It may be Olympics year in Boris Johnson’s London, but in Sugarland even whiff-whaff’s not sacred. Relaxing in some very tidily pressed casual wear during what the voiceover calls a day off, our plucky hopefuls are summoned to the phone. This is Business (possibly all in caps, with exclamation marks, maybe styled as a logo), and work-life balance isn’t one of the lessons on Lordalan’s curriculum. Mercifully, we’re spared the interjection of a talking head cameo from Michael Gove.

The task? Buying second-hand goods and reselling them in pop-up shops in Brick Lane. Brick Lane is presumably programme-maker shorthand for ‘cool’: too cool for some of the candidates, it seems, even if it’s a rather lazy symbol for some of the rest of us. (Neither is there any mention of the cost of using prime retail space, if only for a day, in a shopping strip that Time Out has been plugging for at least 15 years. Let’s just say ‘more than a market stall’.)

So, it’s basically Cash in the Attic meets Flog It! week, although when isn’t it? (The BBC? Upcycling?) The stentorian language that the ghostwriters give Lord Sugar for his intro fails to point out – or equally fails to hide – the fact that the episodes are always decided on the profit. The Apprentice isn’t so much about being back to basics as never really moving beyond them.

After a mini-shuffle, the teams do the ritual showing of horns to decide whose project management antlers will decorate the boardroom wall later. For Team Sterling, Duane loses out to Laura, who’s self-marketing emerges in mangled form after passing through the business speak filter. She modestly tells us that “being an attractive business woman can have its ups and downs” (any fnars you suspect one or two of the ‘lads’ might have chuckled here were respectfully edited out), before proudly telling us that “I’ve been described as a Rottweiler.” Presumably she doesn’t mean she needs a lot of training and careful handling, and someone always has to clean up after her. Or maybe bottom-sniffing is the new bottom-scraping.

And as this week’s task is all about hip, glamorous looks – ‘turning crap into style’ in Ricky’s words, ‘upcycling’ in the narrator’s – Phoenix also select their prettiest contender: Tom. The majority of candidates then – although I notice particularly on Team Sterling – use a lot of ill-advised language like ‘shabby chic’ (ie tatty), ‘vintage’ (ie old) and, unforgiveable in Jenna’s case, ‘funky’ (ie I have no idea what’s fashionable and I’m try not to say ‘groovy’). We’re not told who’s ever been to Brick Lane before, although you could have an educated guess from their comments: shabby is not on some of their agendas. We can, however, get a sideways glance at the old ‘strategy’ chestnut even at this stage.

Tom is aiming to carefully pick items he thinks Phoenix can actually sell. When Adam, Steve and Katie are sent to an auction house with just £200, Nick sucks lemons and mutters about mortal sins – tiny budgets, only 3 items acquired. There are sly references to Team Phoenix’s history of a minimalist approach to stock after last week’s table sauce problemo. When Tom, Azhar and Jade go to a car boot sale, Nick’s lemon intake goes critical. Will Tom’s pop-up retail experience be Belissimo (sic) or baloney? (Tom has, however, grasped that they don’t need all the stock from the offset; once they see what sells, they can restock on the day. Although I’d be worried about Steve’s junk shop haul – even the guy who sold it to him was rude enough to say so on camera.)

Over at Team Sterling, things – including some of the stock – are a little more wobbly. (Maybe they should rebrand as Team Euro?) Laura, Duane and Rickaaay come back with 19 items from a junk shop before someone (I’ve forgotten who, which spares a blush somewhere) decides house clearance means free stuff. Duane mucks in and shows good grace, but plainly isn’t getting wherever this might be heading. Still, as he cheerfully concedes to the camera, “you don’t look a gift horse in the eye.” Better advice than it sounded given the dead person’s eye-wateringly lurid ‘retro’ wallpaper we’d just seen him stood against, although Laura and Ricky would have been steaming it off the walls given half a chance.

As the sun sets, Tom visits the shop he’ll be opening tomorrow. Their current stock would fit on a table. (If The Apprentice weren’t entirely competition driven, he could just buy Team Sterling’s truly bizarre suitcase on legs.) But stood outside his worryingly spacious showroom, there’s something about the way he moodily strokes his stubble for the camera that makes you wonder if he might just pull off this whole trendy pop-up thing. Nick, who’s supposed to be helping the judging process, meanwhile gallantly confesses bewilderment. I’d keep that kind of thing off camera myself …

In the blue corner, Laura’s team by contrast are upcycling like madmen in a surreal retro keep-fit video. They have a mountain of stuff, but it all needs as much work as their strategy. And, as Karren points out, they’ve got a lot of tarting up ahead of them and tarting don’t come cheap. (I half expected Karren to actually quote Dolly Parton verbatim – “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap” – in a sly ‘I’m fly enough to know Dolly is timeless cool’ aside, but maybe it was lost in the edit.)

At this point, we see the patsy being manoeuvred into position. Gabrielle, having been foolish enough to wear quite a chic blouse in her Audition Interview and confess to being an architect (on The Apprentice?), takes on the alchemist’s task of transforming this stuff into something you can sell. Essentially trying to position a brand no-one’s defined during the course of a single night and given no set budget to work with, she goes a little crazy with the materials.

