The Speaker, BBC2; The Apprentice, BBC1
Thursday 09 April 2009
If The Speaker hasn't already shaken off most of its audience by now it can hardly be accused of lack of effort. An elimination contest intended to find the best young speaker in the country, The Speaker began, logically enough, with the first sifting of young hopefuls – and the by now familiar vocabulary of knockout television – long queues outside regional town halls, dodgy audition tapes, swing doors batting open to reveal the exuberant or the crestfallen. Where else would you start, you might ask, given that all such enterprises must sharpen to a point? To which one would simply say, "Much later, please." This might not make make sense with the more vulgar manifestations of the talent-show genre, since they relish the electronic bedlam of the opening rounds and the opportunities they offer for judicial astonishment and scorn. But it would have made sense here for several reasons.
Firstly, the contestants were far too young to mock. However callous audiences might be about the ambitions of adults they tend to be protective of those of the young, so there was always going to be a kind of speed limiter on the judges' comments. Occasionally, someone would turn up who was so gratingly bumptious that they effectively forfeited the protections of age, such as Daniel, who used his allotted minute of stage time to make a barnstorming pitch for the product called Daniel. If there wasn't at least a little irony in that address, Jo Brand warned him, "I will have to go back to my former occupation as a psychiatric nurse and have you sectioned." By and large, though, criticism strained to present itself as constructive only, a nurturing, caring sort of critique that was unimpeachable in human terms, but a distinctly dull as television.
Secondly, although it's a counter-intuitive finding, there's more variety in a string of songs badly sung than in a string of speeches awkwardly delivered. It wasn't very long before you had the approaches typed – the stage-school regulars who crafted their speeches as samplers of their range, the self-styled eccentrics who believed that zaniness was enough on its own, the swotty types who had their rhetorical flourishes down pat. And you only have to think back to your own teenage years – those heady days of unexamined prejudice, wild self-righteousness and misplaced confidence in your own comic genius – to get the excruciating measure of much of the content. Frankly, I don't want to be unkind about it either, they were all notably brave in standing up in front of television lights and a large audience. But it didn't make listening to them any easier, and taken in a dose this substantial, youthful confidence very quickly cloys. There were a lot of people here, I found myself thinking, who should have heard the phrase "Not now, darling, Mummy's busy" a bit more often. Fortunately, it gets much more interesting from here on in, with a pool of finalists small enough to allow you to track your favourites and some invasive polishing by celebrity mentors. If you've watched this far you've earned a reward, and if you haven't I've made the down-payment for you and I'd hate it to go to waste.
Those who crashed out of the early heats can always console themselves by watching The Apprentice, where they can enjoy the spectacle of people twice their age struggling with English sentences like someone trying to put up a deckchair in a force-10 gale. The challenge this week was to design, prototype and sell a completely original piece of home-fitness equipment in just two days, a hurdle which had been carefully calculated to catch even the most agile business athlete smack in the shins. It surely tells you something about this gullible and butterfly-minded marketplace that one team was able to come up with a perfectly plausible piece of prospective spare-room clutter in just a few hours. The other side, meanwhile, found themselves struggling for inspiration, finally resolving to create the Bingo Wing Buster, an arm-flap reducer which, after what the teams laughably described as "brain-storming", had mysteriously metamorphosed into a black mdf box with big springs on it. "I've come up with a bloody great product!" said Ben, who is currently in pole position when it comes to pathological self-regard. "I've even shocked myself here!" Unfortunately, the buyers didn't share Ben's high opinion of his invention, leaving you wondering whether his team should have gone with his first idea for "something that you can incorporate into actually having sex, something that creates resistance while you're actually doing it". That would, I think, have made the sales-pitch demo a lot more interesting. I was pretty sure that James would bite the dust this week, his tendency to well up at moments of crisis hinting at a very un-Sugary emotional delicacy. But, in the end, it was Majid who went. Difficult to understand that one, Sir Alan. I suspect some beard-grooming-related intolerance might have been at work.
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