Weaver's Week 2005-03-06

Weaver's Week Index


6 March 2005

'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'

In the end, the BBC always provides balance. It can take many years to arrive.

The Apprentice

(Thames / Mark Burnett Productions for BBC2, 2100 Wednesday)

Five years ago, the BBC aired Castaway, in which a small community lived on an otherwise uninhabited Scottish island, and worked together to keep themselves going for a year. In initial conception, and for the first month or so, this was an exercise in co-operation, giving as much as one can, and taking as little as possible. This year, the BBC provides a balancing view, one that is avowedly capitalist, and encourages selfish behaviour, taking as much as one can, and giving as little as possible.

The Apprentice was devised for an audience in the spiritual home of extreme capitalism, and eagle-eyed viewers will have seen that version play out in the teatime slot on BBC2 last autumn. We gave up there after about twenty minutes, as we were bored rigid of the way the main cheese used the show to promote himself, his ventures, his companies, himself, his leasing agents, his subsidiaries, and most of all himself. Later, we came across articles casting aspersions on the honesty of the programme. "I hired out my home to these chimps; they pretended it was their own, re-decorated it, and pretended to find a tenant for it. But it was all completely staged," was the gist of one particularly vicious article.

After quite some dithering, the BBC bought up the format to make their own. It's a major gamble from Auntie, the last prime-time import that had this level of publicity was Star Academy, and look what happened to that. On second thoughts, don't look what happened to that. We watch these shows so you don't have to, and we'll review that show next week.

During the conversion from NTSC to PAL, some elements of the show were removed, and for that we can be thankful. The number of contestants has dropped from sixteen to fourteen, shortening the series to a slightly more manageable twelve weeks. Gone, too, is the irritating habit of forcing the contestants to describe "in their own words" the events we see on screen - these voice-offs can be thoroughly annoying, and have all the spontaneity of two people reading a pre-scripted talk.

Also gone is some of the titular head's ego. Alan Sugar is the person to whom the winner will be "apprenticed" - it's actually a one-year job contract worth around £100,000; in clear cash terms, that's about as valuable than the Star Academy winners' contracts. Alan Sugar made his millions from producing electronics equipment, including early word processors, early computers, and early satellite dishes, before selling the electronics business in the mid-90s. He realised a 12-fold gain during his ownership of leading football club Tottenham Hotspur, and was instrumental in ensuring that SKY television won a key football contract over the head of ITV. Now that he's sold his electronics businesses, and the football club, we're not quite sure what Mr Sugar does all day. Other than drive around in his flash car, taking telephone calls on his mobile telephone the size of a house-brick. We note that the defeated bid to televise the football was helmed by Greg Dyke, subsequently to become the BBC's director-general. We wonder if Mr Sugar would have received this commission were Mr Dyke still running the Beeb.

But this is idle speculation. "I don't like liars, I don't like cheats, I don't like bullhitters, I don't like schmoozers," says Mr Sugar in the opening episode. The fourteen contestants come across as some or all of the above. The tone of the game is set - this show will ignore its self-contradictions, and present the impossible as the truth. Could this be the first completely ironic game show?

It doesn't require much thinking outside of the box - the fourteen contestants are split into teams according to their sex. Though their teams did get names, for the first fortnight the teams were cloyingly referred to as "Boys" and "Girls." This is thoroughly patronising, as all the contestants are more mature than your average Dick and Dom contestant. It says here, perhaps confusing chronological age with maturity.

According to Mr Sugar, each episode will have a sound business principle. The first episode required the teams to buy and sell flowers, the message here being not to bite off more than one can chew. The second, where the teams built prototype toys, had the contentious message that one should listen to the focus groups. And the not-so-contentious message that one should also listen to one's colleagues. This week's challenge was a scavenger hunt, trying to buy as many items as possible, as cheaply as possible; the Hidden Business Message was don't even think about driving in central London. Or not expect us to spot the blatant plug for the (BBC-backed) Freeview service. Or pilfer your games from Boys and Girls and expect to get away with it. That shopping bit was by far the best part of the show!

Mr Sugar has said that the show is a business tutorial first, and a game show second. There's merit in his argument; the first 40 minutes of each show centre on the week's challenge, with the elimination (the captain of the losing team picks two poor performers, with Mr Sugar removing one of those three from the game) occupying the final quarter. However, the situations are clearly contrived, and everyone involved is aware that the only way to win the ultimate prize is to perform well enough in each task. By only holding out one prize, The Apprentice distinguishes itself from the likes of Pop Idle, where Simon Fuller would often sign the top three candidates.

Mr Sugar told Radio Five that the winner will be working for him, and not for some nebulous hypothetical businessman. This little comment makes us think that, at some point, Mr Sugar will allow his own personality to influence the decision of who stays and who leaves. He, not the viewers, will have to employ the winner, so it is understandable that he should have the final say in the matter. On the other hand, it underlines the take-what-you-can nature of the profit-based economy.

The BBC's promotion went very heavily on the format's signature line, "you're fired." The radio same interview confirmed that this was a contractual obligation. As Mr Sugar treated the programme as an extended job interview and practical test, he couldn't fire the contestants, as he hadn't employed them in the first place. He would have preferred to use a line like "Clear off," but the format holders forced his hand. As did the BBC censors. We do reckon that this use of someone else's script undermines much of the authenticity that Mr Sugar works hard to build up.

We're also seriously unimpressed with the solemn nature of the voice-over - last week's scavenger hunt could equally have worked as pure comedy, and it brought to mind nothing less than the 1994 hit Hit the Road.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this show is the contestants. They come across as oily, unctuous, schmoozers, liars, cheats, self-interested, and - yes - bullhitters. They talk and talk, and never listen to anything except the sound of their own voices. Often, they ignore their own voices. We briefly thought about jotting down an Apprentice Drinking Game (take one sip whenever anyone mentions a business jargon word, two sips for a business jargon word that isn't English, and empty the glass whenever anyone uses a flip-top mobile telephone.) We can't recommend this, however, as alcohol poisoning is a bit painful.

We also note that the BBC isn't re-showing this show across all channels. It could have had next week's episode shown on BBC4, or a repeat within the same week on the thinking viewer's channel. Instead, there's no repeat at all, somewhat out of step with the BBC's apparent "ram the show down the viewer's throat" strategy. Is Auntie a little embarrassed at her programme?

And what's with the title music? The show is called The Apprentice, there's a piece of classical music called The Sorcerer's Apprentice, so what do we hear as the title? Montague and Capulet. From a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. Obvious, really.

The Apprentice. A "people doing silly things for rewards" show, without the obvious humiliation of the likes of Survivor and I'm A Celeb. A lot of annoying people running round making fools of themselves. The phrase "Can't they all be losers" springing to mind. The antidote to the co-operation and collaboration of Castaway.

University Challenge

Second round draw

  • Edinburgh bt Royal Holloway
  • Manchester bt Newcastle
  • St. Hilda's Oxford bt Leicester
  • Corpus Christi Oxford bt Sheffield
  • Balliol Oxford bt Durham
  • Lancaster bt Reading
  • University of East Anglia v University College London
  • Jesus Cambridge v University Oxford

Second round, match 7 - University College London -v- University of East Anglia

UCL beat Warwick by an embarrassment, that result is always good in our book; UEA were run somewhat more closely by Queen's Belfast, but weren't seriously challenged. The voice-off refers to these sides as "UCL" and "East Anglia."

You know it's University Challenge when the first answer is "Wittgenstein." It's a high standard of play this week - the first incorrect answer comes at the eleventh question. The first picture round is Name That Bit Of Manhattan, after which UCL leads 65-35.

You know it's a BBC show when they ask questions about the plot of "The Office." The second stanza is a bit of a one-team show, though UCL aren't thrown by the words "Your bonuses are on weasels." Haven't we already had the set on politicians? Guessing a geological era pays dividends for UEA, bringing them back into the game. UCL takes the audio round - Name That Horror Film - and has a good lead, 130-60.

We don't recall Antan Dec describing his signature game as "It's an equus assus with one leg shorter than the others." UCL continues to pull away, thanks to some swift mental arithmetic. Knowledge of Fort Boyard might also help, as that's the only place we know with an oubliette. The second picture round is Name That Pasta, after which UCL's lead is a surely unbeatable 215-70.

Is Thumper reading from a very old Two Ronnies script? "I. V. X. L. C. D. N. which letter..." No, it's Roman numerals. UEA benefit from having a student taking American Studies, as a couple of starters ask about the New World. She would surely have got the answer that Thumper never gave, "Sadie Hawkins day." It doesn't much matter, UCL has won at a canterbury, 245-105, and will be a team to avoid in the later stages.

UCL split their buzzing between Roger Wesson (102.4) and Ivan Polancec (103) as they made 22/41 bonuses with one missignal. Tessa North was the best buzzer for UEA, making 73 points; the side made 10/18 bonuses and one missignal.

Next: the repechage final, and the last second round match: Jesus Cambridge -v- University Oxford.

This Week And Next

We're going into Sing Something Simple mode next week, with reviews of Making Your Mind Up and Comic Relief Presents Famous People On Star Academy. On those lines, we heard about the stage for this year's Eurovision:

"Imagine a 'leafy clearing by a river bank in the morning.' Because the stage will be more than a place on which the artists to perform their songs. It will become a Garden of Eden with mystical plants and animal life where growth, wealth, colours, beauty, creativity and light are the order the day - and a day that will be completely new, symbolizing the dawn of a new age for both the Song Contest and the Ukraine itself."

Same as the last two years, then. Gotta love the Swedes, really.

Coming in the summer, Big Brother Sicks. The same presenters - Davina McCall's signed up for a sixth year, Dermot O'Leary for a fifth, and Russell Brand's toe-curlingly bad "E4kup." The same format - Mr O'Leary said that they "didn't want to change a winning formula," and peddled the myth that 2003's BBIV was "a bunch of boring people." If you repeat it often enough, sir, we'll just treat everything you say as a lie. Kevin Lygo, head of programmes for Channel 4, said this week "I'm sure we'll want to do it again and again until it stops working and clearly it isn't not working." Speak for yourself. This column will, of course, give an appropriate level of coverage to the programme if and when it airs.

Some fairly major schedule changes crept under the wire last week. The biggies:

  • Dick and Dom have some celebrities round to the bungalow, so plenty of opportunity for humiliation. 4.30 BBC1, 5.00 CBBC, 6.00 BBC2 and CBBC, not Friday.
  • Test The Nation, The National Entertainment Test will provide plenty of opportunity for BBC cross-promotion next Saturday evening.
  • And Challenge TV has picked up rights to the National Lottery Daily Play draw. No longer will this event be covered by a single static caption displayed at 9.15 the following morning. Oh no! Now we get to see the balls fall out of the machine live on tape on television. As a result, the evening schedule has been completely revised, with Bullseye moving to the oh-so-memorable time of 7.20. Full details are on the website.

Mastermind's back next week, keeping us in columns for most of the rest of the year, and new series of Bamzooki and Puzzle Panel.

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