The Apprentice: Episode 1

Hannah Langworth's weekly take on The Gateway's favourite business show

We at The Gateway have heated debates about many things. But nothing keeps us from our work more effectively (apart from latte art, police cars (don't ask) and lunch) than discussing the biggest spring event on our calendar: a new series of The Apprentice. We can argue for hours over this bonkers "business" extravaganza, stuffed to bursting with great lines, horrible adding-up mistakes and the sharpest suits and stilettos money can buy. Who could fail to love Nick's extensive repertoire of unusual facial expressions, Karren's understanding-headmistress-crossed-with-trained-assassin vibe, or Lord Sugar's famous finger? And as for the candidates, we just know we could do so much better ourselves.

And we suspect that one or two of our readers feel much the same. Which is why I'll be following series 8 here over the coming weeks with a cool and analytical (ok, cynical and slightly worryingly obsessive) eye, and bringing you my thoughts.

There's not much that The Gateway will stand in the cold and miss dinner for. But a chance to get a sneak preview of an episode of The Apprentice and see follow-up show You're Fired being filmed live before our eyes is one of them. So a chilly recent evening saw four team members lined up outside Hammersmith's Riverside Studios, clutching the precious piece of paper that was our ticket in. Once inside, we warmed up under a veritable constellation of studio lights and with some vigorous applauding to order - and soon those famous credits, complete with skyscrapers shots and preposterous assertions, began to roll.

This one was a good'un. Sometimes, the first episode of a new series of The Apprentice can feel a bit lacklustre, as there are too many candidates to see very much of any particular individual's performance and the inevitably raucous free-for-all that arises from having such big teams means that results are often more dependent on luck than ability. But the opener of series 8 saw some big characters make their mark on the relatively straightforward print-it-and-sell-it task (" it's not a takeover of Goldman Sachs", said Lord Sugar). Standouts included Jane "the margin!" McEvoy and overeager salesman Stephen Brady - and the episode ended with a boardroom battle that kept viewers guessing right until the end, when risk manager Bilyana Apostolova eventually gambled herself out of a second round place.

However, because of the division of the candidates into male and female teams, early episodes are usually as much about the rivalry between the two teams as individual performance. You can see why they arrange the teams in this way - the set-up gives each team a clear identity when viewers don't know the contestants well. And the overarching narrative of this episode certainly utilised some well-worn gender cliches to do so - the moral of the story appears to be that female creativity and intuition - the perfect team name came to me in a dream! - is all very well, but in the end male practicality and logic will win out in business, even with an inferior product (fingerpainted tote bag, anyone?). Whether this narrative accurately reflected events or was down to editing is impossible to tell, but it is interesting that this idea that men and women approach business in different ways is so persistent - and it's certainly a topical question at the moment as the EU considers whether to force companies to ensure that a certain proportion of their directors are female.

The class 5 swimming trip approach to dividing the candidates into teams (emphasised by the persistent use of "boys" and "girls" rather than "men" and "women") also seems to suit the playground-style behaviour that inevitably ensues - such as in this episode, when a contingent from the girls' team, brandishing their rather cute printed babygros, ganged up on an unsuspecting Primrose Hill shop assistant.

That particular incident was undeniably reprehensible, but I couldn't help feeling that it was unfairly seized on in You're Fired to justify a series of unfortunate and all too common condemnations of assertive women in business as unacceptably aggressive. Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer called the women in question "hyenas", and "irritating" and "pushy" Bilyana's failure to "keep your mouth shut" enough during the task and in the boardroom was universally agreed to be the reason for her departure.

It has to be said, though, that the boys were far from pushy when it came to putting themselves forward to be team leader, with Nick Holzherr finally almost accidentally agreeing to take the role on. Which brings us to what is always a central question in the first episode of a new series of The Apprentice: to volunteer to be team leader, or not to volunteer to be team leader? Two of my colleagues who also came along to the filming (both male) are strongly in favour of the "look at your shoes" approach, on the grounds that on the first task you're operating in uncharted waters full of sharks, and if your team loses, the lack of knowledge Lord Sugar has about any of the candidates at that point means that it often seems fairest to eject the leader rather than any other member of the losing group.

I, however, thought I strongly disagreed - surely the kudos to be had from taking charge right away is so significant that it nearly always outweighs the possibility of getting fired? And, as I watched the opening sequences of the show, I felt Gabrielle had made the right decision in stepping up. But then, once we got to the boardroom, I changed my mind - it seemed to me that she'd taken on too great a risk and would be the one to go because of her failure to manage her team's finances effectively. In the end, I was incorrect on both counts - she didn't get fired, of course, and I don't think she'll get much credit for her leadership on this task. I guess it's just that pesky illogical female intuition getting it wrong again...

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