Fawlty Towers

 
Fawlty Towers title card.jpg
Series title card. The “Fawlty Towers” sign changed in every episode except two.
Format Comedy
Created by John Cleese
Connie Booth
Written by John Cleese
Connie Booth
Directed by John Howard Davies
Bob Spiers
Starring John Cleese
Prunella Scales
Andrew Sachs
Connie Booth
Ballard Berkeley
Theme music composer Dennis Wilson
Opening theme Fawlty Towers
Ending theme Fawlty Towers
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of series 2
No. of episodes 12 (List of episodes)
Production
Running time 28–36 minutes
Production company(s) BBC
Distributor BBC Worldwide
Broadcast
Original channel BBC2
Original run 19 September 1975 – 25 October 1979

Fawlty Towers is a British sitcom produced by BBC Television and first broadcast on BBC2 in 1975. Twelve episodes were produced (two series each of six episodes). The show was written by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, both of whom played major characters. The first series in 1975 was produced and directed by John Howard Davies; the second in 1979 was produced by Douglas Argent and directed by Bob Spiers.

Inspired by the rude behaviour of the proprietor of a hotel in the seaside town of Torquay, on the “English Riviera”, the show follows Basil Fawlty (Cleese) in his running of the fictional Fawlty Towers hotel in the same area.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first.[1] It was also voted fifth in the BBC’s “Britain’s Best Sitcom” poll in 2004.[2]

Contents

Origins

In May 1970 the Monty Python team stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel (which is referred to in “The Builders” episode) in Torquay whilst filming on location.[3] John Cleese became fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, whom Cleese later described as “the most marvellously rude man I’ve ever met.”[citation needed] This behaviour included Sinclair throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive;[citation needed] and placing Eric Idle‘s bag (containing squash gear) behind a wall in the garden on the suspicion that it contained a bomb (it actually contained a ticking alarm clock).[4] He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam‘s table manners for not being “British” (switching hands with his fork whilst eating). Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming, furthering their research of the hotel owner.

At the time, Cleese was a writer on the 1970s British TV sitcom Doctor in the House for London Weekend Television. An early prototype of the character that became known as Basil Fawlty was developed in an episode (“No Ill Feeling”) of the third Doctor series (titled Doctor at Large). In this edition, the main character checks into a small town hotel, his very presence seemingly winding up the aggressive and incompetent manager (played by Timothy Bateson) with a domineering wife. The show was broadcast on 30 May 1971.[5] Cleese parodied the contrast between organisational dogma and sensitive customer service in many personnel training videotapes issued with a serious purpose by his company, Video Arts.

Cleese said in 2009 that the first Fawlty Towers script, written with then-wife Connie Booth, was rejected by the BBC. At a 30th-anniversary event honouring the show, Cleese said,

“Connie and I wrote that first episode and we sent it in to Jimmy Gilbert,” the executive “whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, and I can quote [his note to me] fairly accurately, ‘This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster.’ And Jimmy himself said, ‘You’re going to have to get them out of the hotel, John, you can’t do the whole thing in the hotel.’ Whereas, of course, it’s in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.”[6]

Cleese was paid £6,000 for 43 weeks’ work and supplemented his income by appearing in television commercials.[6][7]

Bill Cotton, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment in the mid-1970s, said[citation needed] after the first series was produced that the show was a prime example of the BBC’s relaxed attitude to trying new entertainment formats and encouraging new ideas. He said that when he read the first scripts he could see nothing funny in them but trusting that Cleese knew what he was doing, he gave the go-ahead.[citation needed] He said that the commercial channels, with their emphasis on audience ratings, would never have let the show get to the production stage on the basis of the scripts.[citation needed]

Production

 

Although the series is set in Torquay in Devon, none of it was shot in south west England. For the exterior filming, instead of a hotel, the Wooburn Grange Country Club in Buckinghamshire was used. It later served as a nightclub named “Basil’s” for a short time after the series ended, before being destroyed by a fire in March 1991. The remnants of the building were demolished and the site was bought by developers and is now a housing estate.[8] Other location filming was done mostly around Harrow, Middlesex, notably the ‘damn good thrashing’ scene where Basil loses his temper and attacks his car with a tree branch was filmed at the T-junction of Lapstone Gardens and Mentmore Close (51°34′52″N 0°18′33″W / 51.581103°N 0.309072°W / 51.581103; -0.309072).

