I don't know if there is a lot of sophisticated side-betting on The Apprentice final but if you'd put money on Alex for the Morning Call Sweepstake then your runner came in, stumbling downstairs in his checked pyjamas as the clock on the oven read 6.21.
Presumably he had been woken by the crew at 5.30 for a quick dab of make-up and a rehearsal of the sleepy stagger to the telephone, but he performed the sequence nicely anyway – the last time we'll see it in a series that has brought the pleasures of business incompetence and Olympic-standard blame-dodging to well over 8 million viewers.
By the end of last night's episode, one of the four finalists would get what they had repeatedly told us was the very quintessence of their heart's desire, but first they had to jump through one more hoop. Happily, the task was itself a perfect distillation of applied capitalism – to take about 50p worth of perfumed liquid and sell it for £29.95, having first wrapped it in high-end bling and spent a small fortune on advertising.
Both teams, helped by six of the also-rans, had to design, brand and pitch a new male fragrance – and, in a twist on the conventional rules, both members of the losing team would immediately be out of contention.
Helene, who has a tendency to displace her own anxieties on to the nearest available person and then berate them furiously for what she is feeling herself, began by expressing her confidence in Alex with an urgency that was distinctly ominous.
On the other team, Claire and Lee were brainstorming blokey, post-metrosexual names. "Psst!" suggested Lee. "Primal," countered Claire doubtfully. In the end they settled for Roulette. The ball skittered and jumped and then lodged squarely in the zero slot. Still, at least Lee had an unnervingly clear vision of their prospective purchaser's grooming habits. "He definitely shaves his balls," he told Claire, helpfully.
Alex and Helene were having a lot more trouble coming up with a concept. "Strong?" said Helene helplessly, "Girth?"
Alex sensibly suggested Enigma instead but, by the time he reached the design company to work on the bottle, they were still no nearer a workable concept. Fortunately, the designer suggested a plausible one – a bottle of perfume that spawned another smaller bottle for the man who wants to have a spritz at all times. They called it Dual and felt sufficiently reassured to spare some time for bickering about who was panicking more.
Meanwhile, Claire and Lee were dressing their casino backdrop for the pitch to industry professionals. "It isn't cheesy at all, is it?" said Michael uncertainly, as he looked at a George Lazenby vision of Seventies sophistication. In truth, it could hardly have been cheesier if they had been pitching a fragrance called Camembert For Men. The task scarcely matters at this stage, of course. By any sensible criterion Alex and Helene won, even if there was a question mark over the cost of the bottle. As the experts immediately spotted, Claire and Lee's gambling-themed fragrance came with lingering notes of bankruptcy and addiction or, as Nick put it, with a vehemence that hinted at some private sorrow: "Roulette equals gambling equals debt equals misery."
But having carefully excluded any independently verifiable finishing line, such as profit earned or the votes of industry experts, Sir Alan was able to ignore this inconvenient fact and sack Alex and Helene anyway – ending up with the choice he had wanted all along. Alex had a little weep and Helene had a little dig at Alex – and then we were back in the boardroom for one last competition – to see who could utter the phrase "I really want this" with more pleading conviction.
In my judgement, Claire should really have got the job, having pulled off the astonishing management task of bringing her own mouth under control, but ultimately it was Lee who got to ride off in the Bentley as Sir Alan's latest hiring. If we are talking business acumen and profit maximisation, though, there was only one winner – The Apprentice production company Talkback Thames, which is presumably even now planning its 2009 line.