As someone with a ravenous curiosity about other folks' lives, I've spent decades trying to work out the best way to spy on as many people as possible.
I read Heat magazine and Zadie Smith novels, listen to radio phone-ins, check in on Twitter, watch Ken Loach films, eavesdrop on buses, chat to people at the post office, watch neighbours doing star jumps through my new telescope... And yes, I've gained some insights along the way. But this week I discovered a new social peep-hole, one which gets to the heart of the British people more definitively than anything I've come across before. It's called The Hotel.
The Hotel is a Channel 4 series following the increasingly desperate attempts of Grosvenor owner Mark Jenkins to keep his mid-budget Torquay establishment afloat. It's been billed as a real life Fawlty Towers, most obviously because of the air of panicky chaos the bungling Jenkins presides over, exuding about as much authority as Mike Nesbitt at a loyalist rally.
Just watching the guests relax around each other is enlightening. Last week we met Kate and Gary who told us how madly in love they were, and nuzzled each other's necks to prove it. The soul-mates had deep, bonding conversations along the lines of, 'On a scale of one to 10, with one being not hungry and 10 being really really hungry, how hungry would you say you are?' I was astounded when, rather than smashing his cutlery across the room like a raging bull trapped in a prison cell, Gary considered Kate's question with frowning concentration before answering 'seven-and-a-half'. They'd been together for 18 months and 'aren't bored of each other'.
The most illuminating aspect of the programme is Jenkins' obsession with class. Like Basil Fawlty, he's determined to attract 'posh folk' to a hotel which, due to his skewed notions about such people, is tackier than superglue.
Jenkins has very particular ideas about the characteristics of the tourists he covets. He assumes they will read either The Telegraph or The Guardian, so places adverts in both. He introduces a two-tier breakfast system, which involves separating guests who pay an extra £4 for a gourmet sausage from those who don't. It never occurs to Mark that this apartheid might be a tad vulgar. He assumes the middle classes enjoy lording it over the lower orders and like to see their superiority boldly advertised.
For Jenkins, class is identifiable through what car you drive, what newspaper you read and your leisure activities. The guests he seeks will display their education by being articulate, reading books and liking the theatre. His definition isn't unique; The Sun often represents 'toffs' similarly, as the enemy of football, Coronation Street and the tabloids. As someone from a resolutely working-class family who sought to educate itself - my grandfather couldn't afford to buy the daily papers, so read them all at the library - I find this notion ridiculous. It's true, I never had much skill in accumulating wealth, but I could argue Jeremy Hunt out of the room, albeit it in a strong regional accent he would probably find uncouth.
Many working-class people love Dickens, Verdi and Shakespeare. Many middle-class people love The Sun, Take That and TOWIE. The idea that those without family money or business nous are less eloquent or have less sensitivity to the arts is crazy. But it's also very popular, and nowhere will you see it more clearly displayed than on The Hotel. If you're interested in modern Britain, check yourselves in.