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Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby

Benjie Goodhart / 25 November 2021

Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby returns to peek behind the scenes at some of the most unusual hotels in the world, and Paddy and Christine McGuinness share what life is like in a household with three autistic children.

Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby 1/6, Tuesday 30th November, 8pm, BBC Two

There’s a degree of feast or famine about being a TV columnist. One week, the schedules abound with deliciously exciting new series. The next, there may be slim pickings, particularly when some reality behemoth like I’m a Celebrity comes along and dominates prime time. It tends to mean that other channels don’t want to put up any big hitters to go against it, meaning there isn’t much for your humble TV writer to actually sink their teeth into.

Which is why I’m previewing Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby for a second time. Generally, I try and avoid repeating myself. (Apart from with jokes or supposedly worldly observations, which seem to get recycled every week). But a paucity of new stuff this week, combined with a few programmes that aren’t available for preview, means that I’m returning to the trough for a second nibble at this series.

Not that I mind, as it happens, because I am a big fan of this show. It sees chef Monica Galetti, and newspaper columnist Giles Coren, travelling to some of the finest, and most unusual, hotels in the world, and getting their hands dirty behind the scenes to see what makes them tick. And it is a joy.

The first in this new series sees them travel to Iceland, to a remote hotel called the Ion Adventure Hotel. Normally, I’d tend to avoid anywhere called an ‘adventure hotel’. It sounds like a themed hotel at Legoland, with staff dressed as pirates and oven chips served with everything. But that is most definitely not the case here.

Initially, things don’t look promising. Iceland is a fairly stark, windswept and barren-looking place at the best of times, and the hotel is 20 miles from the nearest shop, in the middle of nowhere, and yet somehow has ended up slap bang next to a massive power plant. The building itself is a fairly functional-looking box, and is built close to long-dormant volcanoes, so is subject to regular earth tremors. “But you’re safe indoors,” reassures the lady on reception. Just what every holidaymaker wants to hear.

But one should never judge a book by its cover, as I regularly tell my wife as I appear at breakfast in tracksuit bottoms and a vintage QPR top from the 1980s. And the hotel, and surrounding landscape, turns out to be an absolute cornucopia of delights.

This isn’t a holiday you go on to lounge around by the pool. The clue is in the name ‘Adventure Hotel’. Also, the name ‘Iceland’ is hardly redolent of sipping a Pina Colada on a palm-fringed terrace. Instead, you are offered activities ranging from horse-trekking to snow mobiles, kayaking to volcano visits, helicopter tours to snorkelling.

Yes, snorkelling. But not, self-evidently, the kind of snorkelling where you spend an hour floating about looking at starfish and contemplating what to have from the barbecue at lunchtime. As Monica and Giles discover, this is extreme snorkelling, with a huge amount of cold-water kit, and some astonishing geological sights to take in.

While Giles is put to work serving breakfast, cleaning the hotel’s hot spring bath, and catching fish for the restaurant, Monica is taken on a tour of the power station, where she discovers that the geothermal energy produced is just about the greenest power on the planet. Eventually released from his labours, Giles visits a glacier, where tourists can go inside the vast ice sheet thanks to the world’s largest manmade ice tunnel.

The hotel itself is a minimalist Scandinavian triumph, but it is Iceland that is the real star of the show. And witnessing the childish glee of Monica and Giles as they travel to an active volcano, and witness the awesome power of the natural world, is surprisingly touching. There is, of course, a place for the kind of holiday where you tread Robert Ludlum books and snooze under a sun-lounger, but for those of a more adventurous nature, this place looks hard to beat.

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Paddy and Christine McGuinness: Our Family & Autism, Wednesday 1st December, 9pm, BBC One

Nobody has a perfect life. All of our Instagram posts and Facebook updates show us having fun, out socialising, or on glorious holidays, or eating fabulous meals. But everyone has their crosses to bear. Every well-chosen photograph involves a degree of artifice. We don’t post photos of ourselves lying wide awake at 4am consumed by anxiety, or worrying about the gas bill, or having an argument with our kids about screen time or bedtime.

But it takes courage to peel back the curtain to show that life is often difficult. Which is why Paddy McGuinness and his wife Christine deserve an abundance of praise for taking part in this one-off documentary.

To a casual observer, Paddy appears to have it all. He’s got a wonderful TV career, mostly spent gadding about in cars being daft, possesses a ready wit and a sunny disposition. He’s happily married to a fabulous, strong woman, and has three beautiful children. They all live together in a stunning home. Life is sweet, right?

Except it isn’t. It’s difficult. Paddy and Christine’s three children – twins Leo and Penelope (8) and Felicity (5) all have autism. When the kids were younger, the couple simply assumed that the difficulties they were encountering were all part of the regular vicissitudes of parenthood. It was Christine’s mother who pointed out to them, on a visit one day, that something was wrong.

When they got the diagnosis, it was a bombshell. While Christine set about finding out all she could about the condition, Paddy buried his head in the sand, throwing himself into work in an effort to provide for them all the best way he knew how. Things got so bad, he was treated for clinical depression. Now, in an effort to better understand the condition, and to plan for the future, he and Christine are meeting with experts, and other people with experience of the condition.

But it’s hard. “Will they ever know how loved they are?” wonders Paddy, getting choked up (not for the last time). Christine is the one with strength and a practical outlook. When will we finally realise that women are the stronger sex, I wonder? Interestingly, gender plays a role in how autism is exhibited as well. Girls are much more adept at masking their symptoms, and mimicking the behaviour of those around them in order to fit in. This is born out in the McGuinness household as well, where Leo’s autism is more obvious.

Seventy per cent of autistic children are in mainstream education. But it’s a challenge for them. Paddy travels to Sedgefield Community College, a mainstream secondary school which has a reputation for taking neuroatypical students. Here, he meets two delightful pupils, who are thriving in a mainstream setting in spite of their autism.

Keen to learn more, Paddy meets with former footballer Paul Scholes, whose son Aiden (16) is autistic and non-verbal. Paul talks of the stresses of having an autistic child, and carries the bruises and bite marks to prove it. But his acceptance of his son’s condition, and his refusal to be worried about what other people think, has allowed his son to blossom and thrive. It is a valuable lesson for Paddy, who reveals that he has a constant knot in his stomach when he’s out with his kids.

Paddy goes to visit Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, to learn more about the condition, and whether there may be a genetic component to it. He and Christine fill out tests to see if they exhibit autistic traits. The results prove startling – and open up a whole new area of exploration for the couple.

What comes across in this quietly moving film is the courage of Paddy and Christine, and the phenomenal love for their children. It will doubtless prove to be an informative and useful watch for those in a similar boat, but there is a lesson in here for everyone. Nobody’s life is perfect, but everyone can take steps to make it as perfect as possible, within life’s occasionally tricky parameters. In the end, this is a film about a loving family doing the best they can. Just like all of us.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 27th November

Freddie Mercury: The Final Act, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length documentary charting the last years of the Queen frontman’s life, as well as looking at the 1992 concert staged at Wembley in his memory. Preceded by a repeat of Queen at the BBC, and followed by a vintage Queen gig from 1975.

2021: The Queen’s Terrible Year, 9pm, Channel 5: Queen of a different sort on Channel 5, as we look at the desperately difficult last year for the monarch, not least of which was losing her husband.

Sunday 28th November

Billy Connolly: In His Own Words, 9pm, Channel 5: The Big Yin’s remarkable life story, told using archive interviews, TV appearances and stand-up routines, charting a childhood of neglect in the Glasgow tenements, and taking him to the peak of Hollywood stardom.

Monday 29th November

Attack on Pearl Harbour, 9pm, Channel 5: This documentary series, showing on three consecutive nights, charts the story of perhaps the single most significant moment of the Second World War, when Japanese bombers attacked the US Navy in Hawaii. This first programme looks at the detailed and secretive plans drawn up by Japan, and how they kept their ambitions hidden from their enemies.

Tuesday 30th November

Sarah Beeny’s New Life in the Country, 8pm, Channel 4: Documentary series following property expert Sarah Beeny and her family as they turn their back on London life and embark on a new life on a former dairy farm in Somerset.

Wednesday 1st December

Nothing new. Have a walk. Cook a meal. Chat.

Thursday 2nd December

Luxury Christmas For Less 1/2, 8pm, Channel 4: Sabrina Grant and Sophie Morgan show how we can indulge with luxury products without breaking the bank. This opening episode reveals how to buy real diamonds at half the price, and how to bag designer smelling perfumes that don’t cost a fortune.

Friday 3rd December

Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas, 8pm, Channel 4: With a little handmade magic, some very special guests and a cornucopia of yuletide crafts, this hour-long programme features stunning makes, ingenious tips, fabulous decorations, glorious gifts and a plethora of celebratory food, and drink to satisfy even Father Christmas himself.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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