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.

Collection Christophel/Alamy
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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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