Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Apprentice series 8, episode 1: Blank Canvas.

“In business, times are tough. Investment, hard to come by” is the ominous voice over, as we enter the new series of The Apprentice. True to form, the show kickstarts by showing us footage of some arrogant idiots taking absolute shit, “I will literally roar my way to the top”, brags one lady, as a guy says “I have a habit for pulling people’s strings and making them do what I want.” One woman, with striking blue eyes and blonde hair, fancies herself as quite the Uma Thurman, “I call myself the blonde assassin. I let people underestimate me just so that I can blow them out of the water.” But the cream of the crop has to be a self-proclaimed “shark”, who says “I truly am the reflection of perfection.” With this grade of shit-talking, swish suits and 16 egotistical buffoons, we are well and truly ready for Series 8 of The Apprentice.

As much as these characters love themselves, everyone knows there’s one person who calls the shots in The Apprentice, and that is the one, the only, Sir Alan Sugar. Presumably bored of shooting Piers Morgan down all the time on Twitter, Sir Sugar features another kind of bored: the board room. The 16 hopefuls look by turns excited, scared and sure of themselves. One lady is wearing very striking purple eye make-up to match her purple blouse. Sir Alan says that he’s looking for someone who’s the “Marks to [his] Spencer, the Lennon to [his] McCartney.” He then proceeds to brag that if he was on the side of the table as his contestants, he would win. Big talk for a man who once owned Tottenham, trololololo.

The week’s challenge is to start their own print material. They can sell T-shirts or pictures of photos, and whoever makes the most profit wins, the team that doesn’t, fairly standard. Also as per standard, in the first week, it’s men vs women, with Nick being put in charge of keeping an eye on the girls and Karen Brady the girls. Alan Sugar drily warns his contestants to not even think about hiding away. If the preview was anything to go by, I don’t think there’s much danger of these characters of hiding.

We find out a bit about the integral players. One of the women owns her own bridal boutique, one of the men runs a fine wine company. One of the women, who we learn is called Bilyana Apostolova, prides herself on getting herself from a “communist block in Bulgaria to a skyscraper in the city of London.” Another, Maria O’Connor, whom I’d earlier identified as wearing very noticeable eye makeup and is younger than me, is a restaurateur. “You’re either gonna love me or you’re gonna hate me,” she preens. One man, rather unfortunately named Ricky Martin, says “by day I’m a business superstar, and by night, I’m a professional wrestler.” The jokes are really writing themselves here. “I think Lord Sugar saw the potential from me, just sitting from across the desk”, he smirks. Looord.

The contestants this season are situation in west London’s trendy Bayswater, in an apartment that is apparently “big enough to fit all our egos in.” Having watched them for just ten minutes, I’m not sure there’s a big enough building in the world for that. The boys group pick their group name fairly quickly – Phoenix, for the imagery, as do the women, who go for Sterling. I quite like both names, and I also like that “sterling” is quite a masculine word and the women haven’t been afraid to pick it.

What the boys are afraid of, however, is putting themselves forward to be project manager. They all churn out various excuses before Technology Recruiter Nick volunteers himself. He explains that his mind is a bit like an Excel spreadsheet. Knowing the problems I’ve had with MS Excel on the morning of a coursework deadline when I’ve needed it to compute complex sums, I wouldn’t say that was altogether a completely positive thing. He does, however have a fairly geeky, bumbling charm, and I have a feeling I will be rooting for him in weeks to come. The women are less wallflower in their behaviour, as Gabrielle Omar, an architect who has just opened a print store herself and thus has the requisite know how, bravely volunteers.

Next, to decide what they will sell. The boys decide to sell print on bears. Nick asserts “the design comes second, just the product at the moment,” which I think is fairly dubious as most people buy prints for the aesthetics more than the object themselves. The women go for T-shirts, and Gabrielle, who had introduced herself as “a bit quirky” is really pushing the quirky factor as she says words like “zany”. She obviously backs the weird-factor!

The girls decide to target families by going for animal designs on their T-shirts. Business development manager Jade gets the ball rolling swiftly as she makes a few sketches with her Sharpie pen, which are then uploaded online and made into presentable-looking cartoon pictures. The pictures are simple and quite childish looking, but still presenting the animals they’re meant to be well. A Quentin Blake-lite style, I’d say.
There’s a bit of a confusion within the girls’ team in terms of how many actual blank T-shirts and blank bibs they need to buy. They call up Gabrielle, who doesn’t seem sure, so she delegates the responsibility to the team who are at the warehouse. They hand over £280, but no one looks terribly happy or confident with their decision. The women seem none too impressed with their Project Manager, “she’s an architect. She can draw, that’s it”, Maria asserts, whilst various other women pull catty faces.

