The Special Needs Hotel, TV review

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The Independent Culture

As we all know from the viewing highlight of the week – Jeremy Corbyn's debut Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday – Britain has an acute housing shortage. Obviously, the nation needs a shedload of good ideas to help address the crisis, but I'm not sure that the "amazing spaces" featured in George Clarke's latest series provide much of an answer.

Let's take Peter the sculptor's new "magical stargazing cabin", built with his own hands in his garden in Norfolk. It was a remarkable achievement, given that Peter refuses to draw any plans, use a measuring tape or even a spirit level as he creates his space. "My plan's in my head," he explained as he knocked up the wooden structure, mostly from reclaimed materials he found on the nearby beach. Trouble was, the "plan in my head" turned out to be twice as large as it should have been, and therefore cost about twice as much to build, with a roof twice as difficult to engineer (it still came in at only £3,000).

A much bigger problem was the, ahem, aesthetic appeal of this new clifftop addition to the pretty landscape of north Norfolk. It may be fine for Peter and his family looking up at the big skies and out across the golden beaches. But fellow residents and tourists looking up at a 30ft-high wood and corrugated iron super-shed in the shape of a coffin may not find the view quite so magical. Peter, you see, managed to circumvent the planning rules by sticking a couple of wheels on the side of his cabin, thus transforming its official status into that of a "caravan", albeit a rather immobile one. The only good thing about the cabin is that it must irritate the hell out of all the luvvies who've chosen to colonise this part of the coastline, driving property values out of sight for the locals. But he really should have invested in a tape measure.

Further round the English coastline, in Somerset, things have been running much more smoothly at Foxes Hotel. This grand Victorian establishment in Minehead has the added distinction of providing training places for some 63 young people with various learning disabilities, who agreed to be filmed doing the dishes, chatting to guests and organising catering. Obviously The Special Needs Hotel had all the makings of a grimly voyeuristic, condescending and exploitative exercise.

This series isn't, though, and strikes a pleasing balance been showing us how talented and able people with learning disabilities are, but also recognising their various shortcomings, as with the rest of the population.

Calum, for example, is autistic and in his twenties and until he went on the Foxes apprenticeship scheme had never made a phone call to a stranger in his entire life. Ordering a range of party food for a disco was a challenge; his friends were concerned that he would just read out the list and put the phone down. But he managed a little chitchat before listing the impressively wide enrage of potato- and corn- based snacks he was planning to treat his guests to.

Just as surely as Peter the amateur architect was building his super-shed in George Clarke's series, Calum was building his own personality with a plan that exists only in his head, and it was amazing to observe.

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