"We've had a bit of depression in this boardroom over the last few weeks... it's time for a bit of laughter," said Sir Alan, dispatching the winning team at the end of the latest episode. Something similar might have been said of The Apprentice itself at the beginning of last night's programme. So far, it's been fine, but not exactly vintage stuff... and decidedly short on YouTube gold, the sort of jaw-dropping, did-you-see-that-bit moment that gets a series talked about the next day. Last night, made up for it, with easily the funniest episode so far. The task facing the teams was to brand and advertise a new breakfast cereal, a worthy- looking combination of bran flakes and dried fruit. The teams had to come up with a concept, and a cartoon character that might persuade parents to buy this mixture, and their children to swallow it. The fun started almost immediately. "Has the cereal-killer thing already been done?" asked Philip. His team-mates gently steered him away from that mysteriously unexploited territory, where children's breakfast and mass-murder meets. But that deranged proposal was only marginally more misguided than what he came up with next. Thinking on his feet, which were by now lodged squarely in his mouth, Philip outlined his stab at advertising surrealism, a campaign that centred on the comic potential of underwear: "It's so natural that you feel naked... but with pants!" he said, in a eureka tone of voice. Creative excitement gripped him and he stood to audition the jingle he'd composed to accompany his concept: "When you waaaake up and your belly's rumberling... You've got to dance in your pants till you get your belly filled. If you are off to work or you are off to school, you got to dance in your pants until you get in the mood".
The exact nature of the sales pitch here was mysterious and it only got more opaque as the programme continued, reaching a delicious apogee of enigma when Mona pitched the commercial – starring a figure with a wild yellow quiff and a pair of Y-fronts over his tights – to an audience of advertising professionals: "The slogan we've come up with is 'Put your pants on the right way'," she explained, her voice reedy with panic. "So basically, when you eat our cereal you won't dress up like Pantsman because you're not Pantsman. Only Pantsman gets away with wearing his pants over his clothes." The experts looked unconvinced about the sales prospects of a cereal that sidelined nutritional value in favour of dressing guidelines. It didn't exactly help the team's cause that the pack design, a critical part of the task, had been done down a phone line because they'd spent so much time bickering about their basic concept. The result looked like the market leader from a Fifties Albanian supermarket. Staring at it bleakly, the team leader Kimberly, who had thrown herself forward as a marketing expert, tried desperately to think of something good to say: "I like the green," she muttered finally.
Things were going too well on the other team for them to be able to match this level of wincing embarrassment, but James (the one who can taste success in his saliva when he wakes up in the morning) did provide a lovely little Spinal Tap moment when his group went into the studio to record their jingle. Elated by the fact that his composition had been given a professional gloss, James bubbled over: "I feel like Ringo Starr," he said excitedly, a pitch-perfect line in its notion of rock-star glamour. Then he followed up with another: "I feel like a monkey learning to use tools," he added, beaming proudly. In the end, Kimberly took the long walk, having conspicuously failed to gild the turd Phil had forced on her, but she can at least pat herself on the back for having helped put The Apprentice back on track.
The Speaker continues to have problems, despite the fact that Alastair Campbell pitched up this week to give them a crash course in tricolons, anaphora and epistrophe, and other rhetorical tricks. Their task was to make a political speech to a group of Surrey residents about some local issue, with the "electorate" then voting to give the most persuasive speaker a free pass into the next round. Campbell was refreshingly direct about the fact that they'd all taken the line of least resistance when it came to pitching an argument, but the real problem here is that they can only show you tiny chunks of the speakers' performance without making you want to jab feverishly at the channel changer, and a challenge show that can't wallow in the way the challenge is achieved has a real editing problem. Watching became particularly difficult yesterday when the candidates for eviction were required to make a passionate speech in defence of one of the candidates who'd gone through, a sequence that was so toe-curlingly embarrassing that I eventually had to sleep in my socks.