The Apprentice episode 1 review: A dip in the thought pond under the shadow of the unused calamari

Series 11 kicks off with a new advisor and an unprecedented sex mix but - thank the Lord! - everything else is exactly the same as always, says Paul Jones

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How much would you pay for a portion of gone-off calamari? Sick squid…?

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Actually, there was something fishy about this opening episode of The Apprentice even before the task began and I made that joke. I’m talking about that ominous empty seat next to Lord Sugar in the boardroom…

We’ll miss the dear departed Nick Hewer (not dead, just hosting Countdown. Yes, there is a difference) – his assassin’s eyes and icy putdowns in the boardroom, his championship gurning during the tasks as he watches yet another candidate order nine kilos of a priceless ingredient instead of nine grams. But Claude Littner, who we already know as the Apprentice’s interviewer from hell, looks like a worthy replacement.

His introduction was handled beautifully. That glaringly empty chair. The equally ominous music. Lord Sugar’s promise that “If you think this process is tough, it’s just got a whole lot tougher”, before a shape – possibly a man, possibly a genetically engineered killer alien – began to shift behind the frosted glass and Claude finally entered, leaving some of the candidates looking as if they wished it had been the killer alien instead.

“He does like a laugh from time to time,” quipped Sugar. “There was 1979…” Yes, that was the year Alien was released in cinemas…

While that experience left some of the candidates hyperventilating, it was us dedicated Apprentice viewers who were breathing into a paper bag following the next revelation – that the boys and girls teams would be mixed up for the first task. Don’t panic, though, it’s back to normal again next week – and that is all the change you will have to cope with. Because everything else is just as it should be…

There’s one candidate, Joseph, who at 25 thinks his plumbing company makes him “the godfather of business” and another, Richard – already marked out as the David Brent of the series – who appears to be under the impression that he’s “a Swiss Army Knife”. For a bit of variety, there was an excellent Zen-flavoured entry from perfume importer Dan who asked “Can I just throw my thought into the thought pond” before suggesting team name “the Sugar Babes” (I suspect he applied to be on The Apprentice just so he could use that pun).

The candidates still display the same mix of bravado, self-preservation and warped logic, with the result that events agency owner Selina was chosen to lead team Connexus in a task about buying fish because… she has food intolerances (and because the rest of her team have an intolerance to putting their necks on the line in week one).

For the most part, the task was the usual bleedin’ shambles. Team Versatile tried to charge £9 for a mangled tuna salad and made 89 oversized, overpriced fishcakes instead of 300, while Connexus left their calamari in the sun until it was unfit for human consumption but just managed to avoid Lord Sugar’s firing finger thanks to the success of their fish fingers – plus the fact that Versatile made a profit of just £1.87…

Karren called it “pathetic”, but while I admit that there is something inherently funny about the figure £1.87 – and I fully expect it to be tending on Twitter on Wednesday night – I would also point out that it represents in excess of 20 pence profit per person, which is not bad when you’re being put up in a luxury London flat with all your food paid for and people carriers on hand to take you wherever you need to go. That 20p could be a nice tip for the driver.

Either way, it left Versatile’s dictatorial PM April, Brett the giant fishcake maker and the too-nice-for-The-Apprentice Dan in the firing line, and while I’m not suggesting Lord Sugar is inherently biased against floppy-haired perfumiers whose catchphrase is “I can’t sell”, there had been a striking premonition that Dan was going to be fired right at the start of the show. Look…

Here’s the moment in the opening boardroom scene when Lord Sugar tells Dan “Get yer hands out yer pockets” and points that very finger right at him…

Eerie, right? Having seen that, Dan may feel that everything in between was a waste of time. Then again, if he’d been on the winning team he’d have been sent back to the house for a slap up meal of… fish. Strangely, nobody fancied the squid…

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The Apprentice continues Thursday 14th October, at 9pm on BBC1