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Designs for life: why we have to take that hotel home with us
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The Independent Online

Who watches 'Hotel Babylon' on BBC1 (apart from you and me)? Is it the same audience profile as, say, ITV1's 'The Palace'? And how do they compare in turn with the 'Casualty' codgers? All three series are focused on buildings. And on organisations. And they've all got masses of interweaving plotlines in a wonderful early-TV way.

'Hotel Babylon' and 'The Palace' are meant to be glamorous but the buildings absolutely aren't. 'The Palace' was shot somewhere in Eastern Europe in what looks a made-over telephone exchange with a lot of middle-market '80s hotel props. The 'Hotel Babylon' sets look very dated and mid-town – that Holborn, Southampton Row look, oddly Deco-ed up on a modest budget some time in the last 20 years. Not at all the place for film stars and IT billionaires.

It doesn't matter. Deccies and snobs notice the design solecisms and the class clangers in 'The Palace', but they keep watching because the idea of place pulls you through and the formula's compelling.

Because they can't romance the stones in 'Hotel Babylon', they use a lot of camera movement to make up for it. The lobby wouldn't stand a cold gaze, so they do speeded-up walks to suggest interior dynamism. And every so often the camera will pull away from the hotel and do a helicopter swoop over electric twilight London, linking the hotel to the moronic inferno. It's very '80s and irresistible.

The fantasy of a capital city landmark hotel is a durable one. People behave strangely in grand hotels: they cop off in odd combinations and they regress because they're being utterly indulged and the record company's paying.

At the same time, they're taking notes for the life they don't yet know. Middle-class middle managers go back home and reapply design ideas and new increments of comfort. The first '80s country house hotel decoration schemes inspired a mass of yellow walls and swags and tails back home. The hip hotels shaped the expectations of men in the emerging creative industries. The early '90s Royalton look was astonishingly influential on interior design at every level.

I love the idea of Lenny Henry, the demographic dead centre of modern Britain, touring the country and getting ideas for modern living from hotels – things he can discuss with Dawn back home. A super-king-sized bed with an oversized statement headboard. Illuminated wardrobes that whiz your clothes round on a moving rail. Green-glass bathroom splashbacks instead of mosaics. A tap that looks like sculpture. I can just see it.

Lenny's starring in the Premier Inns commercial, testing them for the nation. I don't know what a Premier Inn is but the name tells you it's more Travel Lodge than Claridge's.

Lenny certainly seems to have a view when his manager takes him there. "We're staying here!" he says disbelievingly.

Once inside, it's all very white and atrial and a bit airport hire-car-ish. They're polite and uniformed at reception. The bedroom looks big, and the bed looks big when Lenny tests it in a yellow dressing gown. And the bath's obviously big, too, because it takes him and his rubber duck. There's waitressed breakfast so it's not just a sleep factory.

There's a lot of emphasis on bigness altogether. Except for the bill, because they say that's small – everything's premier but the price. Henry, a widely liked Mr Everyman from Dudley, is famous for two things. But they've cast him because he's a Big Lad.