Terence Blacker: The erotic allure of hearing 'You're fired'

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The Independent Online

Out here on the cutting edge of the feminist movement, there has been uncharacteristic disagreement concerning the week's great issue, the place of flirtation in modern life. It was the great bear of British business, Sir Alan Sugar, who set the debate in motion, savaging some female contestants on his TV show The Apprentice for what he called "using their sexuality" to gain an advantage.

At one level, it was easy to appreciate his annoyance. The idea behind the series is to find a group of greedy young egomaniacs, each one with the kind of personality that can clear a room in 10 seconds, then add a couple of eccentric turns, on this occasion a brain-dead public schoolboy and a hysteric, now obligatory on reality shows, who screams "Ohmygod, ohmygod" and wets herself every time the phone rings. These misfits compete with one another for the great prize of being allowed to work for Sir Alan Sugar, having first - a compelling, old-fashioned touch - been divided into male and female teams.

It is normally a fairly even struggle, with the men often being able to use the inbuilt gender advantages of a sexist society to their advantage. But on this occasion, after some silly business involving the buying and selling of fruit, the women so outclassed and humiliated the men that there was a risk that the whole series would become a rout.

Clearly desperate, Sugar complained that flirtation had taken place, thereby saving the men's blushes while shaking the confidence of the women. "They used a bit of female ... and all that stuff", he later explained. The "bit of female" involved holding a pair of melons in a suggestive manner and offering a neck massage to a vegetable salesman.

Sugar must have thought that he was safe in arguing that there is no place for flirtation in today's business world, but his position is clearly nonsense. Demanding that people do not use their sexuality in their everyday dealings is like asking them not to talk. With only a few exceptions, we are all sexual beings; even when we are not aware of it, there is often an element of erotic display in even our most serious negotiations.

The problem is that, thanks to a lingering anxiety about female sexuality, it is the flirtation of women which gets noticed and condemned while that of men is taken for granted. The male habit once memorably described by the novelist AS Byatt as "turkey-cocking" is not only a staple of TV programmes on which unattractive business types try to get the better of each other, but is also a form of sexual show.

Nobody turkey-cocks quite as well as Sir Alan Sugar. Whereas the female competitors whom he attacked were acting out a make-believe of fluffy availability, his role is one of stubble-chinned masterfulness, the ultimate "dominant" of sado-masochistic fantasy. It is an uncomfortable thought, but surely also true, that as Sugar plays the bully on screen, there are secret "submissives" all over the country who fantasise about him barging into their bedroom in his gangster suit and rasping brutally at them, "You're fired."

It is simply a different form of flirtation, and it adds texture and an interesting complexity to life, particularly in business where victory and surrender are so important. From here on, the boardroom brute should give extra points to his apprentices when they use their sexuality for their advancement and our amusement.

How Jamie could cook up a storm

Normally, that marvellous man Jamie Oliver - so young, so rich and yet so caring - would be above criticism, but his latest scheme seems distinctly flawed. He has set up a firm called Fifteen to You to provide chefs, graduates of Jamie's training schemes, to cook for private dinner parties. Apparently, now that central London has been blighted by the brutal £8 congestion charge, residents of Knightsbridge, Fulham and even further afield prefer to enjoy the advantages of eating out, but in their own dining-rooms.

It is neither a new, nor particularly good idea. Like any decent ritual, the dinner party requires an element of suffering and sacrifice to make it worthwhile. A meal produced without panic, resentment and rows in the kitchen, has something mysteriously empty and fraudulent about it.

If Jamie could set up a firm importing guests, replacing not home cooking but the bore droning on about property prices and the kids' marvellous new school, then he could soon be making some serious money.

* Older readers may recall the great Suck festival of 1971, at which the aristocrats of the hippie world converged on Amsterdam from around the globe to have sex with one another. At its climax, some unpleasantness involving a live goose was about to take place when a member of the British contingent leapt on stage and rescued the luckless creature.

Thirty-five years on, birds continue to be abused on the European stage. During the performance in Berlin of a Ionesco play, an actor had just helped his co-star give birth to a swan (it was that kind of play) when he noticed a critic giggling in the front row. Enraged, he picked up the dead swan and threw it at the journalist, who ran screaming from the theatre.

Touching important issues of free expression and public health dangers of avian flu, here surely the Theatre of the Absurd lived fully up to its name.

terblacker@aol.com

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