TV GEMS: Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)

New recruit Laurie Canciani visits Torquay for one of the greatest sitcoms in history. 

With the amount of times I’ve re-watched this legendary British sitcom, starting around age ten when I used to snigger at the funny walks and the tiny psychically-abused waiter, most would assume that the jokes would begin to lose their impact as the decades roll on. Predictability, cheap sets, and references that are as stale and out-of-touch as a bad seventies haircut can take most of the hilarity away from any sitcom, but Fawlty Towers is one of those golden lightning bolts in TV history that never seems to burn out.

With its mad, neurotic, snobbish, farcical, and eccentric characters, complicated plots, misunderstandings and cheap walls that waver underneath the prods of the flailing, long-limbed John Cleese, Fawlty Towers has continued to break down even the most cynical or Americanised (myself included) of TV comedy fans and inspires laughter well beyond its short twelve-episode run.

The series was inspired by the experiences of the Monty Python team when they dared to visit The Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay in the early seventies. Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam were all unwilling victims of the real-life and unrelenting manager Donald Sinclair, who criticised Gilliam’s Americanised table etiquette and threw Idle’s suitcase out of a window because he thought it contained a bomb. It was an experience so bizarre and ridiculous that Cleese and Connie Booth decided to stay behind to observe the hotelier and take advantage of a unique opportunity for creative inspiration. This experience led to the development of the character Basil Fawlty, and the genesis of one of the most legendary comedies this side of the English Riviera.

Basil Fawlty, a short-fused and eccentric middle-class social climber who can kill a man at ten paces with the flailing of a single kipper, demands that his hotel attract only the crème-de-la-crème of British society and above all else, no riff raff. He has an upper lip that’s about as stiff as a Gourmet trifle, and is one of those genius characters whose hilarity is often a result of his slow unravelling and sharp decent into mania. The subsequent tirades, bombardments (I think it’s disgusting that guy hadn’t shaved, too) and complete breakdowns are some of the most gut-achingly funny moments of UK comedy history. The episode “Gourmet Night” has a moment that’s so iconic it currently features in an ad for Specsavers, and allows Cleese to once again prove that car maintenance and hedge maintenance can often coincide.

Basil’s flirtatious and demanding wife, played by the glorious Prunella Scales, has a tongue so sharp it can cut the mould off an old block of cheddar. The relationship between the pair consists of psychical and verbal abuse and a fear that keeps him in his place only long enough for the marital dust to settle, at which point, he inevitably begins to break down and take out his frustrations on his guests and ever-patient members of staff. One of which, Manuel, is a much loved and sweet-natured communication-impaired waiter (he’s from Barcelona) who often takes more than one for the team, bearing the brunt of Basil’s tyrannical outbursts. Some of the physical stunts performed by the actor, Andrew Sachs, including a moment where he is hit hard on the head with a frying pan, often resulted in real-life injury, proving that during the seventies, an actor’s pain wasn’t a problem as long as it was in front of a live studio audience.

Booth, the co-creator of Fawlty Towers (shout out to the ladies), plays the part of the comparatively normal maid Polly, who is a source of straightness in an otherwise crooked and slightly leaning-to-the-left world. Polly is a witty and talented artist and she often bears some of the brunt of Basil’s verbal abuse and then covers for him as he tries to keep up appearances in a world that doesn’t give a damn about his standards.

Some of the guests have contributed to the most memorable scenes. At the end of season one, the sitcom concluded with one of the most exemplary episodes of TV comedy ever, simply titled “The Germans.” Revisiting this episode today is like having cake and chocolate at the same time. Not only is it delightful, sweet and oh so side-splittingly brilliant, it also leaves you feeling a little guilty afterwards. The funny walk and the accent imitation, and the extremely quotable “Yes you did, you invaded Poland!” are so farcical and hilarious that you feel as though you might die of laughter like those Hyenas in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Then we have the moments that are often a shock for those of us who are perhaps new to this era of comedy. The lovable and senile ex-army officer and long-term resident of Fawlty Towers, known only as “The Major,” brings a funny but often offensive aspect to this episode which hasn’t been seen since Britain First and The English Defensive League first discovered fire and then discovered Facebook. This episode is one of the most hilarious in TV history, but with the overuse of racist language and cultural faux pas, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or apologise.

After the first season, there was a break of approximately four years while Booth and Cleese tried to learn to like each other after their divorce. When that was taken care of, the remarkable pair came up with their final series, which leaves one to wonder how the duo could possibly match the hilarity of the previous episode. Enter Mrs Richards, a guest so demanding, so abrupt and rude that even Basil Fawlty faints at the mere mention of her name. Played by the amazing Joan Sanderson, Mrs Richards is a character who demands a bathtub in a room with a bathtub, would like to see more than Torquay through a Torquay hotel window, and complains that the radio is broken when it works as well as everything else she criticises. Communication problems and misunderstandings are abundant in this episode, whether it’s as a result of turning off one’s hearing aid to save the batteries, or caused directly by a senile Major and confused Manuel who offer no help to Basil as he tries to conceal his gambling winnings from Sybil.

The amazing legacy of this sitcom is in more than its instantly classic episodes and two-season template which went on to inspire other two-season shows like The Young Ones, Extras, Dinnerladies and The Office. The legacy is in the bizarre characters, farcical situations, iconic scenes, and even the punchy dialogue that’s still recognisable forty long years after the show concluded. Fawlty Towers is such a classic because every line remains fresh as though you were watching it for the first time, and each time we watch Basil hide a kipper down his jumper, or Sybil hit that Irish builder with an umbrella, or Manuel taking smack after smack for the good of the laughter, or that American with his Waldorf salad (it was apples, celery, walnuts, grapes), it’s clear why Fawlty Towers is still the crème-de-la-crème of British comedy gold, and will always remain unrelentingly open for business.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Each script took six weeks to write, five days to rehearse and one evening to record in the studio in front of a live audience – a total of 42 weeks to produce each series of six episodes.
  • The production team spent nearly an hour editing each minute of every program, spending up to 25 hours on each show.
  • Andrew Sachs is German by birth and was asked to dub his own lines into German when the series was exported. Being a native German speaker, he had no problem with the script, but it took him quite a while to work out how to speak German with a Spanish accent.
  • John Cleese says in his DVD commentary that Prunella Scales was so unlike the character she played, the harpy Sybil Fawlty, that they had trouble getting the tenderhearted Scales to hit Basil or any other character who incurred Sybil’s displeasure hard enough to make it look realistic and were constantly having to do retakes of her scenes.
  • During the original run of the series, Richard Ingrams – then editor of Private Eye – wrote a scathing review of the programme. John Cleese had known Ingrams for many years and was also a friend of the magazine’s proprietor, Peter Cook, and so took great exception to the review. Cleese’s revenge was to write in a character called Mr. Ingrams into a later episode, a guest whom Basil discovers blowing up an inflatable sex doll.

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