The Apprentice: A battle of Pure Evil as Apprentices seek out a new Master

"And this painting will just set off your bow-tie perfectly, sir." (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk) "And this painting will just set off your bow-tie perfectly, sir." (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

WARNING! Contains spoilers

It’s week eight on the The Apprentice and the candidates finally got a break from the hard-nosed business of making meatballs and flogging fake tan as they were asked to show their artistic side, dahhling, selecting urban art to push to both private and corporate customers. But fundamentally the task came down to sales (or the lack thereof), and bridal shop owner Laura Hogg found herself on the receiving end of Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™.

“And this painting will just set off your bow-tie perfectly, sir.” (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Finally facing their Waterloo

It’s 6am at the Apprenti-Mansion™, and this week it’s Jade Nash‘s turn to pretend to have been rudely awoken as she saunters, fully dressed and made up, to pick up the phone. It’s really not a Race to the Phone™ any more, is it? The candidates are summoned to Waterloo, where in a slightly surreal presentation Lord Sugar appears on a big TV in one of the maze of tunnels underneath the station – one which has been suspiciously cleared of its usual homeless residents and the smell of stale Special Brew and urine. This week’s task is to pick two urban artists, exhibit their work and earn as much commission as possible.

Gabrielle was an obvious (and good) choice as project manager (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

There’s no Apprenti-Team Shuffle™ this week, so Sterling are Nick HolzherrRicky ‘Even More Camp Than The Other Ricky Martin’ Martin, Gabrielle Omar, Stephen Brady and Jenna Whittingham, while Phoenix are represented by Jade, Adam ‘I’m Brilliant, Me’ CorballyTom Gearing and Laura Hogg. Quicker than you can say “Is that Banksy fella related to Gordon Banks?”, the teams settle on creative architect Gabrielle and Tom, an expert on this area of the art market, as project managers.

With five artists and a corporate client to meet, the teams split up. Sub-teams are despatched via Apprenti-Carrier™ to Bristol, while both project managers remain in London to visit their corporate customers. Heading out on the M4, Adam and Jade discuss the infamous Banksy, whose identity remains unknown. Adam ventures:

But it’s like the Stig, innit?

Indeed it is. Or like Batman. Or those ‘Anon’ and ‘John Doe’ fellas, who keep popping up everywhere.

Meanwhile, Tom and Laura meet with Renault, who are looking to spend £5,000 on something French and sexy. (Are they talking about art, or just a high-class call-girl?) Gabrielle, Stephen and Jenna speak to Beefeater Gin, where they forget to ask about budget. But they do establish that they are after something which says London and contemporary and heritage. And is simultaneously avant-garde yet conservative, and somehow black yet white. O-kaay. Jenna, typically, looks puzzled. For once, I can’t say I blame her.

As for the five artists under consideration, they are:

  • SPQR, an anti-establishment artist.
  • Nathan Bowen, a former builder whose art contains lots of British imagery such as Union flags – did anyone else have a flashback to the junk shop task too? – and, er, workmen urinating on other workmen.
  • ©opy®ight, an “urban artist with a painter’s touch”.
  • Pure Evil, whose work explores “the darker side of the wreckage of Utopian dreams and the myth of the Apocalypse”, according to his website.
  • James Jessop, who specialises in large format poster-style paintings and whose work can sell for up to £10k per piece.
For once, Adam didn’t pretend to be brilliant, and it paid off (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Both teams find SPQR’s work a bit too provocative. To his credit Adam, who by his own admission is way out of his comfort zone here, does not attempt to pass himself off as any kind of expert, instead offering his own innocent interpretations of the artist’s work. It’s a refreshingly honest approach from the market trader, although one has to hope he actually takes the time to learn the artist’s interpretation of his own work, which is rather more important.

By contrast, Tom and Laura’s visit to see Pure Evil sees the project manager overplay his knowledge of the wider urban art scene at the expense of enthusing over the artist’s work. Establishing credibility is important, but Tom possibly alienates Mr Evil – is he related to Dr Evil, by any chance? – by coming across as a bit of a know-it-all. After all, this is The Apprentice – we can’t have candidates sounding as if they know what they’re talking about, can we? Gabrielle, on the other hand, is all fawning compliments – arguably a bit too obviously so, but it seems to work, as Karren Brady notes:

Gabrielle’s arty side really comes to the fore in tasks like this. She’s very engaging, she talks to the artists on their own level.

Also, her visit provides the best line of this season so far:

Hi. I am the artist known as Pure Evil.

I’d quite like to meet his sidekick, Slightly Mischievous.

At least Gabrielle sounds vaguely sensible and credible, as opposed to Stephen who just blathers on randomly on the (incorrect) assumption that words, any words, must be better than a vacuum. He saves his best summation, however, for the Apprenti-Carrier™:

These people are what I think art’s all about. Nutcases who have got a bit of genius in them that can draw stuff like that.

Elegant and subtle there, Steve. Not.

At the end of the day, the teams must nominate two artists they want to represent. Gabrielle goes with Nathan and Pure Evil. Tom also wants Pure Evil, and then ©opy®ight. In the end, Mr Evil opts for Gabrielle’s enthusiasm over Tom’s expertise, leaving the latter gutted and scrambling around desperately for a plan B. He opts for the high-risk option of James Jessop, figuring that a single sale of his work will all but guarantee victory.

Sell, sell, sell

More dodgy ideas from Stephen (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The following day, each team has to set up their gallery in Brick Lane in preparation for their five-hour showing in the evening. Gabrielle comes up with the idea of getting Nathan to draw live during the exhibition – an original if gimmicky idea. Stephen, ever the Master of the Really Bad Idea™, suggests that he should do this out the back of the gallery to preserve his anonymity, Banksy-style. Even he admits that, as ideas go, “it’s way outside the box”. That sound you hear is the whistling of an arrow and the subsequent conflagration as said idea is shot down in flames.

Stephen’s next great idea is to belatedly offer his Beefeater clients a glass of wine. As one of them drolly notes, it might have been better to offer them a gin and tonic. In much the same way that it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to offer Sir Alex Ferguson a blue shirt signed by the Manchester City squad. Overall, Gabrielle’s team misses a trick by not treating the Beefeater team as VIPs: they don’t greet them on arrival, don’t introduce them to the sales team and then don’t bother to say goodbye when they leave. It’s an interesting way to treat people you want to spend several thousand pounds with you.

Tom’s high-risk strategy failed to pay off (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Phoenix treat their Renault guests rather better. Their  ©opy®ight collection sells consistently, with Adam turning his ignorance and market trader patter to his advantage – in contrast to Laura, whose softly-softly approach struggles to generate sales. Tom’s focus is on trying to sell at least one Jessop piece, but despite coming close to shifting a striking (and enormous) painting called The Big Green Monster, he comes up with a Big Fat Zero on that front as his high-risk strategy looks like becoming a Big Heavy Albatross around his neck.

Corporate clients aside, Sterling’s sales are mixed too. At £500 a pop Nathan’s pieces are proving difficult to shift, but Pure Evil’s works prove to be hot sellers. Ricky pulls off one fine piece of persistent negotiation to close a £3,100 sale, the biggest individual deal of the evening.

As the evening draws to a close every sale counts, although it must be slightly galling for the artists to see the candidates hawking their art at knockdown prices like cheap trinkets at a market stall, just to earn a few extra quid.

Boardroom brouhaha™

This week’s boardroom is surprisingly low-key, not least because there is little to separate the two teams in pretty much every respect. Tom comes under fire for not schmoozing up to Pure Evil sycophantically enough, while Gabrielle’s lack of commercial awareness is again highlighted when she admits she never asked what Beefeater’s budget was.