In the episode “The Germans”, the opening shot is of Northwick Park Hospital. In the episode “Gourmet Night”, the exterior of Andre’s restaurant was filmed on Preston Road in the Harrow area. The launderette next door to the restaurant still exists today and Andre’s is now a Chinese restaurant called “Wings”.

During the introduction, the Fawlty Towers sign outside the hotel would be shown with its letters rearranged differently in each episode, spelling out terms like Flowery Twats, Watery Fowls or Fatty Owls.

Cleese and Booth were married to each other at the time of the first series. By the second, they had been divorced for almost a year, after ten years of union (1968–78).[9]

Both Cleese and Booth were so keen on every script being perfect, some episodes took four months and ten drafts to write until they were satisfied.[10]

Plot directions and examples

The series focuses on the exploits and misadventures of short-fused hotelier Basil Fawlty, his wife Sybil and their employees, porter and waiter Manuel, maid Polly, and (in the second series) chef Terry. The episodes typically revolve around Basil’s efforts to succeed in ‘raising the tone’ of his hotel and his increasing frustration at the numerous complications and mistakes, both his own and those of others, which prevent him from doing so. Much of the humour comes from Basil’s overly aggressive manner, engaging in angry but witty arguments with guests, staff and in particular his formidable wife, whom he addresses (in a faux-romantic way) with insults such as “that golfing puff adder“, “my little piranha fish” and “my little nest of vipers“. Despite this, he frequently feels intimidated, she being able to stop him in his tracks at any time, usually with a short, sharp cry of “Basil!” At the end of some episodes, Basil succeeds in annoying (or at least bemusing) the guests and frequently gets his comeuppance.

The plots are occasionally intricate and always farcical, involving coincidences, misunderstandings, cross-purposes and meetings both missed and accidental. The innuendo of the bedroom farce is sometimes present (often to the disgust of the socially conservative Basil) but it is his eccentricity, not his lust, that drives the plots. The events that take place in each episode happen in such a way that they negatively affect Basil’s personality and test what little patience he has to breaking point, sometimes causing his mental state to deteriorate to the point where he has all but suffered a total breakdown by the end of the episode (some cut to the credits as he is on the brink of doing so).

The guests at the hotel are typically comic foils to Basil’s anger and outbursts. Each episode’s one-shot guest characters provide a different characteristic that he cannot stand (including promiscuity, being working class, or being foreign). Requests both reasonable and impossible test his temper. Even the afflicted seem to annoy him, with the episode “Communication Problems” revolving around the havoc caused by the frequent misunderstandings between the staff and the hard-of-hearing Mrs Richards (not to mention the contributions from dotty resident Major Gowen, one of the show’s other regular characters). By the end, Basil faints just at the mention of her name. This episode is typical of the show’s careful weaving of humorous situations through comedy cross-talk. The show also uses mild black humour at times, notably when Basil is forced to hide a dead body and in some of the comments made by Basil both about Sybil (“Did you ever see that film, How to Murder Your Wife? … Awfully good. I saw it six times.”) and the guests (“May I suggest that you consider moving to a hotel closer to the sea? Or preferably in it.”).

Basil’s physical outbursts are primarily directed at the waiter Manuel, an emotional but largely innocent Spaniard whose confused English vocabulary causes him to make elementary mistakes, and include beating hapless Manuel with a frying pan and smacking him on the forehead with a spoon. The violence directed at Manuel has been one of the few reasons for negative criticism levelled at Fawlty Towers. Sybil, on the other hand, is always condescending towards Manuel, excusing his behavior to guests with, “oh, he’s from Barcelona.”

Basil often displays blatant snobbishness in order to climb the social ladder, frequently expressing disdain for the “riff-raff“, “cretins” and “yobbos” that he believes to regularly populate his hotel. His desperation is readily apparent, as he makes increasingly hopeless manoeuvres and painful faux pas in trying to curry favour with those whom he perceives to have superior social status. Yet, he regularly finds himself forced to serve those individuals he sees as beneath him. As such, Basil’s efforts tend to be counter-productive, with guests leaving the hotel in disgust and his marriage (and sanity) stretching further and further towards breaking point.

Characters

 

Basil Fawlty

Basil Fawlty

Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, is a snobbish and miserly misanthrope who is desperate to belong to a higher social class. He sees the successful running of the hotel as a means of achieving this (“turn it into an establishment of class…”), yet his job forces him to be pleasant to people he despises or aspires to be above socially.

He is terrified of his wife Sybil Fawlty‘s strong temper. He yearns to stand up to her, but his plans frequently conflict with her desires. She is often verbally abusive towards him (memorably describing him as “an ageing, brilliantined stick insect”) but although he towers over the diminutive Sybil, he often finds himself on the receiving end of her temper, expressed verbally or physically. Basil usually turns to Manuel or Polly to help him with his schemes, while trying his best to prevent Sybil from discovering them. However, there are occasions where Basil is shown to lament the time when there was passion in their relationship, now seemingly lost forever. Also, it appears as though he still does care for her in some way. The penultimate episode — “The Anniversary” — revolves around his efforts to put together a nice surprise anniversary get-together present, involving their closest friends. Things go wrong immediately as, because of Basil’s pretending the date doesn’t remind him of anything so as to enhance the surprise (gamely accepting a slap in the process), Sybil believes he really has forgotten, and leaves the hotel in a huff. In an interview for the documentary on the DVD box set, Cleese claims that this episode deliberately takes a slightly different tone from the others, focusing on fleshing out their otherwise inexplicable status as a couple (as well as saying that, if a third series had been made, there would have been similar episodes).

In keeping with the general lack of explanation about the marriage, not much is revealed of the characters’ back-stories. It is known that Basil served in the British Army and saw action in the Korean War, possibly as part of his National Service. (In real life John Cleese was only 13 years old when the Korean War ended.) Basil exaggerates this period of his life, suggesting he spent time in active front line service and proclaiming to strangers: “I killed four men.” To this Sybil jokes that “He was in the Catering Corps. He used to poison them.” Basil is often seen wearing a military tie (as well as that of the Royal Agricultural College), and his moustache seems to betray an Army background. He also claims to have sustained an injury to his leg during the action, caused by shrapnel, although apparently it tends to flare up at surprisingly (and suspiciously) convenient times for him. The only person toward whom Basil, for the most part, consistently exhibits patience and decent manners is the old and senile Major Gowen, a veteran officer of one of the World Wars (which one is never specified) who permanently resides at the hotel. When interacting with Manuel, Basil displays a rudimentary ability with Spanish which is not entirely explained in any of the episodes (although Basil does at one point say that he “learned classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he [Manuel] seems to have picked up”); this ability is also predictably ridiculed, as in the first episode where a guest, whom Basil has immediately mentally labelled a working-class oik, communicates fluently with Manuel in Spanish after Basil was unable to do so.

Cleese described Basil as thinking that “he could run a first-rate hotel if he didn’t have all the guests getting in the way,” and as being “an absolutely awful human being”, but says that in comedy, if an awful person makes people laugh, people unaccountably feel affectionate toward him.[11] Indeed, he is not entirely unsympathetic. The “Hotel Inspectors” and “Waldorf Salad” episodes feature guests who are shown to be deeply annoying with constant, and unreasonable demands, namely MM. Hutchinson and Hamilton. In “Gourmet Night”, the chef gets drunk and is unable to cook dinner, leaving Basil to scramble in an attempt to salvage the evening. Much of the time, Basil is an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

Sybil Fawlty

Sybil Fawlty, played by Prunella Scales, is Basil’s wife. Energetic and petite (although she wears precariously high heels), she prefers a working wardrobe of tight skirt suits in vivid shiny fabrics and sports a tower of permed and back-combed hair necessitating the use of overnight curlers. She is often seen to be a more effective manager of the hotel, making sure Basil either gets certain jobs done or stays out of the way when she is handling difficult customers. Despite this, she rarely participates directly in the running of the hotel; during busy check-in sessions or meal-times, while everyone else is busy working, she is frequently talking on the phone to one of her friends (usually Audrey, who makes her sole on-camera appearance in “The Anniversary”) with her phrase “Oohhh, I knoooooooow”, or chatting to customers. She has a distinctive conversational tone and braying laugh, which her husband compares to “someone machine-gunning a seal”. Being his wife, she is the only regular character who refers to Basil by his first name. When (frequently) she barks this at him, he is generally stopped in his tracks, often flinching.

Basil refers to her by a number of epithets, occasionally to her face, including “that golfing puff-adder”, “the dragon”, “toxic midget”, “the sabre-toothed tart”, “my little kommandant”, “my little piranha fish”, “my little nest of vipers”, and “you rancorous, coiffured old sow”. Despite these less than complimentary nicknames, Basil is terrified of her. There is only one time in the entire series that he loses patience and snaps at her.

Sybil and Basil Fawlty are said to have married on 17 April 1958 and started their hotel in 1960. Prunella Scales has said that the reason Sybil married Basil was because his origins were of a higher social class than hers. In Gourmet Night she recounts an anecdote about “Uncle Ted and his crate of brown ale.” This and some of Sybil’s behaviour suggests a working class background.

Polly Sherman

Polly Sherman, played by Connie Booth, is a waitress and general helper at the hotel. She often stands as the voice of sanity during chaotic moments, but is frequently embroiled in ridiculous masquerades as she loyally attempts to aid Basil in trying to cover a mistake or keep something from Sybil.

In “The Anniversary” she complied with Basil’s request that she impersonate a purportedly ill Sybil in front of the Fawltys’ closest friends, under the mask of semi-darkness and a makeshift disguise. In this case there was a condition: she would only assist him if he lent her the money he had previously refused to lend.

Polly is generally good-natured but sometimes shows her frustration, and odd moments of malice. In The Kipper and the Corpse, the pampered shih-tzu dog of an elderly guest bit Polly and Manuel. As revenge Polly laced the dog’s sausages with hot pepper, chilli powder and Tabasco sauce causing it to take ill.

Polly is apparently employed part-time (during meal times). In the first series she is said to be an art student who, according to Basil, has spent three years at university. Polly is not referred to as a student in the second series. Despite her part-time employment, as the most competent of the hotel staff, she is frequently saddled with many other duties. In one episode, she is seen to draw a sketch (presumably an impressionistic caricature) of Basil, which everyone but Basil immediately recognises. Polly is also a student of languages, displaying ability with both Spanish and German. In “The Germans” Basil alludes to Polly’s polyglot inclination by saying that she does her work “while learning two oriental languages”. Like Manuel, she has a room of her own at the hotel.

Manuel

Manuel, a waiter played by Andrew Sachs, is a well-meaning but disorganised and constantly confused Spaniard from Barcelona with a poor grasp of the English language and customs. He is verbally and physically abused by his boss. When told by either Basil, Sybil, or Polly what to do, he often answers, “¿Qué?” (“What?”). Manuel’s character was used to demonstrate Basil’s instinctive lack of sensitivity and tolerance. Every episode would involve Basil becoming enraged at least a couple of times by not only Manuel’s confusion at his boss’s bizarre and complicated demands, but also with basic requests. Manuel is afraid of Fawlty’s quick temper and violent assaults, yet often expresses his appreciation for being given a steady source of income in what seems to him an endlessly perplexing society. His relentlessly enthusiastic demeanour and lavish pride in what little English he has grasped suggest that at least some of his persistent difficulties stem from his employers’ persistently poor communication skills.

During the making of the series, Sachs twice suffered a serious injury while playing Manuel. Cleese describes using a real metal pan to knock him unconscious in “The Wedding Party” episode, although he would have preferred to use a rubber one. The original producer/director, John Howard Davies, explains in the director’s commentary that he made Basil use a metal one and that he was responsible for most of the violence on the show, which he felt was essential and intrinsic to the type of comical farce that they were trying to create. Later, when his clothes were treated in order to make them give off smoke after he had been let out of the burning kitchen in “The Germans“, the corrosive chemicals used went through them and gave Sachs severe burns.[12]

Manuel’s exaggerated Spanish accent is an integral part of the humour of the show. Sachs’ native language is German; he emigrated to Britain as a child.[13]

The character’s nationality was switched to Italian (and the name to Paolo) for the Spanish dub of the show, while in Catalonia he is a Mexican (still called Manuel).[14]

Other regular characters and themes

Terry, played by Brian Hall, is the laid-back Cockney chef at Fawlty Towers. Terry’s cooking methods are likewise somewhat casual, which sometimes frustrates and worries the neurotic Basil. He appears in only the second series of episodes. During the first series, there was no regular chef character seen in the show. The only first series chef was “new” chef Kurt, seen in “Gourmet Night”, who quickly proved himself incapable of holding the job when, after being rebuffed after making a sexual advance to Manuel, lapsed into his old alcoholic ways. Terry used to work in Dorchester (not at The Dorchester, as briefly believed by a guest). In “The Anniversary” Terry and Manuel come to blows as he takes offence at someone else cooking in his kitchen, and proceeds to sabotage Manuel’s attempt to make paella for Sybil, leading to fisticuffs between them at the end of the episode.

Major Gowen, played by Ballard Berkeley, is a slightly senile, amiable old soldier who holds permanent residence in the hotel. He is one of the very few guests whom Basil seems to like. This is possibly because of his former status in the military, making him a symbol of the establishment status that Basil craves. He is often introduced as their “oldest resident”. He enjoys talking about the world outside, especially the cricket scores and bemoaning workers’ strikes, and is always on the lookout for the newspaper. In the episode “The Germans“, he shows that he – like Basil, as it transpires – has trouble forgiving the Germans because of the World Wars; the best he can say about them is that German women supposedly make good card players. In the same episode, he also demonstrates his outdated attitudes towards race where he makes clear the ethnic difference between “wogs” and “niggers” — but in a manner apparently innocent of malice or derogatory bigotry. Despite his good intentions, the Major can cause Basil’s devious plans to go catastrophically awry, notably in the episode “Communication Problems“, when Basil tries his best to keep the money he won betting on a horse race a secret from Sybil.

Miss Tibbs & Miss Gatsby, played by Gilly Flower and Renee Roberts respectively, are the other two permanent residents. Seemingly inseparable, these sweet-natured but cheerfully dotty spinsters appear to have taken a fancy to Basil, feeling as though they need to take care of him. In response to their fond solicitude, Basil vacillates between a sycophantic and superficial charm through to hostility and blunt rudeness during his various conversations with them.

Audrey, a mostly unseen character, had one on-screen appearance in “The Anniversary”. Audrey is Sybil’s lifelong best friend, and mostly appears in the form of gossiping, trivial telephone calls to Sybil. Audrey is a refuge for Sybil from the hotel and from Basil’s ludicrous situations. When times get tough (Audrey has a dysfunctional relationship with her husband George), Sybil will offer solutions and guidance, often resulting in the catchphrase “Ohhh, I knowwww…” when she tries to commiserate with Audrey’s problems. In Audrey’s one on-screen appearance she is played by actress Christine Shaw. She is mentioned in “The Hotel Inspectors”, “The Wedding Party”, “Gourmet Night”, “The Psychiatrist” and “The Kipper and the Corpse”.

The Paperboy, though rarely seen, is significant as he is revealed to be the prankster who rearranges the letters on the “Fawlty Towers” sign to read various (sometimes crude) phrases.[15] This may have been because of Basil’s sharp attitude towards him when he was late with a delivery. The shot of the sign (with the hotel exterior in the background) appears at the beginning of every episode but one, “The Germans“, when a shot of a hospital is used, as this is the only episode which doesn’t begin at the hotel. During the first series, the sign slowly deteriorated throughout the season until almost no letters were left in episode four. Episode five brings the first semi-anagram: “Warty Towels”. In the second series, the first episode sign spells ‘Fawlty Tower’, with the letter “L” being noticeably askew, and changes in each subsequent episode, from the correct spelling to various semi-anagrams (only “Flowery Twats” from the 11th episode, “The Anniversary”, is a proper anagram using all original letters.) The changes progress as follows:

  • Episode 5: “Warty Towels”
  • Episode 7: “Fawlty Tower” (the letter “L” is askew)
  • Episode 8: “Watery Fowls”
  • Episode 9: “Flay Otters”
  • Episode 10: “Fatty Owls”
  • Episode 11: “Flowery Twats”
  • Episode 12: “Farty Towels”

For other characters, please refer to the List of guest characters in Fawlty Towers article.

Episode guide

The first edition of Fawlty Towers was originally broadcast on 19 September 1975. The 12th and final show was first shown on 25 October 1979. The first series was directed by John Howard Davies, the second by Bob Spiers. Both series had their premieres on BBC2.

Production of the last two episodes was disrupted by a strike of BBC technical staff, which resulted in the recasting of the role of Reg (the wisecracking friend of Basil and Sybil) in “The Anniversary”, and delayed the episode’s transmission date by one week. The episode “Basil the Rat” was also delayed, not being screened until the end of a repeat showing six months later.

Not the Nine O’Clock News was originally scheduled to debut after an episode of Fawlty Towers and Cleese was to have introduced Not the Nine O’Clock News in a sketch referring to the technicians’ strike, explaining (in character as Basil Fawlty) that there was no show ready that week, so a “tatty revue” would be broadcast instead. However, the 1979 general election intervened, and Not the Nine O’Clock News was postponed as being too political. Later that year, Cleese’s sketch was broadcast, but its original significance was lost.

When originally transmitted, the individual episodes had no on-screen titles. The ones in common currency were first used for the VHS release of the series in the 1980s. There were working titles, such as “USA” for “Waldorf Salad”, “Death” for “The Kipper and the Corpse”, and “Rat” for “Basil the Rat”, which have been printed in some programme guides. In addition, some of the early BBC audio releases of episodes on vinyl and cassette included other variations, such as “Mrs. Richards” and “The Rat” for “Communication Problems” and “Basil the Rat” respectively.

It has long been rumoured that a thirteenth episode of the series was written and filmed, but never progressed further than a rough cut.[16] Lars Holger Holm, author of the book Fawlty Towers: A Worshipper’s Companion, has made detailed claims about the episode’s content, but he provides no evidence of its existence and it is most likely a hoax or fan fiction.

On the subject of whether more episodes would be produced, Cleese revealed (in an interview for the complete DVD box set, which was republished in the book, Fawlty Towers Fully Booked) that he once had the genesis of a feature-length special – possibly sometime during the mid-1990s. The plot (which was never fleshed out beyond his initial idea) would have revolved around the chaos that a now-retired Basil typically caused as he and Sybil flew to Barcelona to visit their former employee Manuel and his family. Of the idea, Cleese said:

We had an idea for a plot which I loved. Basil was finally invited to Spain to meet Manuel’s family. He gets to Heathrow and then spends about 14 frustrating hours waiting for the flight. Finally, on the plane, a terrorist pulls a gun and tries to hijack the thing. Basil is so angry he overcomes the terrorist and when the pilot says, “We have to fly back to Heathrow”, Basil says, “No, fly us to Spain or I’ll shoot you”. He arrives in Spain, immediately arrested and spends the entire holiday in a Spanish jail. He is released just in time to go back on the plane with Sybil. It was very funny, but I couldn’t do it at the time. Making Fawlty Towers work at 90 minutes was a very difficult proposition. You can build up the comedy for 30 minutes, but at that length there has to be a trough and another peak. It doesn’t interest me. I don’t want to do it.

Cleese may also have relented because of the lack of Connie Booth’s involvement. She had practically retreated from public life after the show finished (and had been initially unwilling to collaborate on a second series, which explains the four-year gap between productions).

The decision by Cleese and Booth to quit before a third series has often been lauded, as it ensured an avoidance of the possibility that the show’s immediately-high status could be weakened with lower quality work later down the line. (Cleese in particular was most likely motivated in making the choice by the end of his involvement with the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series, which he departed after claiming to have run out of ideas for sketches.) Subsequently, it has inspired the makers of other shows to do likewise. Most notably, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant refused to make a third series of either The Office or Extras, citing Fawlty Towers’ short lifespan as the reason. Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Lise Mayer, the writers behind The Young Ones, which also only ran for two series (each with six episodes likewise), used this explanation too. Elton also took the decision to end his next sitcom, Filthy Rich & Catflap, after only one series, despite its popularity.

Reception

Critical reaction

The series was not held in as high esteem on its original broadcast as it later was. The Daily Mirror review of the show in 1975 had the headline “Long John Short On Jokes”.[17] Eventually though, as the series began to gain popularity, critical acclaim soon followed. Clive James writing in The Observer said the second episode had him “retching with laughter”.[18] By the time the series had ended, it was an overwhelming critical success. This did not stop the critic from Television Today from condemning such praise in an article on 14 September 1976, who called it:

