casting, two of this year’s contestants are professional pie makers; another, Paul, is a dentist, which gives Lord Sugar an excuse to trot out an over-workshopped punchline about the three of them “earning their living shoving fillings into pie holes”. Asif, a doctor, describes himself as being blessed with “the four Bs… beauty, brains, body and business”, while fitness coach Sam identifies as “the Del Boy of business”.
Presumably, the BBC managed to wangle some sort of buy one, get one free deal when they booked the mansion from The Traitors, because the wannabe entrepreneurs are soon whisked off to Cawdor Castle in the Scottish Highlands. Here, they must host an event that would make any sane person shiver: a corporate awayday packed with team-building activities. Precisely because they’re Apprentice contestants, though, this sort of horrifying occasion is their raison d’être. The project manager for the “boys” group is Virdi, an “international DJ” who is more focused on convincing everyone he’s the next David Guetta than balancing the budget; his opposite number on the “girls” team, Onyeka, uses her fear of water to get out of hosting a gorge-walking experience.
Virdi’s mantra is to “under promise and over deliver”, which suggests he has never seen this show before. Luckily, he and his group quickly manage to get into the true Apprentice spirit by luring their clients in with the prospect of boozy welcome drinks, only to greet them on arrival with… bottles of water. Over in the girls’ team, recruitment consultant Flo’s attempts at building rapport with her guests falls flatter than one of Sugar’s scripted gags. “Anyone noticed anything different about this river that they might not have seen before?” she asks an entirely uninterested audience of wetsuit-wearing hoteliers. “No? It’s a bit brown?” Don’t wait for the call from Countryfile, Flo.
Only half of each delegation is sent off to schmooze the awayday guests: the remaining contestants must stay behind to cook up the lunch, an important rite of passage for any businessperson and definitely not an additional hurdle calculated to show off their ineptitude. Sales exec Ollie claims to never have been near a kitchen, and struggles to identify a tablespoon. Yet he has clearly spent a bit too much time watching The Bear, as he dutifully addresses his colleague as “Chef Phil”. Somehow, his culinary misfires (like forgetting to add flour to his brownies) aren’t the episode’s worst. That honour goes to the girls team, who end up coating their fish cakes with crumble mixture rather than breadcrumbs.
Unsurprisingly, this unholy sweet, fishy combo doesn’t go down well with their diners, a bunch of high-fliers from the hospitality industry. Morale is a little higher in the boys’ group, until laidback entertainer Virdi’s insistence on teaching a bhangra routine throws their schedule off course. The catering lads must wait around as their food gets colder and colder; when they’re finally allowed to eat, the guests are repulsed by the “rock solid sausages” and make the executive decision to a do a runner soon afterwards.
Their pain, though, is our gain. Eighteen seasons in, no one is sitting down in front of The Apprentice to observe shining examples of business expertise – we’re here to watch egos in freefall. It might be formulaic, but it’s reliably, deliciously satisfying: the opposite of a fishcake covered in crumble.