It's the time when a group of hand-picked bright young things descend on the capital, inflated egos stuffed into leather briefcases, bombastic one-liners shoved up sleeves, CVs suitably embellished, and a much-touted readiness to claw their way into Lord Sugar's heart and the nation's homes. The latest series of The Apprentice is the show's 8th outing. Is it still the BBC's prized thoroughbred or just a dead horse ready for another flogging?
There hasn't been any drastic changes to the show's format since it first aired back in 2005, so it's evidently the "colourful" personalities of the contestants that keep viewers coming back. It's fairly easy to recall the standout characters that made last year's show so reliably entertaining: the kooky wide-eyed gaze of winner Tom Pellereau; the "Woman of the Future" Melody Hossaini, who never missed an opportunity to remind us she'd been taught by Al Gore, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama; the icy Scot Jim Eastwood who trumped the mandatory two faces with a calculated five. Then there's the no-nonsense approach of Lord Sugar, Karen Brady and everyone's favourite facial contortionist, Nick Hewer. This year's candidates are notably youthful, the oldest being a sprightly 33. So does this mean our young unemployed will find themselves inspired by a whole set of new role models? I think not.
No one's fooled by the sharp tailoring, the flashy aerial shots and the commanding tones of the faceless receptionist Frances (who is Frances anyway? Does she work part-time? Is she really a man?). Underneath it all, The Apprentice is the crudest of pantomimes, starring statisticians who are flummoxed by measuring cupcake ingredients, marketing execs who fumble their way through presentations, inventors who aren't particularly inventive. Reality TV has reminded us that hubris is hilarious, and that's the enduring appeal of The Apprentice. Not that I'm above all that or anything. To adopt some Hewer gold, I'll probably be on it "like a tramp on chips". The first episode of the new series puts one of the teams in a zoo, so we can easily compare the mental agility of the contestants to that of chimps.
At a glance, this year's candidates are not only young but, dare I say, level-headed, personable and dangerously normal. Walking, talking, cliched person specifications, yes. But deluded and near-maniacal on the level of Baggs "The Brand"? Apparently not: Gabrielle Omar, a 29-year-old architect, has a "trusting nature"; former Head Girl Bilyana Apostolova's greatest weakness is "dealing with confrontation"; and Duayne Bryan's worst confession is that he once pretended to be Tinie Tempah. All very tame. The show had better get a bit more savage than that if it's going to keep bums on seats. "It's not a playground, it's business, says Omar. Sorry, I think you'll find it's TV.
"The Apprentice", series 8, begins tonight on BBC 1 at 9pm.