A magical history tour. Not pictured: Karren Brady calling her agent. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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"Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn grew apart": The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 5

“The task is a foreign country,” as LP Hartley wrote in the opening line of his first Apprentice review, “they do things differently there.”

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

Read the episode 4 blog here.

It’s 5.30am and the 12 remaining Apprentice hopefuls are hastily pulling on their customary polyester finery in preparation to stand, blinking, at a service station off the M25.

Here, Lord Sugar appears, flanked by Nick and Karren both sporting dark sunglasses, suited and scowling, in an image of what I imagine the Men in Black would look like if they'd broken down on the motorway and the only prospect of nourishment was a breakfast burger at Little Chef.

This bleak strip of concrete at Junction 23 is a good metaphor for a candidate’s journey on this programme: soulless, unmemorable, unnecessarily long, and nowhere near Canary Wharf.

“You must all be wondering why I brought you here,” says Sugar, even though all wise viewers will know by now not to question the irrelevance of the locations he chooses, and why it’s always, without fail, punishingly urgent to set off before six in the morning.

“I’ve laid on some coaches,” comes the comforting explanation, as a few reluctant-looking coaches crawl up behind the candidates. Apparently, these sad harbingers of budget winter breaks to northern France and sicky school trips are “money-making machines”, but really that’s Sugar’s wafer-thin excuse to make the teams do yet another task with the highest potential for humiliation requiring the lowest level of business acumen: organising a coach tour.

Felipe gives an authentic insight into Oxford life. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Imagine being that tourist. Imagine turning up in London, mastering your route through the awesome spectral tangle of lines that make up its subterranean network, to eventually find your way to Victoria Coach Station. Imagine surfacing from the Tube at Victoria, feeling the spark of spontaneity and uncertainty that having a pulsating, enlightening, strange city at your fingertips fires through your nerves.

You’re just about to set off to explore, clumsily but joyfully taking pictures with your iPad – the equivalent, by the way, of using an industrial-sized solar panel to wedge under the leg of a wonky table – when you are offered a coach tour. By a man, called James, wearing a shiny waistcoat, who proceeds to scream Wheels on the Bus at you passive-aggressively as you are inescapably driven to Kent, before panic-selling you outsized Fruit of the Loom t-shirts bearing blurred iron-on pictures of castles, cutting your tour short, and then asking for a “cheeky tip” for his troubles. Imagine that.

Well, clearly this was Sugar’s vision for yesterday’s episode – as what on earth does devising a tacky history trip teach us about cut-throat entrepreneurship? – and it worked.

"Can I have 80 per cent off?" "No." Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Team Summit is led by Sanjay. Remember him? He’s the guy who thinks he’s better looking than nine out of 10 people he walks past in the street. Which streets he regularly walks down he doesn’t specify.

Daniel, a sort of oversensitive and underenthused David Brent character, appoints himself project manager for Team Tenacity. Australian Mark isn’t very happy about this, as he believes he has a more appropriate CV for the task at hand: learning facts about British history off Wikipedia and saying them at dozing tourists on an overpriced bus ride.

Each team proceeds to show off its knowledge of British history.

Team Tenacity looks to Oxford, enthusing about some sort of “very English-based castle” to which they can transport lucky punters. And Summit go to visit Kent, for something “based around history”; their talk of Henry VIII is an exciting opportunity for the show’s usual thrusting strings to be substituted for a soundtrack of pseudo-Tudor arpeggios chirruped by a cheap swanee whistle.

James attempts to achieve 80 per cent off ticket prices to Hever Castle (where a number of Henry VIII’s wives resided at different times) and, after a lengthy and awkward period of haggling, swaggers away with… the same discount the Castle offers to all group visitors. Jemma looks disapproving, but that may just be her face while she thinks hard about how to avoid doing anything for the fifth episode in a row.

Meanwhile, the stony-faced Daniel is addressing an unexplained room full of potential tour-goers (I think they were “laid on”. That’s the only explanation), attempting to sell them a trip to Blenheim Palace, “where the Winston Churchill was born”. And we’ll throw in some extra definite articles for free.

Bianca on the other team doesn’t do much better, trying to push a “historic learning element” on to another prospective coach party, before merrily admitting, “it’s our last chance”. Cut-price tickets are sold all round.

There follows some inevitable footage of men in fussily accessorised suits and women in non-battlement-appropriate footwear stamping all over 400 years of British history by tearing through castle grounds screaming things like “discount” and “margin” – poignantly echoing the last words Anne Boleyn uttered before her ultimate deadline.

Sanjay still looking hotter than 9/10 people, even in a degrading Tudor beret. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Somehow, a few actual humans are persuaded to climb aboard the teams’ buses of horror, and off drive Tenacity and Summit Tours. They have to wear degrading shiny waistcoats as tour-guides, although many opt for historic dress. Sanjay wears one of those charming baggy Tudor berets, for example, clearly still thinking he’s a total hottie – particularly if nine out of 10 people he walks past at Hever Castle happen to be ghosts of Anne of Cleves.

“We don’t want to look desperate,” Bianca advises her teammates, as Felipe nods gravely, wearing a garishly striped boating blazer with matching trousers and a straw boater.

Karren Brady gazes resignedly at the coach window’s “In emergency break glass” sticker as James and Sanjay yell One Man Went to Mow and Wheels on the Bus at their history-keen passengers for the entire journey. “I'm just recovering from the coach journey from hell,” Brady tells us afterwards, before asking “where are we?” to the team, in one of those thrilling moments when she breaks the Apprentice fourth wall.

Upon arrival, the actual tour is no better. James, wearing a plastic Burger King crown, comments on the “lovely shapes and sizes” of topiary lining Hever Castle’s grounds. Jemma takes over once they get inside, gazing at her notes, pointing out a non-existent “photo of Henry VIII” without looking up, and explaining that the infamous king “wanted to move on and caused a bit of controversy with Anne”, by way of describing Boleyn’s brutal end to a curious tourist.

In contrast, Lauren of Team Tenacity gives an accomplished notes-free performance that Ed Miliband would envy, as she takes her tour around Blenheim. But aside from this, the rest of her team’s effort seems to consist entirely of inadequate sandwiches and Felipe explaining to people sleeping on a barge through Oxford the intricacies of the university’s archaic bachelor-to-masters process.

"If Anne Boleyn's neck was as thick as you are, she'd probably still be alive." BBC/The Apprentice

Tenacity – the team that doesn’t offer a tour informing customers that the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is that “they grew apart” – wins, of course. But team members pat Mark on the shoulder rather than praising their project manager, Daniel, who proceeds to bite his lip angrily during their reward as he is hoisted in a harness up the Orbit. “How is this a fucking treat?” he seethes. “I can actually feel the sick coming,” adds Katie.

Meanwhile, the boardroom offers an incredible lesson in the English language:

“Where is your brains?” asks Lord Sugar (ie. “can you help me use a plural please?”).

“It’s unfair Sanjay is trying to leverage blame on myself,” laments Bianca (ie. “it wasn’t me”).

“I believe that I swotted up also,” counters Jemma (ie. “...but not in English”).

“Where is the failure of this task lay – with whom?” asks Sugar, as a final lesson in how to approach blaming others for their lack of clarity, brevity and intellect.

But when everyone stops talking like Yoda, it’s Jemma who gets the chop. Unsurprising really, as “I’m always the girl who nearly wins,” is the key transferable skill stated on her CV. It takes up the space where a history GCSE would be.

 

Candidates to watch:
 

Mark

“The Australian charm came in quite handy.”

And indeed, it did seem to work, as his teammates clearly warmed to him during this task. And warmth is a rare thing on this cold sweat globule of a programme.
 

Lauren

“I’m a glamorous solicitor.”

Very good at giving a fluent history tour. Will this help her in the business world, or will Lord Sugar decide it’s just the kind of useless bourgeois skill they don’t waste their time teaching you at the University of Life?
 

Felipe

"I am a fat daddy."

Did he convert his BA into a Masters or not? Maybe they’ll let him stay for the interview rounds just to keep viewers on the edge of their sofas as they wait to find out.
 

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.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit