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.

Photo: Getty
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Oliver Stone on interviewing Vladimir Putin: "There are two sides to every story"

The director says his conversations with the Russian president, like all of his works, speak for themselves.

“You’re going to start with this blogging bullshit?” Oliver Stone raises his voice at a reporter, a look of fury on his face.

The director has been asked about the veracity of a video shown to him by the Russian president in his recent Showtime series, The Putin Interviews. The hapless Norwegian journalist who is asking the question notes that bloggers have taken exception to the footage’s true provenance.

What bloggers think of Stone's work, however, is clearly of no consequence to him. When another journalist asks if he’s afraid to be seen as Vladimir Putin’s "PR guy", though, he erupts. 

“Do you really think I’m going to go and spend two years of my life doing a tourist guide book? You really think I’m that kind of a filmmaker? Do you have no respect for my work?”

Stone is on fiery form at Starmus science and music festival in Trondheim, Norway. His series on Putin was filmed over two years. The final four hours of footage were cut from an original 19 of recorded interviews, which covered such diverse topics as “Russia in the 1990s and the 2000s, the American expansion of Nato, the American support of terrorism in Central Asia, Syria from his point of view, Ukraine, nuclear arms…”

Critics, however, have termed it a hagiography, and argued it offers Putin a deferential platform to share his view. Others have dismissed Stone as a propaganda poodle. 

Stone counters the criticism: “I researched it, I did the best I could, and I think it proves the old adage that there are two sides to every story.”

Whether because of naivety or professional courtesy, on the face of it, in the interview series the 70-year-old appears to buy into everything Putin tells him. "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," is all he'll say at the conference.

Later on, in the calm after the storm, we speak alone. “This was a special deal,” he tells me. “He was very congenial and articulate and willing to talk. He grabbed the moment.

“People need to keep something in mind. They said I was soft on him - that’s nonsense.

“You can’t have an interview where you’re asking hostile questions. He would have just tolerated it and said what he did, and then after that first interview he would have not have done a second or a third.

“I was interested in the long view. Nobody in the West has gone that far with him that I have seen.”

The long view is a speciality of Stone’s, as he reveals with his address at Starmus to a packed auditorium. As befits a science festival, he addresses the development of the atomic bomb and the modern digital arms race of cyber warfare.

In his view, “politics invariably gets a stranglehold on science and takes it in the wrong way”. He cites J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the nuclear bomb, and computer analyst Edward Snowden’s life following his decision to turn whistleblower. 

Stone directed the film Snowden, a task which involved navigating numerous obstacles, including gaining access to the real Snowden, by then in Russia, himself. 

“Science gets slaughtered by politics,” he tells me.

In the shadow of the criticism on the Putin front, he admits that from an American perspective, for him to become involved with Snowden was, well… “beyond the pale". 

But despite – or perhaps because of – the Academy Award-winning director’s commitment to the truth, he’s not letting go of various facts as he sees them.

“There is no evidence as far as I’m concerned for the Russian hacking allegations,” he says, adding that this was an “assessment” from the US security services which turned into a “farce”.

He has read the detail for himself, he says – and he also appears on film looking like he believes Putin when the president says it’s nothing to do with him.

Back at home, the American domestic political situation has him as appalled as ever. He is critical, not only of Donald Trump, but the system the US president operates in. 

“It seems that the president does not have the power he thinks he has," he says. "You get elected, you think it’s a democracy, but there is this mechanism inside, this Deep State – intelligence agencies, military industrial, the generals, the Pentagon, CIA combined with other intel – which seems to have some kind of inner lock.”

Although Stone places characters at the heart of many of his films, he finds Trump hard to figure out.

“I don’t know what Trump’s mind is like, I think so few people do," he muses. "He says super-patriotic things suddenly like 'I love the CIA, I’m going to really support you, I love the military, I love generals, I love all that beautiful new equipment' – that he sold to Saudi Arabia.

“He also said, and it’s very disturbing, ‘the next war, we’re going to win’. As if you can win a war where you use cyber and nuclear and various weapons. He’s thinking this is a game like a child.

“The purpose of war is not to have one.”

Stone believes – as Trump initially seemed to profess – that Russia will be the chief ally in future for the United States: “They can be great partners in every walk of life, it’s crazy to have them as an enemy."

Nevertheless, he is not as slavish to the official Russian line as many have countenanced.

“I was able to shoot this documentary because of my reputation," he says. Some people say he pulled his punches, I counter.

“Gloves off, gloves on – the truth is, he sees things his way," Stone says. "I’m not there to change his mind, I’m there to show his mind.”

In his view, an observant watcher will learn about Putin just by watching him. "The camera doesn’t lie – the camera tells you things, body language, eyes – you can get a feel sometimes," he says. "I think if you watch all four hours you’ll see that we got an enormous amount of information."

Perhaps those who sit through those four hours will be satisfied that they know more about Putin – or about Stone himself. After all, if the camera doesn't lie, it doesn't lie for anyone.

As I leave the room, Stone raises his voice after me: “Don’t change my words.” He’s smiling broadly as he speaks.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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