By Francine Wolfisz
Sitting down to watch the telly this week, I heard those unmistakable strains of Sergei’s Dance of the Knights and it could mean only one thing – The Apprentice had returned to our screens once more.
Now in its ninth season, 16 new candidates are fighting it out on the BBC One reality series to win a £250,000 investment from Lord Alan Sugar – and the first two episodes, which were shown on Tuesday and Wednesday, did not disappoint.
Greeting the candidates in the boardroom for the first time, the Jewish business magnate – who is the son of an East End tailor and has amassed a personal fortune of £860million – told the eager apprentices exactly what he expected from them.
“As you can see, I’ve got a pile of CVs here – it’s full of the usual BS. You know, ‘I’ll give 110%, I’m the greatest entrepreneur since sliced bread, failure’s not an option, I think outside the box, inside the bleeding box’. All those usual clichés.
“I’m sick and tired of all that rubbish to be perfectly honest with you, because I believe actions speak louder than words.”
Among those vying to win Lord Sugar’s attention is 25-year-old Luisa Zissman, from St Albans.
Married to Jewish entrepreneur Oliver, who co-founded the successful gym chain Total Fitness, the mum-of-one is herself a business owner. Two years ago she opened the 1950s themed Dixie’s Cupcakery (named after her daughter), which sells artisan and made-to-order treats. She also runs a baking website and electronics business.
The attractive brunette describes herself as having “the energy of a Duracell bunny, sex appeal of Jessica Rabbit and a brain like Einstein.” She adds: “People assume that I’m just a bimbo, but I have a good business brain and I love blowing that assumption to smithereens.”
As for confidence, the bubbly candidate certainly showed she had more than enough to see her through the first two tasks.
She explains: “I’m really determined. I’m like a dog with a bone. I never accept failure, it just doesn’t come into my vocabulary.
“Nothing is ever enough for me, nothing is ever good enough. I just have to keep going and going until eventually I get what I want.”
That sort of fighting talk served Zissman well in the first task, when Lord Sugar asked the candidates to sell a shipping container load of goods to businesses around London in just one day. Divided into boys versus girls, the groups had to flog everything from crates of toilet rolls and bottled water to fine leather jackets (with a polyester lining) and around 500 rather tacky and hideous-looking lucky waving cats.
At one point, the testosterone-fuelled arguments between the boys threatened defeat for Endeavour, with project manager Jason Leech describing his role as akin to “lion taming”.
But it was in fact Zissman’s group, named Evolve at her suggestion, that failed to bring in the money. The young mother escaped the board room, but project manager Jaz Ampaw-Farr was sent packing.
The second task was equally challenging for the remaining 15, who had to come up with a new flavoured beer. As the stress levels began to rise, it was more than just alcohol that started boiling over in the kitchen, but Zissman proved she has what it takes to survive for yet another week.
Speaking ahead of The Apprentice’s return last week, Lord Sugar told The Jewish News that tempers do invariably flair in front of the cameras, but things are rather more sedate in real life.
“You have a situation where people are fighting for the investment. I think when you are actually in the workplace, it’s not as competitive as that,” he explained.
Described as Sugar’s “eyes and ears”, sporting executive Karren Brady added that the on-screen friction was inevitable in a competition such as this.
“I don’t think anyone really understands how intense it can get in that board room. When they say they are fighting for their lives, they literally are. Each of them has an idea, each of them has a viable business plan and each of them wants to get a £250,000 investment – and more importantly go into business with Alan. So it’s intense in there.”
And it’s not only the candidates who feel the pressure inside the boardroom. Sugar admits that it’s not always easy deciding who to save and who should be the one to hear those immortal words, “You’re fired!”
For that, the business guru relies on the observations of Brady and fellow advisor Nick Hewer, but Sugar admits “there are occasions I may have got it wrong”.
He adds: “But here’s a point. The winners have done very well and I haven’t yet seen out of the 160 people (including 36 juniors), someone who has become a Branson or Zuckerberg that I have let go. I’m sure the media would have taken great delight in pointing that out. But you never know, it could happen!”
With that in mind, I ask Sugar if candidates generally do better if they are gifted with intelligence or if they have an abundance of plain old chutzpah.
He laughs: “Well, it’s really about having a mix of both brains and determination. You can’t just be a boring academic, you’ve got to have something about you. And on the other token you don’t have to be academic, you can be streetwise. So it’s really a mixture of various things.”
Looking at the eclectic mix of “brainy” and “streetwise” candidates appearing in this year’s show, just who will be Lord Sugar’s next Apprentice is anyone’s guess.
But the winner for 2014 might be easier to spot.
“If there’s a tenth series, I think I’ll put a mask on and go round the other side,” he jokes. “And who would win? Well, there’s no contest.”
The Apprentice airs on BBC One on Wednesdays, 9pm.