OK, I missed Episode 1. No, I didn’t nod off: I was Down Under, 12 hours out of sync, and eating breakfast in a campervan. Whether muesli, banana and sunshine were better for me than another episode of this must remain a debate to be had elsewhere, but I didn’t have a sense of missing it. Having concluded, watching the last series, that the programme struggles to really be either a business lesson or an entertainment (we’ll return to that in a moment), watching Episode 2 in the throes of jetlag wasn’t a great idea. While the running metaphor of review the last series was Steve, sat on a sofa in Rotherham, the show’s ‘magic’ didn’t rub off on Dave, sat on a sofa in Milton Keynes. I drifted, more in the sense of Mae West’s oft-quoted remark than in the sense of any kind of reverie. And I wasn’t Snow White before I started, even without the capital letters.
It was the week of The Invention Task. “Aren’t they all?”, I mused woozily, in as much as every episode seems essentially to turn on the alchemic process of turning old rope into fivers by the magical application of egotism, backstabbing and a carefully edited sense of urgency. I’m sure the programme should be instilling some kind of appreciation of the virtues of the ideal businessperson, but the commentary I read over the weekend that most reminded me of the programme was actually an interview with Marianne Faithfull in The Guardian, where her answer to the splendid question “Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?” was as follows:
I’ve had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.”
It reminded me of my lingering regrets about the format of the programme: that its reductionist approach (barebones brief to product launch and assessment of performance in the market in about 48 hours) might hint at some elements of business, but deforms them beyond meaning. What’s left is a scrabbling for attention and for the top place on the podium that surely does not even the least worthy candidate any presentational favours. It’s like watching a small class of hyperactive children with attention disorders all trying to be the one who gets the teacher’s apple or the gold star. Mildly amusing, but neither instructive nor particularly edifying. And it is about envy rather than greed: it’s about more than just wanting a gold star – it’s about wanting everyone else not to have it.
All the usual failings were present and correct: ignoring the focus group feedback (although given that the focus group consists on about 15 people hastily gathered with little discernible reference to accuracy of demographic targeting); a tendency to what sometimes gets euphemistically referred to as ‘executive decision making’ (to use three words at their loosest); rampant verbal self-aggrandisement and giving of 110%. At such an early stage of the programme, the problem is that none of it really registers. It’s too early for obvious winners to emerge – and far too tempting to make easy remarks about obvious losers. That feeling, interestingly, seems to chime with part of an interview with Nick Hewer at The Daily Telegraph:
We all think we can spot the winner right off – and get it wrong. People grow through the process. You might get a quiet one who doesn’t appear to be skilled in any particular thing, but they’re listening and learning and suddenly they start to grow. Others can look brilliant, then implode and disappear in a puff of smoke.”
All very true, although other elements of the interview made me scratch my chin at his assertion that the programme is “Pure business but packaged in an entertaining way.” Call me cynical (oh, go on …), but I’d imagine a school visit from Nick Hewer would have teachers giving 100% to the ‘task’ of priming the kids in advance to demonstrate they’d picked the business lessons out of the entertainment. Nor, presumably, would you invite him to visit as part of the Media Studies curriculum. And I cringed rather vigorously when I read the following extract:
I went to a public school in the West of England, had dinner with the prefects, and asked who among the eight of them was running a business. They all were. Little businesses in the school, like fetching fish and chips from the local chippy for the younger boys who were not allowed into the town. The delivery service incurred a healthy charge.”
Where I come from (Surrey, as you ask), that’s considered as something closer to exploitation than entrepreneurism. And its nutritional value is equally suspect whether you look at it terms of calories consumed or lessons learned. The word ‘shark’ crossed my mind. (A pasty, by contrast, would offer greater nourishment and an exciting lesson in both regional history and modern politics.) Not in the sense that one of this year’s contestants, Ricky, might have hoped (“I’m like a shark, right at the top of the food chain. I take what I want, when I want it”), but more in the sense of loan shark. The word ‘interest’ is relevant, but only as a cold hard calculation.
I felt like Nick nailed what we might call the programme’s appeal in the closing words of this interview:
It’s not about going out and getting a job — it’s all about starting up businesses because that’s what the winner will be doing with Lord Sugar. It’s about promoting the concept to the viewing public that even though times are hard, you can still make it.
Of course, the sheer excitement of someone lumping a quarter of a million pounds on the table when you’ve got no experience, no collateral, no bank record – it’s irresistible. And that’s why the series we’re about to launch is so intensely competitive and worthwhile. Who else is going to give you £250,000 these days to start your own business?”
The problem is that the contestants do have some experience, albeit generally excessively over-trumpeted. (The other great quote from the series so far? 20 year old Maria, saying ““I set up my own business when I was 19, and I have been working really hard ever since.” Come back to me in another 31 years, sweetness, and we can compare notes.) This is a series where the overwhelming majority of press coverage is purely mocking or sneering in tone, as people are manoeuvred to look desperate for our education or edification. And not just desperate but solipsistic and self-centred. This is business with everything but the bottom-line removed, and any gaps filled with cheap gags.
In the end – which for all the pace felt a long time coming – Maria went. Maybe she’d be watching the pre-edits or had a convenient eye-line on a playback monitor, but she had the nerve to nod off in a meeting. Understandable, frankly, but it did for her and the Taxi of Shame was duly summoned.
Occasionally prodding myself back awake, I was left agreeing with The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, who sounded like she also struggled to watch it, and complained of its televisual ilk that:
They drive out anything difficult. They drive out all but the cheapest emotions. They drive out the ability to recognise genuine talent – which in real life may or may not be attached to a tear-jerking personal history or telegenic physiognomy – and they drive out the notion that hard work can (let alone the idea that it should) be a route to success. They drive out the notion that there might be other, better ways to be entertained than by having hate figures cynically lined up before you, or by pointing, laughing or revelling in your fellow man’s discomfiture and failure.”
Still, chin up: it’s too early to really hate any of them yet. I promise to give it 100% next week, and actually pay more attention. Who knows, I might learn something …