Television: A two-star hotel documentary, while politicians get the third degree

‘Copacabana Palace’ is a poor man’s ‘Inside Claridges’; ‘Episodes’ comes good; TV3’s election debate is a turn-off

House guest: Marco Antonio di Biaggi, a flamboyant Brazilian celebrity hairdresser, who stays at the Copacabana Palace every weekend

House guest: Marco Antonio di Biaggi, a flamboyant Brazilian celebrity hairdresser, who stays at the Copacabana Palace every weekend

Mon, May 19, 2014, 16:35

Ever since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers flew down to Brazil and tap-danced in the Copacabana Palace, the Rio de Janeiro hotel has been a byword for glamour, its guest book stuffed with royalty and assorted celebs from Orson Welles to Justin Bieber. The hour-long Copacabana Palace (BBC Two, Monday) lovingly documents the lush details like a carefully managed marketing film – though it’s mostly raining during filming, and hotel security accompanies guests to the beach, which isn’t a great advert. Luxury costs about €800 a night, and stretches up to “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” territory.

The film-makers talk to only two guests, either because no one else will go on camera – few super-rich are Trumpishly media-friendly – or they consider the two they find so outlandish that they can’t resist giving them maximum (or, as it turns out, too much) screen time.

Marco Antonio di Biaggi, a flamboyant Brazilian celebrity hairdresser, stays every weekend. “I hate old hotels that smell, like, old,” he tells the unseen interviewer. “But listen.” Then he loudly sniffs the air. “It’s extra clean here.”

Benjamin Bowen, a British businessman, lives there with his bichon frise, Lady Bella – the hotel has put a framed photograph of the dog beside Bowen’s bed. “I don’t know where they got it,” he all but whimpers with delight. There is also a doggy vanity pack with canine cologne that Bowen won’t use because Lady Bella has her own. All of which ticks the “rich are barmy/indulged/seem a bit lonely but who cares?” box – and, anyway, we saw it done better last year, also on the BBC, in Inside Claridge’s.

It is only towards the end, when Copacabana Palace follows Vivienne, a chambermaid, home to the tiny room she shares with her three children, that the film stops being just another glimpse into how the super-rich spend their money and how five-star hotels are so good at making them feel as if they’re not just walking wallets. Here it becomes something more revealing.

The pre-World Cup clean-up that has taken over Rio has benefited Vivienne: her favela now has running water and a police presence, but raw sewage still flows down the streets, and it’s not unusual for her to dodge a gunfight on her way to work. She earns about €85 for her six-day week. In work she says she knows the importance of always smiling and leaving her troubles at home. “I play a character that doesn’t really exist,” she says.

The first series of Episodes (BBC Two, Wednesday), a TV show about making a TV show, got off to an uncertain start. Mixing traditional British sitcom (it stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, both hilarious in Green Wing) with the brashness and zippiness of an American comedy (Episodes is by the Friends writer David Crane, produced by Showtime, and has Matt LeBlanc playing himself), it initially seemed more puzzling than funny.

The story centred on a married couple, played by Mangan and Greig, whose British TV series was bought by a US studio. Taken to Hollywood, the pair were thrown into a dazzling and frustrating world of rewrites, studio ruthlessness, creative compromise and money. Their classy TV show was dumbed down and they were given LeBlanc as its star.

By the end of series two Episodes had found its comedy feet. Now in series three (a fourth has been commissioned), it is building its knowing laughs (a TV show about the TV industry can’t help being a little smug) on well-established comedy-rich situations. There are ongoing gags about LeBlanc’s dumb acting and life in his celebrity bubble; the couple are back together after infidelity-induced separation; and the studio is in upheaval, with a new boss on the way, while the hilarious people-pleaser Carol (Kathleen Rose Perkins) has been passed over for the top job. It has been a slow burn, but Episodes is delivering.

At first Jim Higgins MEP appears delighted to be the first person chosen to speak in European Election Debate With Vincent Browne (TV3, Monday). His face lights up as Browne lists Higgins’s many achievements while he was in the Dáil. And then, in full-on contrarian mode, Browne remarks, “We haven’t heard a word from you since you went to the European Parliament – how many years ago now? Ten years ago,” as if it were a black hole from where politicians emerge, blinking into the light, only when an election is afoot and a new ticket for the gravy train needs to be stamped.

Higgins, puffing with indignation, lists his achievements and says that he has tabled 590 questions to the European Commission – a figure that surely means nothing to 99.9 per cent of viewers. “Oh God,” Browne mutters – and the tone is set for a very long evening.

In the first of TV3’s pre-election bunfights – or debates, as the station calls them – 13 candidates from the Midlands-North-West constituency sit on hard chairs in two rows, opposite each other, in TV3’s aggressively red studio. Only three are women – and if it does nothing else, this debate lays out before our eyes the woeful gender imbalance in Irish politics.

Fifteen minutes in and it descends into loud bickering, political handbagging, and meaningless boasting from existing MEPs, countered at every turn by a bullish Browne, listing the parliament’s shortcomings. It’s like a children’s party where everyone plays nice for a while but then the sugar rush kicks in, no one is in control and it all gets unbearable.

If the idea is to put a policy to the faces beaming down from every lamp post, it fails – just 12 minutes in and Senator Rónán Mullen comments perceptively, “People are switching off.” Whatever this is, it’s not a debate. That’s partly Browne’s fault: he’s not a moderator; he’s an interviewer with opinions he wants to give and quips to deliver. “You’d be as well talking into a bog in Roscommon as talking in the European Parliament,” he tells the Independent candidate Luke “Ming” Flanagan.

For several minutes I am confused, because a man whom I thought I recognised as Pat the Cope Gallagher talks about Pat the Cope Gallagher and his achievements – but then his name comes up on screen, and, yes, it’s the man himself. The point-scoring and bickering are testing enough, but when politicians start talking about themselves in the third person, it really is time to switch off.

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