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TV review: decadence and rage at the Copacabana Palace Hotel

I didn't expect to be angry watching a documentary about the Copacabana.

Surely the only reason for annoyance will be having that Barry Manilow tune playing in my head and I'd have settled for that, having once been stuck singing one of his lesser works after a BBC4 programme on the Bermuda Triangle.

This one-off documentary looked at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, the oldest and grandest in Rio, made famous by Fred Astaire, Robert De Niro and, more recently, the intellectual poppet Justin Bieber.

The hotel's guest book was brought out as though it was a museum exhibit, and handled with little white gloves, as the management sighed and blushed over the rich who had stayed at the Palace in the golden age.

But the present day doesn't lack illustrious guests either. We were introduced to Marco, a celebrity hairdresser who bounced and wriggled in his chair as the staff served him. This awful man's histrionics over something as utterly trivial as the pool or the fruit or the air freshener used in the corridors was utterly disheartening. I wanted to grab his meaty shoulders and shake him. Why are you so trivial? I wanted to shout. You have wealth and health. You could go anywhere and do anything, but choose to laze by the same pool of the same hotel every weekend, flapping your hands at fruit.

There was little point to the camera's dogged following of this gaudy and futile man except to perhaps seize on him as some kind of overblown and entertaining Brazilian stereotype, but he was insufferable, boasting of his thousands of Twitter followers and the money he makes in Sao Paulo.

And what of British irritants? There was a prime example tucked upstairs: a rich businessman who was living in the hotel with his tiny dog, Lady Bella. He showed us the shampoos and fragrances the mutt uses. Again, a sickening feeling of how debauched and utterly useless these people are, yet they're the ones with the money so there's not a thing you can do except get angry on the sofa and try and soothe yourself with that Barry Manilow tune.

As the camera sopped up the fripperies of these pointless people I wondered if the elephant in the room would be mentioned. Isn't there some rather startling poverty in Brazil? Isn't there a hideous gap between the rich and poor? Well, where are these poor people, because I know someone must have washed and prepared Marco's neon fruit, and someone must have carefully arranged the dog's shampoo in the white bathroom. Someone must clean and wash and cook and make this colossal hotel run so these pampered imbeciles can have somewhere to sleep and strut and stroke their wallets.

The documentary eventually deigned to show some of the poor, but they didn't live in 'slums'; that bleak word was never used. Instead, the more colourful and less offensive - to English speakers - 'favelas' was used. We saw the jolly maids bustling round the hotel, saying how glad they were to work here, swiftly folding sheets and spraying mists of starch everywhere. Oh it's a jaunty old life, isn't it! Even the boys working below stairs for peanuts spoke of how there would be so many job opportunities with the World Cup and the Olympics - but no-one spoke of what these opportunities might be, and what rate of pay they would offer and certainly not of what the death rate might be - because workers have died in the frantic race to get Brazil ready for the rich men who want to play football. But who cares? Let's get back upstairs where it's sunny and posh, where the champagne bubbles and the dogs are scented. We've had our quick peek at who actually makes this hotel function, and we've assured ourselves they're having a great old time.

This top-heavy opulence made me sick. The programme was obscenely soaked with glamour and money and oily sun-tans and with only a cursory glance at those without whom the hotel would soon be dusty, decayed and firmly closed. I'd rather the film had ignored them and thrown itself wholly into Brazilian decadence, but to give us patronising glimpses of the poor and throw out the cliches of Brazil being 'a country of extremes' was infuriating. There could have been a whole documentary - even a whole series - about life in the favelas, about how the maids often have to phone the hotel to say there's been another shooting so they may be late this morning or about how they travel three hours each day across open sewers to get to their low-paid labour. But let's not call it 'labour' as that antiquated word suggests it's work which is dignified and from which satisfaction can be drawn. What satisfaction is there in serving diced, luminous fruit to these rich people when, an hour before, you may have been lifting your child over the open sewer so he doesn't get his bare feet soiled?

For these people there can be no satisfaction but, with the coming of the World Cup and the Olympics, with the coming of yet more blind Western wealth, there will be no alternatives for them either.

Contextual targeting label: 
Travel

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