The Weekend's TV: The Hotel, Sun, Channel 4<br/>The Secrets of Scott's Hut, Sun, BBC2

A documentary that's worth checking out
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The Independent Culture

The owner of the Damson Dene Hotel, Jonathan Denby, says he would feel "outraged" if anyone compared his establishment to Fawlty Towers after watching The Hotel, Channel 4's new documentary series.

We don't have a Basil Fawlty, he explained in a publicity interview, and there certainly isn't a Sybil. Pointedly, he didn't mention Manuel – the character who is most likely to provoke comparisons between his Lake District three-star and Torquay's most challenging hostelry. Strictly speaking, Damson Dene doesn't have a Manuel either, but it does have Amos, a sweetly willing Romanian whose shaky grasp of English and loaded tea-trays soon established him as the comic heart of this opening episode.

The makers promised that we will see "life in a British hotel as it's never been seen before", a claim that may initially have struck older viewers as a touch over-hyped. What about Hotel, I thought, a 1997 BBC docu-soap that offered very similar backstage access to the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool? But then the teaser montage continued – and it appeared to suggest that the film-makers had put a crew in every room in a hotel entirely occupied by exhibitionists. One man wandered nonchalantly out of the hotel bathroom, modesty only just preserved by a moist towel. Other guests were seen waking up first thing in the morning. This, it soon became clear, is another example of Channel 4's technological reinvention of the Panopticon. As in The Family and The Model Agency, the building has been studded with fixed cameras, which can capture every angle of an unfolding micro-drama.

The voice-over introduced Denby as "suave" – which I think was unnecessarily sarcastic. Like Michael Gove, Mr Denby has one of those faces that looks as if it's been vigorously polished with beeswax. He's also dangerously candid about the hotel's ambitions. "I would say we cater for Mondeo Man," he explained. "We're not trying to be one of those high-class, high-falutin' hotels that just provides every luxury, because we can't do that." Indeed, the Damson Dene occasionally struggles to provide the basics, not for want of good will, but because the hotel's Eastern European staff often haven't a clue what's being asked of them. Yvonne had put in a request for rye bread for breakfast. "White?" said Amos. "Rye," said Yvonne. "White," said Amos a little more confidently. "RY-E," Yvonne enunciated. "White," confirmed Amos, happy that he'd finally worked it out. After much to-ing and fro-ing he came back to explain that they didn't have any rye bread. "We haf a problem with the cook because he is Polish," he explained guilelessly.

Wayne, the hotel's manager, has the thankless task of trying to convert Amos's boundless desire to please into service that won't make guests check out on the spot – something he does with varying degrees of patience. "What are you doing?" he asked incredulously as Amos staggered in to a function room with a giant pile of the wrong kind of chair, "Would you like me to kill you?" Amos didn't do much better when it came to laying the tables: "Do you know what a serviette is?" asked Wayne, looking incredulously at the tablecloths Amos was proposing to put at every place setting, "I'm thinking you don't." Wayne is a trouper, incidentally, his exasperation matched by his willingness to turn a hand to any job that needs doing, however humble.

The guests are essential too, providing end-stopped narratives to accompany the longer story arcs of the hotel staff. Last night featured Daniel, who planned to propose to his girlfriend in the hotel's garden, and Julie and Brian Palmer, taking a short break before Brian found out whether his treatment for bladder cancer had worked. And the ubiquity of the cameras does deliver something fresh – a blend of lifelike banality and sequences so comprehensively intercut that they have the grip of drama. At one moment you're in the room with Julie and Brian as they watch Deal or No Deal ("He doesn't know what to do... Oh, he's took it! Good lad!"), and at the next you're wondering whether Daniel's girlfriend will twig what's up before he's got all of his complicated arrangements in place.

He was so sick with nerves leading up to the critical moment that it was touch and go whether they would have a row before he got to put the question. Happily it all went well, Wayne obligingly lurking in the shrubbery to open a bottle of champagne and then retiring from the scene with eyes distinctly moist. And, if you were fretting about the authenticity of some of these sequences, the whole thing ended with the kind of comic serendipity that is hard to fake – Amos, dragging a table across a large room as a glass vase on the top trembled ever closer to the edge. It danced on the brink for what seemed an eternity and then, just as you were thinking 'He's got away with it', he gave one last little nudge of adjustment and added the word "breakage" to his growing vocabulary of hotel English.

The Secrets of Scott's Hut started out as Excited Teenager Telly ("Wow! That is incredible!"), but got better as it went on. Ben Fogle – who has Antarctic exploration credentials himself – had been allowed to visit what is surely the most remote heritage site on Earth, and see whether its contents revealed anything about Scott's expedition and character. Absolutely unmissable for armchair explorers, I would have thought, but pretty intriguing for armchair psychologists, too.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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