The Apprentice returns

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.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear