Faceless businessmen. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice screengrab
Show Hide image

"I’ve never bought tights in my life": The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 12

Lord Sugar’s rather laboured hunt for a new business partner finally finishes.

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

Read the episode 11 blog here.

At last. Like birds released, we can spread our wings and fly jubilantly away from this cage of glass and steel that has imprisoned us for 12 weeks. Away from the fiercely ironed blouses and hostile pocket handkerchiefs that is the uniform of its inmates. Away from the cruel icy-eyebrowed gaze of its guards, Karren and Nick. Far, far away from the judge (and Supreme Court judge, of course), jury and executioner, Lord Sugar.

For it is the final. To those reading who have stuck with the series throughout, congratulations, and thanks for giving it 110 per cent. To those who had long ago given up but deigned to watch the final, yer a bladdy disgrace. A bladdy disgrace. But probably have more friends than I do.


In an emotional last ever early morning wake-up call, Mark in his serious boxers picks up the banana phone one final time to be told to travel to a random London location in 20 minutes.

He and Bianca – who take separate taxis for some reason, so it may be worth scrutinising the green credentials of their respective businesses if they ever come to fruition – bomb down to the Bloomsbury Ballroom. This is because it has the supremely vague appeal of being a “leading venue for high-profile events”.

“You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve arranged some help,” says Lord Sugar, with a look of a man jollily announcing someone’s death sentence, as a motley procession of some of the series’ past most irritating candidates file in. Felipe grins. Bianca and Mark look queasier than they did at six in the morning.

They pick their teams, with Mark’s furiously clenching nemesis Daniel, pintsized brute James and petrifying lipstick enthusiast Sarah last to be chosen, and go off to launch their businesses.

Sarah is last to be chosen. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice screengrab

“Sarah, welcome aboard, we need some beauty,” says Mark, as the equality of the sexes becomes but a footnote in the history of a world dominated by faceless digital marketing men.

Bianca briefs her team on the importance of selling hosiery in different skin tones for £35 each, while Daniel works very hard at setting his face in a confused scowl and making sure everyone knows he is a MAN and knows NOTHING about tights. “I’ve personally not worn tights,” he growls anxiously to camera, doing a good impression of someone who protests too much, “in fact, I’ve never bought tights in my life”.

And it soon looks like women won’t be buying them either. Well, not Bianca’s ones anyway. Her market research – a room full of businesswomen with legs of all different hues – shows very strongly that her aim for the “luxury market” (ie. ripping people off) is misjudged. They wouldn’t buy such expensive tights. “It’s important that people know the truth about this,” cries Lauren, her concern about getting a ladder extending to the whole of humanity.

Access deniered. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice screengrab

Meanwhile, Mark is putting together his dull digital something-or-other plan to do the same thing as those marketing people who hassle companies about making their online presence more “impactful”, but even more intensely. Face-to-face hassling.

It’s called “Climb Online”, and the promo video features builders and dentists scaling a climbing wall talking unconvincingly about how much they love people pitching to them about having their companies appear higher up in Google searches.

Then it’s time for the pitches, in which “an audience of experts” fills a cavernous function room to look menacingly at the candidate in question, and act as Lord Sugar’s gaggle of sycophants at the after-party, when they gather around what looks like garden furniture, drinking warm wine and discussing things like how “lots of people would buy tights in different colours” and “lots of people are doing the internets these days”.

Unsuitable entertainment. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice screengrab

Bianca gives a slick, solid performance, and the audience of experts coo and purr. Mark, stricken with stage-fright, is rather hesitant at first, clearing his throat in what ominously sounds like it will be a repeat of the disastrous pitchto Tesco he croaked and choked through a couple of weeks ago.

But he gets over it and delivers a passable, if staid, presentation. The only thing that jazzes it up is Solomon and James’ idea of having men in blue and orange lycra Morph suits climbing and falling in an interpretative dance to open the event. It’s everything that is wrong with the modern age: onesies and meaningless digital marketing strategies. But afterwards, the audience of “online giants”, who are disappointingly average height, sing Mark’s praises to Lord Sugar.

We end, as we always do, in the boardroom. There’s time for one final unnecessary sexist comment (Nick on seeing a real-life woman wearing tights: “Mr Hewer had minor palpitations”), one final mangled metaphor (Sir Alan: “singing the song for high quality, you make a rod for your back”), and one final firing. Bianca goes, and Mark wins the investment, as Lord Sugar decides, “the devil in me says the service industry”. Ooh, you devil you.

Putting the Mark in marketing. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

I've been blogging The Apprentice each week. This is the last instalment. Read my blog on the previous episode here. Click here to read the whole series. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.