Hot tubs selling like hot cakes. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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Flatcap handbags, folding wellies, and Derek: The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 8

The teams are let loose in Somerset to explore the "rural market".

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read the episode 7 blog here.

It’s taken eight whole smog-addled weeks for the candidates to be hoisted out of the urban sprawl and onto virgin countryside terrain, but we got there eventually. Granted, they’ve meandered to Kent and had a little canal trip through Oxford in recent weeks, but we haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing our sad suited automatons looking incongruous in the real English wilderness. A glaring oversight, considering the importance of the “rural market”, which is what this week is all about.

“You’ll be selling – products,” Lord Sugar informs the candidates, by way of explaining what exactly the “rural market” is. Weighing then heartily slaughtering pigs and selling bloated marrows sporting comedy rosettes is what comes to mind, and it turns out this isn’t actually that far from the truth, as the teams are sent to get their burnished winklepickers grubby at an agricultural show.

The Royal Bath and West Show is quite different from the eaves of steel spires the bored camera so often grazes as we are wafted over the City and Canary Wharf seven times per episode. Instead of the Shard slicing London’s charcoal skies, Somerset has a small sheep pushing its head through a gap in a clammy marquee. Rather than swarms of commuters clicking across Millennium Bridge, here we have some ruddy Morris dancers, skipping around a meaty herd of tug-of-warriors, all wiry fur and cricket-ball knees. When they arrive, the candidates look like they’ve each swallowed a gallon of Octi-Kleen.

Faces of fury. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

But before they're let loose at the fair to be watched scornfully by parading heifers, the teams have to choose the products they will sell to the people of Somerset. Felipe – reciting, “logistics, tactics, organisation” – takes Tenacity’s reins, and James – “I fancy it; I’ll put my balls on the line” – is in the saddle for Summit.

Then a few from each team go to a showroom of pointless rural accoutrements and pretend to understand the value of the products. “It’s so quirky, I absolutely love it, it’s so different,” gushes Felipe about a tweed “flatcap handbag”, which sounds like the tabloid label for some sort of class-defying tax George Osborne would accidentally introduce. Felipe and Mark buy a batch without negotiating. In the sales world, we call this “shopping”.

On the other team, Solomon and Sanjay decide upon bicycle trailer attachments for carrying children, and pet finders for, well, finding pets. Ignoring his teammates’ advice, James overrules them and goes for foldable wellies (useful when packing a suitcase for a swamp holiday) and hanging garden chairs (useful for the 1970s) instead. “To me, that’s really bad,” is Solomon’s enraged battlecry.

They also have to choose some “big ticket items” (ie. “expensive stuff”) to go with the tat from the showroom. This is one of the tensest moments of the whole series, as each team battles to win the right to sell hot tubs to those raunchy country folk who have a spare £4000 to fork out at a moment's notice for a steamy outdoor group experience.

But first, Daniel barrels through trying to convince a bemused barbeque seller that “we’re infected by it; we feel the passion” and after being warned by Katie that he was “a bit intense”, tones it down for the hot tub man. “We’ll be making sure people leave with a smile,” he grimaces.

James then has a try for the hot tubs, shaking hands with the retailer, Anthony, assuring him that he likes the product: “Derek, Derek I do”, he cries, like a doomed bride.

Needless to say, Anthony doesn’t like being called Derek, so he jilts James and goes for Team Tenacity instead.

Cross country candidates. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

There follows a scene of such abhorrent childish obstinacy from James that you almost drop your already-wavering wry disdain for the Apprentice for pure, all-out hatred of the bloody thing.

James wants to lie to the rest of his team and tell them he decided against selling hot tubs in favour of lawnmowers (I know, a mad decision at a rural fair where none of the punters star in MTV). “My advice would be to tell the truth,” says Roisin in measured, if incredulous, tones. “It’s what I want,” James sneers, mowing her down with his lawn of lies.

But if James appears a little tetchy this week, he is nothing in comparison to Daniel. Felipe innocently blinks that he and Daniel will attempt to shift the handbags. Predictably, the latter is furious – he wore his best shiny aubergine shirt for the uniquely sleazy opportunity to sell hot tubs, which would now be Katie and Mark’s responsibility. “It’s whoever got into his brain first,” he seethes, his neck pulsating with bile, when Felipe's beleagured brain makes the controversial decision.

Once the selling begins, we see Sanjay, in vain, telling kindly country biddies they look “fabulous” in foldable wellies, Roisin softly-softly selling lawnmowers while James scowls on, Solomon stroking “about 10 dogs”, and Mark’s breathtaking whoop-swallowing pokerface when a customer casually suggests he’ll buy seven hot tubs.

Customers going cold on the hot tub. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

The boardroom, or “bearpit of sexism” as I think we can safely label it this series, sees Lord Sugar mocking the men of Team Tenacity for taking instruction from Katie. “You called up mum and asked her what to do?” he taunts. “Mummy calmed you down a little bit?” Let’s hope the business plan Katie submits to Sugar is for opening a crèche, otherwise he might be really confused.

There is also yet another male genitalia innuendo, which I really can’t be bothered to report here, because it was a real flop (eh? EH BOYS?), followed by Felipe asserting “I am not going to change from being a nice man”, Nick Hewer unaccountably calling Sanjay “nameless” in chilling tones, and James still insisting, as he has done for weeks, “I’m hungry for this.” For God’s sake, someone take the man to Bridge Café and buy him a sandwich.

And of course, that is where he ends up, as Team Summit loses to Mark’s mass-trade of hot tubs. “I called the guy Derek twice instead of Anthony,” is James’ mea culpa, as the boardroom’s straight-faced artifice dissolves completely into giggles. He is, inevitably, fired. Still, at least he can get something to eat now.

James is really starving. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Candidates to watch

Sanjay

“You’ve worked in banking all your life. You only sold three pairs of foldable wellies,” may be his epitaph.

Daniel

His clenched jaw won’t survive much longer without actually locking.

Roisin

Calm, professional, and super-smoothly Irish, is she too similar to the last series’ winner Dr Leah to last the process?

 

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here to follow it. Read my blog on the previous episode here. The show will air weekly on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on BBC One. Check back for the next instalments every Thursday morning.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge