To those who have yet to succumb to what is one of the finest guilty pleasures, Hotel Babylon is a gaudy signifier of everything that’s wrong with the world. It’s an aspirational waste of HD cameras that glorifies celebrities. It has been home to more ex-Eastenders cast members than the closing credits on an average episode of The Bill. Dexter Fletcher has to carry other people’s bags around.
Well, that’s all true (apart from the first point – but more on that later). But try to watch the show on its own terms. You can normally tell a good programme because it will stick to an exact formula every week, but never quite manage to wear it out, and Hotel is no different. A selection of the rich and/or famous – footballers, reality TV stars, the mafia – check into the hotel. The staff then have to run around trying to meet their needs, at least one of them will end up having a 15-minute relationship with one of the guests that will end badly, and then the staff have their revenge on said guest. It’s all done with such gusto cheery bonhomie (that’s where Dexter Fletcher comes in) that, were it not for the high flesh levels, it would probably count as kid’s TV.
The important thing about Hotel Babylon is that it never aspires to be something other than shiny, vacuous fun. BBC One, being the populist channel that it is, isn’t going to generate thought-provoking drama (last night’s police-state-by-numbers nonsense, The Last Enemy, proves that). It also doesn’t hawk lessons in the same way as the channel’s other incidentally mindless dramas prove – the moralizing of Casualty, Holby City et al. There’s normally a rambling sensibility of the Scrubs variety, but it leaves you gently nodding along with faint agreement, rather than feeling deeply aggrieved at being patronized.
And then there’s how pretty the show looks. It’s one of the few British programmes to look as lush as its American counterparts, like an extended advert for high definition. Everything is beautifully sheened and polished to an airbrush-perfect finish.
Still, it can be hard to shift the feeling that this is essentially licence fee money spent on televising some kind of Hello! fantasy. The biggest signifier of this is some of the celebrity cameos, which are a weekly event. Can a programme that features Chantelle, Jennifer Ellison and Joan Collins be more than simply in thrall to celebrity at all times?
Actually, quite pointedly, yes. When McFly cameo on Casualty they do so as a talking point, a celebrity to be noticed (nay, worshipped) for having deigned to grace the programme with its presence. When Chantelle appears, it’s part of a surprisingly well pieced-together commentary on celebrity. Besides, other guest stars have included Mark Heap, Keith Allen and Les Dennis, plus geek favourite Anthony Head.
Of course it’s shiny, pretty nonsense, but there’s a world of difference between well-made nonsense to warmingly click your brain off to, and nonsense that has a grating message behind it, or is just plain stupid. This is the former. And if that isn’t enough, this series has John Barrowman in it, as part of the BBC’s new licence fee settlement which requires him to be in at least 60% of all the Corporation’s output.