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:


“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.


“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?


"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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis