Over 14 series, we’ve now watched 231 Apprentice candidates fight tooth and nail for Lord Sugar’s approval in a swarm of tasks, from flogging flowers (à la the first ever episode) to advertising cereal (à la Pants Man).
But despite a few twists and bumps along the way, the original format has remained unchanged: two teams compete in an impossible challenge, the losing team rip each other apart in the boardroom, the smug winning one get treated to a taster of the highlife Lord Sugar leads. In short: TV gold.
However, something strange has happened in recent years.
In the first series, triumphant contestants received prizes such as a champagne reception and meal on a Thames yacht, a private jet ride to a Scottish castle or literally just a day out in the helicopter. Win even by a few pence and you were guaranteed to be sipping bubbly while coasting around in some division of Lord Sugar’s personal vehicle fleet.
Fast forward 14 years. Winning candidates still receive some luxury post-task pampering, but they’re now supposed to experience the millionaire lifestyle with trips to a cocktail bar or an indoor climbing centre. Not so much as a whiff of a helicopter.
Granted, we don’t know Lord Sugar intimately and he might well burn off some steam with a refreshing post-boardroom abseil, but the footage of the episode two treat didn’t do much to suggest Chelsea’s Clip ‘n Climb was a regular hangout for business tycoons.
It’s the same story with week three’s treat of a game of human curling. Again, we can’t completely rule out that Lord Sugar doesn’t spend his weekends gracefully sliding across the ice as Karen and Claude silently keep score on their clipboards. But we can say that it doesn’t hit the heights of the same point in the process as The Apprentice’s earlier series.
That week in the show’s first ever year saw winning candidates treated to a private dinner at the OXO tower with Lord Sugar, the tycoon serving up an unbeatable combo of insider anecdotes, life-learned business tips and gourmet food. And in the same week in the second series, candidates enjoyed a champagne-filled jolly at Sandown Racecourse, sunning themselves in their own private booth with a helicopter trip thrown in for good measure.
Now, you might think this change could be down to the candidates getting worse and less-deserving of more expensive treats. An easy theory – especially if you just remembered Kurran made it to week six of this series – but not one that holds up under analysis.
Cast your mind back again to series one, in particular the county market task, a straightforward chutney-selling challenge in which one team achieved a profit of £364.
This total – one that didn’t deduct staff, travel, location or licensing costs – was enough to warrant business class flights to Monaco with a weekend stay at the famous Hotel de Paris and an additional casino spree bolted on.
Cut back to series 14 where Team Typhoon achieved total sales of £86,603 of designer shoes in week five. Rather than getting the relative equivalent prize ie several private mansions each, the team was sent to an Irish tap class at Pineapple Dance Studio.
Just to reiterate, at this moment we can’t categorically confirm or deny if kicking back with a Riverdance is key to life as a business mogul or if Lord Sugar is partial to a competitive Ceilidh with Claude. That particular trade secret may never be exposed. But from Daniel’s slumped expression viewers could see that this treat – and the significant risk of bumping into Louie Spence – wasn’t welcome news.
Daniel didn’t let any words escape from his disappointed face on that occasion, but, if pushed, we’d like to think he’d say something like: “Are you serious, Lord Sugar? This is rubbish compared to the race car driving day treat in series three! And you do know candidates were sent to Rome in series two, right? And had dinner on the Orient Express?”
And maybe adding: “Contestants in series four got a private piano recital from Myleene Klass! Even a team from 2011’s Young Apprentice were sent on a stunt flying class for creating a deodorant called RAW (strapline ‘live it RAW’)!”
Of course, Daniel would only be cherry-picking treats here. One could argue that, overall, they’ve actually improved, with this series’ boxing masterclass prize with David Haye a step up from the same treat offered in series 10, that time taught by Anthony Ogogo.
And, true also, not every past treat has been a corker. After all, in series three, candidates on Team Eclipse were rewarded with a game of bowling after a sweet-selling task at London Zoo. And winners of series five’s cereal advertising task – the beauty of an episode that gifted the world Pants Man – were treated to a “laughing yoga” session.
But Irish dancing? Really? Is it actually a treat when a styrofoam cup of tea at the now iconic Bridge Café has more of a wow factor?
Still, if the treats have a been a tad underwhelming this year, here’s hoping producers have simply been tightening their purse strings for a spectacular blowout later in the series. Hell, there might even be a helicopter involved.
But if not and the show continues on its current path who knows where the treats will end up. Could we be a few weeks away from both winning and losing sides being sent to celebrate/lick their wounds in The Bridge? Will Lord Sugar soon declare “I’ve laid on for you a walk around Hyde Park!” to the victorious side after a task?
Granted, the latter might provide an unforgettable moment of TV – particularly if Karren and Claude hand each candidate a stale slice of Hovis for the ducks on the way out – but it would prove beyond doubt that the current state of Apprentice treats are, as Lord Sugar would put it, an absolute bloody disgrace.
The Apprentice continues 9pm on Wednesdays on BBC1