BBC2’s Hotel India: slums? What slums?

Plus: ITV’s Prom Crazy, a documentary that’s heroically unafraid of stereotyping

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

30 August 2014

9:00 AM

Viewers who like their TV journalism hard-hitting should probably avoid Hotel India, a new BBC2 series about the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. The tone of Wednesday’s episode was set immediately when the narrator introduced us to ‘one of the oldest and grandest hotels in the world’, where ‘no detail is too small or demand too great’, and there’s ‘an army of staff dedicated to flawless service’.

To prove it, head of housekeeping Indrani then strode fearsomely down a corridor like a more elegant version of Hattie Jacques’s matron in the Carry On films. After using a torch (in daylight) to make sure the sheets just back from the laundry were indeed stain-free, she crawled under a basin to check the cleaners hadn’t skimped on any of the pipes. Next came a morning inspection of her male staff, where she was more like an old-school sergeant-major, complete with a fixation on hair length and the shininess of footwear.

Indrani was also one of the many people we met who proudly declared that in India ‘the guest is God’. In which case, God must be pretty picky, because much of the programme concerned the almost psychotically meticulous preparations for the forthcoming arrival of an unnamed VIP at the £9,000-a-night Tata Suite. Before he arrived, the suite was inspected not just by Indrani and general manager Gaurav but by all the heads of department, some of whom even managed to find something still wrong with it. (‘No, no, no,’ lamented the woman in charge of the Taj’s food and drink. ‘No Bacardi, absolutely not. Please upgrade.’)

For some programmes, the presence of such luxury in a city where, as the narrator regretfully noted, millions live in slums — and plenty can’t even afford to do that — might have led to a fair amount of agonising. This one, though, tackled the problem with a level of efficiency (although not of thoroughness) that the Taj staff might have admired. A family who live on the pavement nearby and earn their living by selling jasmine to passing hotel guests assured us that ‘without the Taj we would starve to death’. A woman by the hotel pool said that, as a young left-winger, she’d had her ethical reservations about the place, but now realised how ‘gorgeous’ it was. And with that, we returned to a world where personal catastrophe was represented by failing to supply someone with their favourite single malt.

Wednesday’s episode also took some pains to assure us how content all of the staff are with their lot — which, from what we saw, might even be true. ‘The relationship is special,’ explained the butler regularly assigned to a guest in the oil business, ‘because he contacts me for every request he has.’ The man currently in charge of mini-bars still has the letter of acceptance the Taj sent him when he started there in 1972. (‘I was so happy; my family, my village was so happy.’)

Right at the end, Gaurav suggested that the days when such people would cheerfully spend their ‘entire productive lives’ working in the same hotel are now coming to an end in India. The odd thing was that after an hour of shameless but undeniably effective PR, this felt rather a shame.

If you fancy a taste of the high life nearer home, however, there’s always the school prom. For those of us who remember the flashiest thing about our school-leaving discos being the glitter ball hanging from the ceiling, Prom Crazy: Frocks and Ferraris (ITV, Thursday) was a jaw-dropping reminder of how much things have changed. Again, this was a programme that clearly set out to dazzle us rather than to dig, but, in a rare piece of wider research, it did point out that 95 per cent of state schools now have an American-style prom for their leavers — and that it’s now a £100 million industry.

Sadly, it seems as if showing up to your prom in a tank is a bit 2013, but, for those who want something more than mere sports cars or stretch limos, that still leaves jeeps and helicopters. Then, there’s all the spray tan, jewellery, make-up and, of course, dresses: now taken so seriously that Billericay has three times as many specialist prom-dress shops as hardware stores — i.e., three. (Heroically unafraid to risk stereotyping, the programme spent most of its time in Essex.)

As for the obvious question of how the parents afford it, the answer appears to be that they start saving as soon as their children begin secondary school. On to the even more obvious one of whether it’s worth it, the consensus here was an unequivocal yes. After all, as one woman put it, ‘You can get married as many times as you like in life, but there’s only one prom.’

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Plus: ITV’s Prom Crazy, a documentary that’s heroically unafraid of stereotyping

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