Last Night’s TV: The Apprentice, the final
Michael Hogan on the final of the 2011 series in which Lord Sugar tells Tom Pellereau he's hired
Michael Sheen. Mr Muscle. Beaker from The Muppets. Brains from Thunderbirds. A nodding dog. Yep, Tom Pellereau from The Apprentice (BBC One, last night) had already won the contest for clocking up most lookalikes. Now he’s waltzed off with the £250,000 prize too.
Pellereau’s notable achievements over the past 12 weeks included inventing “the emergency biscuit” and claiming Christopher Columbus as a Brit who discovered the potato. He got a thorough roasting during last night’s final, being told he was “flawed” with “no focus”, his “career is floundering” and that most damning indictment of all, he’s “too nice”. Endearingly, he resembled a Creature Comforts character when rattled, blinking behind his geeky glasses. His stubbly Adam’s apple rose and fell alarmingly, but he kept his cool.
The prize has been changed for this series. Rather than a £100,000 salary for selling electronic signage or something equally exciting at Amstrad’s glitzy Brentwood HQ, this year’s winner gets a quarter-million start-up investment from Lord Sugar. “An uncivil partnership”, as the belligerent baron put it. The final’s format was also tweaked. The interview round is usually the penultimate one, whittling five hopefuls down to two for the final, when fired candidates return to help with – or more accurately, hinder – the last task. This time, ending on the interviews seemed sensible. They’re the dramatic peak of the series and another task afterwards can prove anti-climactic. Also, this was the moment for each candidate to unveil their business plan.
This year’s inquisitors – programmed to seek out CV fibs, highlight character flaws and generally provide us with gleeful schadenfreude – were Claude Littner, the pitbull-like Viglen boss; publishing pioneer Mike Soutar and communications prodigy Matthew Riley, both newcomers; and, best of all, Sugar’s ex-sidekick and cloud-haired cult heroine Margaret Mountford.
Before the grilling began, the finalists handed over their business plans in manilla folders, like sinister dossiers off Spooks. Pellereau’s opus rambled on about back pain in the workplace. Soutar found it “confusing, almost obtuse”, pointing out that it was essentially about orthopaedic office chairs but didn’t once mention the word “chair”. Cue more bespectacled blinking.
Northern Irish blarney-merchant “Jedi” Jim Eastwood started in typical style, modestly describing his submission as “amazingly brilliant”. He was soon brought down several pegs by Mountford, who called him “a bit of an ass”. She challenged him to sell himself without resorting to cliché. “I’m exactly what it says on the tin,” he replied. Soutar added that pinning the slippery Eastwood down was like “trying to nail custard to the ceiling”. Ever the salesman, Eastwood transparently tailored his e-learning pitch around Sugar, even calling it AmSmart. “It’s one long seduction letter,” squinted sidekick Nick Hewer. Sugar proved immune to flattery and Eastwood was the first victim of his chubby firing finger.
Youngest candidate Susan Ma spent much of the series being compared to Bambi or a mouse, but discovered her roar in recent weeks. “Bring it on,” she murmured, trotting out the sort of meaningless Americanisms that infect such shows. “I’m so pumped.” Ma went with what she knew, something Sugar always likes, and proposed a skincare brand. Her projected £1 m profit in year one was optimistic in the extreme, yet her enthusiasm was eerily bullet-proof. “No hope in hell,” thundered Sugar. “Brilliant!” Ma beamed back. “Stop saying you understand because you don’t,” he barked. “I understand that I don’t understand,” she chirped. Sugar lost patience and sent her packing.
That left Helen Milligan, proud owner of the competition’s best record, and Pellereau – sheepish owner of the worst. Sugar was “disappointed” by Milligan’s plan for a concierge service. She works for Gregg’s, excelled during the biscuit task, triumphed last week with patriotic eaterie MyPy… why hadn’t she gone for grub? Sensing victory slipping away, Milligan claimed her second idea had been a chain of artisan bakeries. Had she cooked this up on the hoof? Sugar’s brow furrowed even more than usual.
Taking his opportunity, Pellereau told an anecdote about getting one of his previous inventions – a curved nail file called the Stylfile – into US retail giant Walmart by blagging a meeting with its chief buyer. “Didn’t know you had it in you,” growled Sugar approvingly. That clinched it. In previous series, when the prize was a job, Milligan would have walked it. But Sugar stressed that this time he was looking for someone with “a bladdy brain”. Pellereau fitted the bill best even if, at times, he got cut more slack than perhaps he should. Still, his victory can be seen as revenge of the nerds. Heart-warming proof that nice guys can finish first. Perhaps next series we’ll see Sugar using one of his protégé’s prototype chairs. Hopping up onto that boardroom booster seat can’t be doing his back any good.