All-American Apprentice. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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"A metaphor for success and the American Dream": The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 7

Candidates hop on a plane to the city that never... invests.

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

Read the episode 6 blog here.
 

Opening to some triumphant brass and percussion, scanning a forest of parachute-sized Star-Spangled Banners curled around golden flagposts, the camera eventually lands on a video link to Alan Sugar. A special fanfare heralds the onscreen grand-high grouch and his “urgent business elsewhere”. We meet him, flanked by real-life Karren and Nick, in a marble jungle somewhere in the American Embassy on Grosvenor Square.

The candidates are off to break America. To break its slick, corporate heart with their cobbled-together money-losing schemes, that is.

Cleverly, Sugar decides only a few are allowed tickets to New York, which leads to the kind of passive-aggressiveness that is a core principle of this programme: conversing snippily across an awkward line of people in the back of a cab. “I’m so excited,” sings Felipe, his jolly little eyes creasing in anticipation of the bright lights of the Big Apple. “We can’t all go,” Katie smiles tightly.

Product placement. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention – as if it matters – the task, which is to launch a new soft drink in America, where I think we’d all agree there is an untapped market for such products. Those poor guys’ throats are just a parched wasteland, aren’t they? Never once touched by so much as a trickle of cool, vaguely radioactive, Mountain Dew.

“I work in advertising,” lies Mark, becoming project manager of Team Tenacity and securing his seat on the plane. “I’m the obvious choice to go the US,” says Lauren, which somehow works too. They are joined, merrily and redundantly, by Felipe.

On the Summit side, James yaps, “I think Americans would love me,” which is probably true but a highly dubious accolade nonetheless. So he gets to go, along with project manager and nemesis Bianca ­– Solomon is the amicable sidekick, a teenager remaining desperately upbeat on holiday with rowing parents.

Those poor souls who aren’t allowed to go to New York, and have to stay behind slumming it in their laid-on Hampstead mansion instead, are in charge of the creative side of things: standing awkwardly in a lab tasting essence of dragon fruit and then packaging the ensuing juice.

Daniel, whose imagination when it comes to women stretches to them probably enjoying being asked out by text over a chicken salad, is left to do the imagining bit in this task too. Why? He decides “Aqua Fusion” is a great name, which sounds like one of those stressful waterparks off the motorway, and then designs the bottle with a logo in yellow nineties bubble writing, peppered with some cartoon fruit pictures off Clipart. That pink Um Bongo hippo is going to want royalties.

Proudly adding the finishing touches, Daniel probably adds a drop-shadow in the height of his PowerPoint-inspired creativity. I wonder if the business plan he submits to Lord Sugar has that little wisecracking animated paperclip on it somewhere.

“Explosion of water and pineapple,” is his description over the phone to the US-based teammates. “I will back you 100 per cent,” says Mark, which sounds like he missed out the words “stab” and “in the”. But it’s hard to tell. The transatlantic line is crackly.

Net contribution. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Roisin and Sanjay, the two calmest contestants ever to glide through seven episodes of The Apprentice without asserting impossible percentages through gritted teeth, make up Team Summit’s London HQ. They have a very sensible fruit-tasting experience in the laboratory, a suitably cool design session with a man wearing his polo shirt buttoned up to the top who has an edgy office cat, and come up with “Big Dawg”. It’s not as bad as it sounds, considering in real life you can buy “Yoga Bunny Detox” or “Red Bull” depending on your mood. “This isn’t a dog campaign,” Bianca reminds us.

What ensues is that spinecringing horrorshow when Apprentice teams have to direct advertisements (anyone remember “that’s not the English sparkling wine I ordered. IT’S DISGUSTING” and “Friendship… and Flowers” from previous years? Not to mention “Octi-Kleen”).

Felipe creates a lovely happy all-American family situation, by casting a 28-year-old lawyer from Blackpool as a lovelorn teenage girl and a boy who can’t catch as a basketball fan. The other team directs a soulless series of men talking awkwardly to camera calling themselves “Big Dawgs” with little conviction to a soundtrack of disappointed silence. “It’s a metaphor for success and the American Dream,” explains Bianca, as the camera homes in on Solomon, squinting in a polyester pink shirt.

Casting and squinting like pros. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Before presenting their drinks to trade experts, who merely make silly remarks about phallic symbols and generally shame the reputation of the squeaky-clean soft drinks industry, the candidates bumble along to Times Square. Here, they see their products lit up for every tourist in the city who is craning their neck and standing in someone’s way to see. “This world is as big as our oyster – as big as we wanna be,” is James’ input. So around 3-14 inches. Felipe weeps.

Cry for the camera. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Back in the boardroom, we hear the second mention of erectile dysfunction this series – perhaps an unfortunate symptom of this show’s old and tired format? – as, like those smutty industry insiders, Sugar sees Big Dawg’s bone logo as something rather less refreshing. He also finds Team Summit’s commercial “a complete and utter joke.” But they win anyway, and the candidates skip off to do some other weird treat that you would only find on those lesser-known voucher websites that pretend to be Groupon. I can’t remember what it is now.

There follows a harrowing boardroom scene where two awful, ubersensitive males bulldoze through anything anyone else is saying, savagely tear chunks out of each other to the point where it’s screamingly obvious Sugar should just fire them both on the spot, and so he lets Lauren go. “My instinct and gut feeling,” is his explanation that sort of renders the entire task obsolete. Which has been my gut feeling all along.

 

Candidates to watch
 

Katie

How is she getting away with doing absolutely nothing? Perhaps by doing fractionally more than Felipe?

Roisin

Masterfully disparaging of James and also expertly at once sympathetic and despairing towards Sanjay: “Sanjay, if you listen to anything James says then you’re a fool.”

James

I don’t think The Apprentice will be as big as his oyster for much longer.

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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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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