In stark comparison to Gabrielle’s creativity-but-lacking-pragmatics, the boys are quite the opposite. They have calculated their profit margins down to a T and are comfortably within budget, but as picked up on previous, their product is awful mediocre. “What’s different about this? Nothing is different about it,” Karen Brady notes. The men decide to print pictures of London buses, and I, like Karen Brady, am utterly unimpressed with the lack of invention involved here; there’s plenty of photos of assorted London things all around London. The boys really needed to think a little more outside the box. Union Jacks on teddy bears, really? Not exactly blowing the world away with that.

Next comes the production process. The boys do some spray-painting for the silhouettes of their boring T-shirts, whilst Gabrielle’s girls make a range of bags, T-shirts and jigsaw puzzles of the three animals Jade had drawn, rendered in various colours. The girls’ product has turned out nice and even looks semi-professional. I have a feeling that even if the girls’ team end up losing, Jade won’t be brought into the boardroom because her designs have been great. In making the products, Gabrielle is really in her element as she instructs her team members how to do the lino, printing, etc. Nick observes that she has finally been able to shine now, but that he is disappointed with the “blonde assassin” Katie. He shrewdly notices that “she’d better get involved, or they’ll sense weakness and start turning on her,” which is then precisely what happens.
The boys’ patriotic bears and T-shirts about waiting for buses really are the most uninspired thing I’ve seen, and I’m struggling to think who, apart from the odd tourist with far more money than sense, would really want to buy it when there are so many similar and better produced ones already out in the market. But they’ve got even more pressing concerns, as the process of printing the bags were harder than they’d envisaged, and as such, a few turned out badly and cannot be sold. “I think it’s terrible,” laments guy says of the bland product choice, “but it’s done now.” No use crying over spilt printing ink?

Nick gives his team a talk, asking each of them to aim for £325 of sales each, which is beyond optimistic. What is even more optimistic, however, is that he thinks those run-of-the-mill teddy bears can bring in £15. Really?! I wouldn’t pay £1.50 for them! Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks this, as Stephen, a sales manager, voices his concern and thinks they should try selling the bears for £12 instead. Nick, however, possibly more due to his pride being dented rather than any kind of unwavering faith in the bears, refutes this, and chooses to stick with £15.

The Apprentice always has had flawless background music, what with their wide range of film soundtracks and classical music blend, and this episode is no different as Saint-Saëns’s lovely Danse Macabre plays as the Sterling, the girls group, arrive at Greenwich market. They have a marketing trick up their sleeve, to print children’s names on the T-shirts to charge more. I think this should be popular as parents love items of clothing with their kids names on. They’ve also decided to take half of their stock to London zoo, which should be popular as little kids who see the T-shirts will surely want a piece of memorabilia of their day out.
All is not totally well, however, as Maria gets irked as she perceives the other half of the team to be dallying and wasting time, and being the bolshy person she is, tells them so. “Go, you’re wasting time!” she barks at them.

The bears, unsurprisingly, are not shifting for £15. The ridiculous thing is that in Clinton’s, you can get a large teddy bear for £20,and these bears are tiny, and thus not worth anywhere near £15. Finally Steve gets what he wants and lowers the price. “Try and sell it for a higher price if you can”, Nick pleads desperately, but he’s not fooling anyone.

The women in Greenwich market are doing very well indeed, as gaggles of mothers swarm to their products, and the choice to personalize the jigsaws/T-shirts/bibs is also proving popular and many are taking them up on it for the extra £5. However, the girls who were headed towards London Zoo are in gridlock. The bad news is broken to Gabrielle, who is non-too-pleased. Finally, the women arrive at London Zoo, and they know they have to make up on lost time by ambushing any mothers with prams. The rest of the team are not impressed with Bilyana, who keeps speaking to children, which is obviously rather pointless as children aren’t known to carry wallets. Further fractions are caused when the team think she is taking over other people’s sales, to boost her own sale statistics. “You don’t want to be behaving like animals in the zoo,” one woman comments, laughing at her own joke.

The teddy bears, at ten pounds rather than £15, are now actually beginning to sale. Deciding to haul their stock in bulk, they sell some of their bags in bulk to niche stores, for considerably below the price they were selling them for individually.

Meanwhile at the zoo, the women are continue to behave at their catty best. Seeing the zoo as a bit of a bust, they decide to approach local stores. But the walk to the stores themselves cause fights as the women debate the length of the walk towards the shop. With time running out for the half of Sterling at Greenwich market, they too, make like the boys and flog the remains of their products for cut-prices to small shops. The key at this point of the day is no longer making profit, but for making any kind of money.

The women who failed at the zoo finally reach a shop, and try to harass the shopowner into buying their bags. She says, quite reasonably, that she can’t give them an answer today, and the women continue to try and pile pressure on her to no avail. Frustrated, one of them says, “okay, let’s go, we’re wasting time,” which no-one would like to hear in their own store, and, quite rightly, the shop manager gives them an earful for their rudeness.

It’s not just the girls who have some angry customers, as the boys team, who had sold 10 bags to a niche store run by a woman in a polka dot dress, calls them back in, pointing out the imperfections in each one of the ten bags they’d given her. I think that’s really cheeky that they thought they could get away with selling below-par items. “They’ve sold some of their product that deserves to be nowhere other than the bin,” Karen Brady remarks. They end up having to refund the woman, a very embarrassing situation.

With the business day finished, it’s back to the boardroom for Sir Alan’s obligatory speech. He commends Phoenix on their choice of team name, but is less impressed with how none of the men had the balls to put themselves forward for Team Leader. “Before Nick had even finished putting himself forward for Team Leader, half the team were congratulating him,” Karen Brady observes wryly, of a team that consists of so many supposed “leaders.” Next, Alan Sugar appraises the team’s product, which, as I predicted, he isn’t too impressed with. It just isn’t a well-designed product.

Onto the girls group, he questions them how they came up with the name “Sterling”, and the woman who came up with it proudly says how she dreamt it, but receives nothing but an eye roll from Sir Alan. And, like I knew he would be as well, Sir Alan is very taken with Jade’s design (Jade did Graphics at college). The girls banter with him that if he likes them so much he can have one for free.

But the only thing that really matters is the numbers. The girls get a net profit of £214.80. The boys, however, blow that out of the water with profits of almost three times that at £616. For winning this challenge, the boys are treated to canapés and cocktails. I can’t say I fully think they deserve it. Their product was really boring and uninspired and I definitely wouldn’t have bought one, whereas I would have gladly bought one of the cute T-shirts from the girls’ team. To add insult to injury, their prize is food presented in artistic form, such as eating food off a painting tile, and adding flavour to their drinks with a “paintbrush”. It’s gorgeous to look out and is probably even better to eat, and would have been heaven for Gabrielle, herself an art nut. But, as one of the people in the show speak sense for the first time all episode, he notes cannily, “they had eight people going in eight directions, we were all pulling in One Direction.” Aside from making me grin because it alluded to what is currently my favourite boyband, it is also very true. The girls’ product was much, much better, in design and in quality. But where they fell down was in team work. And that cost them.

In a move that will surprisingly absolutely nobody, as soon as the women are sent to the dingy café, they start pointing fingers. It’s suddenly everyone’s fault but their own. In the boardroom, on asking where they went wrong, Jane says “the boys were very focussed on their margins. We weren’t,” and Jade backs this up, saying they only looked at pricing after they’d made the products. Alan Sugar shrewdly points out how the Greenwich mob sold twice as much as the London Zoo group. Nick really lets rip into the girls for the totally unclassy why they tried to bully that shopkeeper into buying their stuff, saying they were like a group of “braying hyenas.” Katie speaks up for the first time in what feels like the whole day, choosing to blame Bilyana for the long walk in which they wasted precious time. Bilyana points fingers at Project Manager Gabrielle for the 20 minutes she took to make decisions, conveniently forgetting it took 20 minutes to walk to the nearest shop. Har.

On being questioned what she did, Katie says she was a “fantastic team player” and claims to make “lots of sales,” something that isn’t exactly backed up with sale figures. Gabrielle chooses to bring Bilyana and Katie with her into the boardroom, which are the two that I would have picked as well.

As they wait awkwardly for him to make his decisions, Alan Sugar gives a small hint on his feelings on the three women. Gabrielle, he observes, seems nice and pleasant, but her management lacked direction, a big issue. Bilyana, he notices, “rubs them up the wrong way”, and he noticed that Nick didn’t have much to say about what Katie did. However, one thing that Alan Sugar is above is falling for easy scapegoating, and is wary of the team ganging up on Bilyana. She doesn’t after all, have excellent credentials, which one doesn’t obtain from being an idiot.

As such, he allows Bilyana to speak up for herself, but she speaks so much jargon that he finds himself cutting in. “You’re talking like a City analyst. This is not brain surgery, it’s a two bob job.” And then, the line of the entire episode, “This is not a takeover of Goldman Sachs.” I laughed for half an hour!
What follows is essentially a verbal catfight between Gabrielle and Bilyana, as they holler at each other and Gabrielle assumes a wide range of furious facial expressions. Then Bilyana gives her life story, “I came here when I was 17 on a scholarship…” that gets so boring that again, Sugar interrupts her. “Shall I get out the violin?” he askes deadpans. Comedy genius.

Sir Alan makes his decision, and chooses to fire Bilyana. He's up against it in, though, as she won't let him get a word in edgeways as she senses he's about to fire her, which makes it pretty funny. "It's unfortunate for them that their demeanor can be their demise," he opines. This is a sentiment shared by Katie, who says "I owe a drink, to be honest." Indeed, Bilyana was VERY annoying in the boardroom and Alan Sugar probably got bored of her whining.

So Katie and Gabrielle go back to the pad, ready to fight on another day. 1 down, 15 to go.


Joanne said...

That's exactly how I saw it - addictive though!

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