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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder