Young Apprentice: Final fantasy as Crazy Cabinet takes on Piggy Panic

Season two of Young Apprentice concluded last night with Irish economist James McCullagh and aspiring film-maker Zara Brownless battling it out for the right to succeed Arjun Rajyagor as the beneficiary of Lord Sugar’s £25,000 investment fund. The pair pitched their rival online games Crazy Cabinet and Piggy Panic to a room of gaming industry experts. But who made it to the next level, and for whom was it just a case of ‘game over’? Read on below the line to find out in my final recap of this season.

I had a dream …

Tom Pellereau - cyborg killer? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

You know you’ve been thinking too much about a programme when it starts creeping into your subconscious. The other night I dreamed that I was invited to attend the final boardroom.

Lord Sugar was just about to announce the winner when ‘Jedi Jim’ Eastwood burst in to announce that James was his son. Not to be outdone, Zara stood up and peeled off her face to reveal that she was, in fact, a human-looking cyborg – what do you call a female Terminator: a Terminatrix? – dispatched from the future to kill Simon Cowell. Only she got her co-ordinates slightly wrong and was forced to switch to her secondary target, Karren Brady. (Meanwhile Nick Hewer was sitting quietly in a corner asking randomly for vowels and consonants, preparing for his new role as the host of Countdown.) The Zara-bot was just about to kill Karren with what looked suspiciously like a can of Raw deodorant when who else but Tom Pellereau leapt between them and removed her CPU with a curved nail file.

It’s probably just as well this is the final, eh?

Final Fantasy

All alone in the Apprenti-Mansion™, James and Zara are summoned to County Hall to learn about their final challenge. James seems accepting of his role as the underdog, despite being the only candidate this year to win twice as project manager:

I think that Zara is going to be a tough competitor because I think Lord Sugar likes her and she can speak very well. But I’m looking forward to showing what I can do as opposed to what she can do.

Zara, as usual, is confident:

I came here to win this and I’m so close now I can literally taste it. I’m definitely not afraid that I can’t beat James. It’s just a matter of pulling out all the stops now and doing as well as you can do.

Zara claims she can literally taste victory. Does it taste like chicken, then? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

You can’t literally taste it, Zara. Not unless you have really special taste buds.

Sugar decides to brief the pair in the dodgems ring of what we are told is London’s largest gaming arcade – aha, there’s the Tenuous Task Link™. He informs them that they must create an online game – insert your own puns about Final Fantasy here, folks – and devise “what’s known as a viral internet advert” to promote it. (He says ‘viral’ like it’s something he might catch, like the flu.)

To help them he has recalled all this year’s candidates, but rather than allowing James and Zara to pick their own teams playground-style he allocates them himself. This deprives us of the pleasure of seeing Mahamed Awale left until last, or possibly even not selected at all by a team leader who would rather go one short than take the Short One™. So, joining James on the newly-christened-by-me Team Son of Vader™ we have Hannah RichardsHarry H Not-Corbett™ (Harry Hitchens), Hayley Forrester, Lewis Roman and Lizzie Magee, while on Team Terminatrix™ Zara has Ben Fowler, Gbemi Okunlola, Harry Maxwell aka Harry M, Brother of Boney™, Haya Al Dlame and Mahamed Awale.

By the way, is it just the sci-fi geek in me or does anyone else think Darth Vader versus Terminator would make a great game?

Day 1: This little piggy went to market …

The teams’ first task is to create their game concept. To help them on their way, they are first given a briefing by the boss of Mind Candy (creators of the hit game Moshi Monsters) who could easily be mistaken for Bob Geldof’s even scruffier younger brother. He tells them their game should be fun (no, really?), have a strong, identifiable lead character and have the potential to expand into spin-off merchandising.

Both teams set to work brainstorming. Son of Vader kick off with Lewis suggesting a game involving hungry, defecating birds which doesn’t sound at all like a rip-off of Angry Birds. Hayley suggests something more along the lines of My Little Pony. James states he would like a puzzle game, to which Lizzie proposes a memory game in which players have to identify what’s missing from a scene. (I’m with Hannah, who later says that the one critical thing missing from that idea is fun.) Things are not going well. Time to use the Force, perhaps?

Zara asked for animal ideas. Mahamed came up with zombies. Interesting (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Zara, keen to have a likeable central character, wants Team Terminatrix to brainstorm animal-based games. Several ideas are forthcoming, including a delightfully down-beat (or dead-beat?) one from Mahamed about zombies, before Haya mercifully pitches the idea of a fat piggy escaping from a butcher. Although personally I would rather see a game based on Mahamed running away from – or better still being caught and gruesomely devoured by – a zombie.

Post-brainstorm, James listens to his sub-team’s feedback from their on-the-street research which suggests people would prefer a puzzle over his suggestion of an office-based game. However, he sticks with his instinct and comes up with a time management game where the player is the Prime Minister. It’s a creative and brave move from James, and one made under pressure late in the day with the clock ticking.

Team Terminatrix are further along in their planning and have settled on the catchy ‘Piggy Panic’ as the title for their game. They are just about to name the lead character Pinky Pig when Nick saves them some embarrassment by pointing out that Pinky – as in Pinky and Perky – already exists as a character. Meanwhile, their sub-team of Harry M, Haya and Mahamed cast an actor who would not look out of place as a circus strong-man as the butcher for their advert, culminating in a Benny Hill-style chase as the actor pursues Mahamed around the room.

I’d still prefer it if it was a zombie, though. But in an episode which barely features the non-finalists, Mahamed steals the show not once but twice. The kid has a future in comedy.

Day 1 result: Zara ahead by a nose.

Day 2: Let’s go Crazy (Cabinet)

Sadly we only get to see brief snippets of both teams’ adverts being shot, but it is enough to show us that James has a better instinct for comedy than the straight-laced Zara.

Harry M thinks people falling over is funny. Well, he's right, isn't he? (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Son of Vader’s advert for their game – now entitled ‘Crazy Cabinet’ – is based on a spoof party political broadcast, as a pair of caricature MPs present their mock manifestos. It is funny and edgy in a knowing way that would give it a chance of going viral, although it doesn’t really tell the viewer much about the game.

Team Terminatrix are filming their ad in a park, featuring their strong-man actor dressed as a butcher chasing a girl in a pig costume. Wannabe director that she is, Zara puts the technical elements together well but struggles to inject humour into their advert. Only when Harry M steps in with some simple but good slapstick ideas do they start to hit the right notes. People falling down is funny, who’d have thought it? Except maybe Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, that Chaplin fella …

We finish with James hitting the bullseye in his assessment of Zara:

It doesn’t really worry me about the fact that Zara has directing experience because the last advert she shot [in the deodorant task] was pretty boring and I don’t think she’s as fun as I am.

Day 2 result: Son of Vader is back in it as the Empire Strikes Back.

Day 3: The next big thing?

It’s the final day of the final task, and the teams must prepare to launch their games to a room of gaming industry experts. And Lord Sugar.

The teams finally get to see their games, both of which look surprisingly good – presumably thanks to a lot of work behind the scenes by Mind Candy’s development teams.

Zara is very much in the zone as she prepares for her pitch. As she paces backwards and forwards rehearsing, there is no mistaking her intensity and focus. As Nick observes, “I’ve never seen such a driven 16-year-old.”

James put in an impressive performance at the launch (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

James talks about wanting to keep things short and to the point, and he delivers an excellent pitch in line with the theme of Son of Vader’s Crazy Cabinet. He starts off as if making a manifesto speech, challenges players to turn Westminster into ‘Best-minster’ and finishes up asking for Prime Minister’s questions. He hits all the main points while engaging the audience and getting them laughing, and follows up by handling questions from the floor with great composure.

For Team Terminatrix, Zara also turns in her usual impressively polished performance in outlining her plans for Piggy Panic, although to me her list of ideas for developing the commercial potential of the game sounds more like a wish list of every idea she could think of rather than any kind of cohesive strategy. And she definitely over-eggs it when she claims confidently that people would be willing to pay several pounds for the full version of what is basically just a one-dimensional version of the kind of platform game I played on my Sinclair Spectrum in the 1980s (yes, I’m that old!)

Notwithstanding my minor criticisms, both finalists’ pitches are exemplary by any standards even before you take their age into consideration. Well done, indeed.

Day 3 result: Honours even.

Boardroom Brouhaha™

The final boardroom is a relatively tame affair, with Sugar rightly congratulating both finalists on their efforts in the task. James receives heartfelt backing from his Son of Vader team for his leadership qualities, although Sugar points out the fact their advert didn’t provide enough information on what their game was about. Team Terminatrix are praised for a more cohesive launch advert and for having a lead character which lends itself more to potential merchandising opportunities. All fair comments, really.

A thoroughly bewitched Nick says of Zara:

I thought Zara handled it firmly, calmly and fairly, and I thought she did a very professional job.

While Karren similarly praises James:

I find you a very structured person, one that’s not afraid to take risks and follow their own vision but is also completely inclusive, particularly on this task.

Both finalists put forward their concluding arguments in support of their candidacy. James admits he made mistakes early in the process but that he learned from those and went on to win twice as project manager. He received the full backing of his team and delegated responsibility, while still being willing to make his own decisions and take risks.

Sugar asks Zara about his perception (and mine) that she tended to shy away from being project manager and was content to pull strings in the background. Zara comes back with all the right answers, but I can’t shake the feeling that much of what she says is all talk, with little tangible evidence to back it up. On at least two occasions she refused to put herself forward to lead tasks, in what appeared to be a clear strategy to keep herself out of the firing line. There’s nothing wrong with that – indeed, it is an approach adopted by most previous Apprentice winners – but it does undermine some of her claims about being determined and willing to take risks.

James tries to press home an advantage, admitting Zara is articulate but that he always says it how it is. But any possibility of the tide turning in his favour is stamped out in an instant when Sugar asks the pair what they will do with his £25,000 investment. Zara talks clearly and passionately about purchasing more advanced equipment to build her film-making enterprise. James can only say that he wants to study economics more, is unable to articulate a clear business plan and then admits he has never had a job before.

It is like showing a red rag to a bull, and then promising it an extra juicy dinner if it can impale a matador on its horns. If Sugar hasn’t made up his mind before this point – and I rather suspect he had already decided on his winner before the final task – then this is surely the final nail in James’ coffin. He praises James for evolving, following his instincts and taking risks, then lauds Zara for being calm, articulate and in control of her emotions – and declares Zara the winner.

At which point ‘Jedi Jim’ Eastwood bursts in to announce that … Oh, hang on, I’m dreaming again, aren’t I?

Our winner gets one final trip in the Riches-To-Rags Rags-To-Riches Roller™, where she declares:

It’s incredible to be leaving this as the winner. I honestly never thought I would ever make it this far. The whole experience has been amazing. I’ve taken more from it than I even thought I would and it has genuinely been incredible.

I have been quite harsh on Zara throughout this series based on my perception that she was a case of style – albeit an astonishingly polished and professional style – over substance, and was lacking in genuine business acumen, as she showed with poor performances in both the over-50s and discount buying tasks. I also found her somewhat difficult to warm to – Sugar called her ‘aloof’ the previous week – and it was interesting to note the flurry of comments from several of the other candidates on Twitter immediately after the episode aired which clearly indicated she had not been the most popular occupant of the Apprenti-Mansion™.

However, to be fair to her you don’t have to be everyone’s best friend to be successful in business. It would also be unfair to expect an inexperienced teenager to be a fully rounded businessperson. And Zara also had some excellent moments, not least her performances in front of clients in the floristry and popcorn tasks. In terms of all-round business ability, I wouldn’t have placed her in my top three – on that basis, the consistent Harry H was my top candidate – but that does not make her an unworthy winner by any means. Indeed, as a potential investment she had a clear vision of where she wants to go with her career, which is quite something for one so young. Ultimately Sugar made a good choice from a strong overall selection of candidates.

And so ends eight weeks of juvenile jinks and teenage task trauma, in which the Apprenti-Kids™ have compensated for their inexperience with a combination of instinct and enthusiasm which has often seen them outperform their adult counterparts. Congratulations to Zara, James and indeed all the candidates. The grown-ups have a lot to live up to when they return next year.

Link: BBC official website