The sound quality may have been a little off here too. I can see the point of orange suede at a push, but I’m sure she orders 4 packs of pasta wheels. I can’t help but feel she’s been tasked to show a dog at Crufts in the morning and then presented with a proverbial pup. Maybe the pasta wheels are symbolic – as the temperature rises, the hubs will dissolve and everything will spiral into mush. But the work-rate and the willingness to try scrubbing a mangy mutt to showroom standard are impressive. They may be reupholstering with a stapler and roughly stencilling Union Jacks onto old chairs in one of London’s most multicultural neighbourhoods, but my goodness they’re doing it with vigour. Possibly to take their minds off a palpable sense of panic.

As dawn breaks, Steve’s having a wardrobe crisis to try looking ‘arty’. The cardigan may be a strategic gaffe. Over at the shop, however, the wide open plains actually look quite phat. (Is that the right word? I’m too old to know.) More savvy with his wardrobe, Tom is doing that beltless “Hi, I’m Tom: these are my underpants” thing. Modish, dude. And they may not have much to sell in their commodious emporium, but the scenesters are prising their steampunk purses from their velvet jodhpurs and buying. As the shop gets ever emptier, they swiftly restock and end the day seemingly pleased – it’s hi-fives and low waistbands all round. Nick tries to take back a few words: I hope he kept the receipt.

Down the road, his rivals have had another wild, free idea. Already determinedly working his hairgel, Nick persuades them to gather leaves (from Hyde Park? Not exactly nearby fella …) and scatter them around the shop. The opening of which is now as late as the person whose house they scavenged the day before. Lordalan will later describe the effect as resembling ‘an Oxfam shop in a hurricane’. (Double-edged sword that: half the potential customers look like that’s where they woke up.)

Duane bravely works against the grain of his behavioural preferences and tries to be boho-hip. Jane’s desperation to drive customers into the shop resembles aggressive sheepherding, and leaves Karren wincing. Laura tries leafleting with a 10% discount, and a medium-sized rush ensues, although this later rides up slightly with wear. Perhaps a large would have been a better fit, madam? And as the Union Jack splattered stuff remains obstinately in stock, the selling gets particularly desperate. The customers look like they’re being heckled at a jumble sale.

So, squeaky boardroom time. The gloves just about stay on till the results are announced: Laura’s teams sales are 3% higher, but their costs were 83% higher. The Phoenix avoids the ashes, while Sterling plummets on late trading. The man with the stubble wins and Phoenix go swing dancing. Thankfully this isn’t part of the judging process, as Tom can’t dance. And he may have now remembered his belt, but he’s wearing a fur stole with a suit. Even Brick Lane might snigger at that one …

Back in the Boardroom, it’s Cat Fight at the OK Corral. Laura has another try at shoving Gabrielle between her and the bullets, but the old “no strategy” argument pours petrol on the fire. The panel inject a little clarity. Yes, a third of costs went on materials, but they bought real tat and lots of it. 200 items to Phoenix’s 50. Despite being largely guilty of that decision, Ricky also lines up Gabrielle for the boot. Although Gabrielle also sold more than anyone else (over a third of their sales) and Jane sold £10 worth, Laura brings them both back in for the death throes.

Gabrielle’s enthusiasm for self-defence matches her zest for orange suede, and Laura’s ‘strategy’ of hoping common sense would prevail presumably leads to mass suppression of howling laughter. Armed only with cheap fabric and buttons, you can only upcycle a pig in a poke so far.

At this point, the programme demonstrates the true importance of the nature of the tasks to the investment decision. Lord Sugar admires Gabrielle’s zest and stamina, and the others’ wisdom in attacking her in a recruitment scenario backfires. (A lesson! At last!) She stays: Sterling can retain their Gift of the Gab for another fun-packed week.

Although it’s initially explained as being ‘down to potential’, we’re watching character being assessed. How can it be anything else, as no-one has so much as tweeted a hint as to their investment proposition? It’s Sugar’s boardroom, money and wallet, as he kindly points out for those who’ve missed the last 8 years of the programme before participating. He also mentions his gut with the same authority as last week’s priceless line: “The chutney maker has spoken.” Laura may have lost the plot, but Jane’s been on Team Loser 3 times out of 4 and not shone. One of the contestants who seems to have flourished most in reality before trying out the flickering screen version is off in her taxi, trying not to cry. And presumably smarting a little at effectively being called a cow on primetime telly.

I scour the TiVo and watch an old episode of Grand Designs. People humiliate themselves on tv again, but wind up learning how to face down disasters as well as valuable information about design, legal issues and project management. As do the audience. And there’s even a rather lovely house at the end of it. Now there’s a telly format that’ll never catch on …

Meanwhile, The Guardian reports that Episode 4 of The Apprentice drew its biggest audience of the season – 7 million. There’s life in the old legs yet, even if they are glued to a battered old suitcase.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl