First Night: The Apprentice, BBC1, 9pm

The Apprentice is back – with all the right ingredients
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The Independent Culture

The Dance of the Knights may have disappeared from the series-opening sequence, but fans of The Apprentice will be relieved to know that the Parade of Egomaniacs is still in place.

Muted orchestral vamping temporarily replaced the urgent bombast of Prokofiev's tune for this, the beginning of the sixth series, but any fears of the BBC messing with a winning recipe were quickly laid to rest.

We got the boilerplate intro about "the job interview from hell". And then we were introduced to this year's contestants – once again vying to outdo each other in the field of maniacal self-regard. "There's absolutely nothing mediocre about me," the investment banker Chris Bates, 24, began. "I'm supremely intelligent, ambitious... I'm an all-round gifted individual."

But I'm afraid that was mediocre in itself, Chris. Odiously bumptious, yes, but lacking the edge of derangement that marks out the truly memorable Apprentice narcissists. Listen to Stuart Baggs and learn. "Everything I touch turns to sold," he said. "I am Stuart Baggs the Brand."

Or Shibby Robati, 27, a surgeon and business owner from London. "My first word wasn't 'Mummy'," he told us proudly, "it was 'money'." Others made an early bid for the pathos vote. "I describe myself as a bit of a maverick", said Alex Epstein, 26, a jobless communications exec from Manchester who seemed about as wildly ungovernable as a pair of Marks and Spencer's slacks.

In the boardroom, Lord Sugar was in his usual admonitory grump. "On paper you all look very good," he said, "but then so does fish and chips." Actually, on paper several of them look a tiny bit dodgy, the fish-and-chip wrapping of the past few weeks having already contained several disobliging stories about the contestants. But there was no hint of that here.

Even the subtitles contribute to the collective delusion that these are "Britain's brightest business prospects", with a masterful display of CV doublespeak. If a lollipop lady was ever to make it on to the contestant list she would no doubt be identified as a "transit solutions consultant". The fact that several of them were unemployed was mentioned only in passing – taken as evidence that, in a recession, even the cream can sink to the bottom.

They were all sent off to Smithfield Market to buy raw ingredients for sausages, which they would make themselves and sell the next day – a task which cunningly combined sleep-deprivation with a generous scope for social and technical incompetence.

Running against previous form, the women's team was first out of the blocks, choosing a name without bickering. Amid the men, meanwhile, egos were already beginning to chafe under the leadership of Dan Harris, a 34-year-old sales director from Oxfordshire who appears to believe the recipe for good management is 98 per cent belligerence and 2 per cent strategic thinking. What was going to go into their sausages was a matter of fractious debate, but it already seemed clear they were going to contain impermissible amounts of testosterone.

In the end, the women went upmarket while the men opted to produce a budget sausage. In fact, they had so much rusk and so little meat that they were really tubular loaves of pork-flavoured bread. "We're pushing essentially crap," said Baggs the Brand, candidly – a product description that had mutated into "the finest deli sausages in London" by the time he hit the streets the next day. Given his abrasive sales technique, there were several moments when it looked as if the street might hit back – but half the skill of editing The Apprentice is to keep the result veiled until the very end.

The women's saucy sales pitch to City bankers – "Do you think your wife would like to try a different sausage?" – didn't appear to work very well and, given that their costs were higher, nothing could be taken for granted. In the end, they edged it by just £15, leaving Dan in the boardroom to try to convince Lord Sugar that everything had gone wrong except for his own energetic bullying. It didn't work. First, he got ticked off for slouching and then he got a foreshortened view of the great man's finger.

Meanwhile, Baggs the Brand – the show's youngest-ever candidate – has had his card marked despite offering Sugar a money-back guarantee on his first year's salary. "I have to tell you, I ain't putting up with him for much longer," rumbled the peer after Baggs, 21, had left the room. Oh please, Lord Sugar, don't rush the execution – he really deserves to suffer a bit first.

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