Ricky’s big sale carried the day for Sterling (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

It’s quickly on to the results. With teams earning 40% commission on every sale, Phoenix won a £5,000 order from Renault and generated gallery sales of £5,980 – earning total commission of £4,442. Sterling came up empty with Beefeater, but drove gallery sales of £11,630, generating £4579.65 in commission. Gabrielle’s team wins, but by only £137. It’s a narrow victory, but a victory nonetheless, for which they receive a suitably themed treat of action painting on a giant canvas. (Think of a giant paintball free-for-all with brushes and buckets rather than guns and pellets.)

Phoenix retreat to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™, with each member of the losing team left to paint themselves in a favourable light. Tom admits that he must bear responsibility for getting key strategic decisions wrong. What are you doing, man? This is The Apprentice! You’re not supposed to play fair. Apply the golden rule. Blame. Someone. Else.

Back in the boardroom, Tom holds his hands up for his error in not securing Pure Evil, who alone accounted for over £10,000 in sales and effectively handed the task to Gabrielle’s team on a plate. He also admits he rolled the dice in going for James Jessop, a decision Sugar does not condemn. The reality is that if Tom had closed the single sale he came close to, he would have won the task by several thousand pounds. More intriguing is the breakdown of sales by individual on the night, excluding corporate sales. Adam sold £2,480 – nearly half the team’s total – Jade £1,500, Tom (despite focussing on one big sale which never happened) £1,200 and Laura a measly £750.

Poor sales spelt the end for Laura (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

At this point Laura pipes up to say that she does not question her sales ability – which is beside the point, because Sugar is questioning it. And her defence is never going to influence Tom’s decision. It’s clear he has to let Adam go – which he does – and has to bring both girls back in with him. Jade, who Tom has clearly brought back only because he had to name two people, is questioned about being indecisive, but it quickly becomes clear that this is just shadow-boxing to create the illusion of jeopardy. Tom gets a grilling for the loss of Pure Evil and the selection of James Jessop. But it is Laura who comes under repeated fire for her poor sales performance and her tendency to take a back-seat on tasks, and despite an all too obvious fake-out to make it look like Tom might be at risk, it is Laura who becomes the eighth casualty of the boardroom.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™, Laura says:

I’m feeling pretty gutted at the moment, especially since I am so confident in my own sales ability and I can’t believe that’s what sent me home.

Ultimately, Laura had to go. Her performance on this task gave Sugar no reason to keep her, and her general strategy of working quietly in the background and avoiding big risks and decisions meant she never built up a bank of brownie points to draw upon in an emergency. By contrast, Tom took bold decisions on this task which didn’t quite pay off – but, with one big deal, could easily have resulted in a handsome victory – but he had shown more than enough in previous weeks in terms of strong leadership and strategic thinking to earn a get-out-of-jail-free card here.

I have to admit that, comedy potential aside, I generally find the art task quite unsatisfying. Identifying and being chosen by the one key artist is crucial to the outcome, and also the result often ends up being fairly random, with both teams making broadly equivalent errors which more or less exactly cancel each other out. Indeed, here Phoenix were unlucky to lose, as Sterling’s mistakes could easily have led to a different result. Their inadequate dealings with their corporate client represented a grave series of errors. Their choice of Nathan Bowen was pitched at too low a price for Beefeater, but was also off-centre in terms of appealing to individual buyers. And ultimately Ricky’s persistence and strong negotiation in securing the biggest deal of the night swung it back in their direction. Gabrielle did a lot of good things on this task, but the flaws we have seen in previous tasks remain.

Nonetheless, I still see Tom and Gabrielle as leading candidates for the final, with Nick right in the mix too. And although Adam had a very good week here, I can’t see beyond Ricky as the fourth finalist. Stephen, Jenna and Jade are just making up the numbers for me.

Next week: The teams must create a new image for English sparkling wine and a campaign to promote it. English sparkling wine has an image? Whatever happens, the bubble is about to burst for one of the eight remaining candidates.

The Apprentice continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC1. Companion programme The Apprentice: You’re Fired! airs immediately afterwards at 10pm on BBC2.

Link: BBC official website

Season 8 reviews

Preview

Blank canvas

Household gadget

Condiments

Junk shops

Keep fit

Street food

Flip it in Essex