“…devoid of everything that makes good modern comedy. The programme is reminiscent of the post-war university drama society production…..The idea behind Fawlty Towers had the makings of one good sketch for John Cleese, who has in the past been shown to such good effect in original sketch material. The series, however, has over-acting and exaggeration on his part which is embarrassing to watch, writing that has no vestige of wit or skill about it and set pieces that are protracted and neither funny nor slapstick; the whole is pervaded by ill-humour. There is no warmth, no vulnerability of characters, no pathos, no visual cleverness, no funny lines. It is an amalgam of everything that does not reach out to an audience and is the epitome of self indulgence by those concerned. One funny walk and a shouting, bullying tone do not make a comedy series; it is twenty-five years too late for that…..Mr Cleese has to learn (if he has not already done so) not to be deluded by applauding critics just as he must observe those who do not applaud. Fawlty Towers is a try and there have to be many in comedy. But when the try has been made it is time to move on, to change and adapt, bearing the lessons in mind: the most important being a growing awareness of what one is good at doing and what is out of reach of one’s ability and personal attributes”[19]

Another critic of the show was Richard Ingrams, then television reviewer for The Spectator. Cleese got his revenge by naming one of the guests in the second series ‘Mr Ingrams’, who is caught in his room with a blow up doll.[17]

In an interview for the “TV Characters” edition of Channel 4‘s ‘talking heads’ strand 100 Greatest (in which Basil placed second, between Homer Simpson and Edmund Blackadder), TV critic A. A. Gill theorised that the initially muted response may have been caused by Cleese seemingly ditching his label as a comic revolutionary – earned through his years with Python – to do something more traditional. He also admitted that he had been one of that chorus when he was young (despite his mother, Yvonne Gilan, being in one of the episodes; she played the saucy French woman in “The Wedding Party”). According to Gill, “that shows you what I know about this business.”

Awards

Three BAFTAs were awarded to people for their involvement with the series. Each of the two series were awarded the BAFTA in the category for “Best Situation Comedy”, the first won by John Howard Davies in 1976, and the second by Douglas Argent and Bob Spiers in 1980. John Cleese won the BAFTA for “Best Light Entertainment Performance” in 1976.[20]

More recently, in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the BBC’s “Britain’s Best Sitcom” poll in 2004[2] and second only to Frasier in The Ultimate Sitcom poll of comedy writers in January 2006. Basil Fawlty came top of the Britain’s Funniest Comedy Character poll, held by Five on 14 May 2006.

Remakes and reunions

Three attempted remakes of Fawlty Towers were started for the American market, with two making it into production. The first, Chateau Snavely starring Harvey Korman and Betty White, was produced by ABC for a pilot in 1978, but the transfer from coastal hotel to highway motel proved too much and the series was never produced. The second, also by ABC, was Amanda’s starring Bea Arthur, notable for switching the sexes of its ‘Basil’ and ‘Sybil’ equivalents. It also failed to pick up a major audience and was dropped.[21] A third remake called Payne (produced by and starring John Larroquette) was also produced, but was cancelled shortly after. A German pilot based on the sitcom was made in 2001, named Zum letzten Kliff, but further episodes were not made.

The popular sitcoms 3rd Rock From The Sun and Cheers (both of which Cleese appeared in) have cited Fawlty Towers as an inspiration, especially regarding its depiction of a dysfunctional “family” in the workplace. Also Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan have cited Fawlty Towers as a major influence on their sitcom Father Ted. Guest House on Pakistan’s PTV also resembled the series.

Several of the characters have made other appearances, as spin-offs or in small cameo roles. In 1981, in character as Manuel, Andrew Sachs recorded his own version of the Joe Dolce cod-Italian song “Shaddap You Face” (with the B-side “Waiter, There’s a Spanish Flea in My Soup”). However, the record was not released after Joe Dolce took out an injunction; he was about to issue his version in Britain.[22] Gilly Flower and Renee Roberts, who played Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby in the series, reprised the roles in a 1983 episode of Only Fools and Horses.[23] In 2006, Cleese played Basil Fawlty for the first time in 27 years, for an unofficial England 2006 World Cup song, “Don’t Mention the War”, named after the phrase Basil famously used in “The Germans“.[24] In 2007, Cleese and Sachs reprised their roles for a six-episode corporate video for Norwegian oil company Statoil. In the video, Fawlty is running a restaurant called “Basil’s Brasserie”, while Manuel owns a Michelin Star restaurant in London.[25]

In November 2007, Prunella Scales returned to the role of Sybil Fawlty in a series of sketches for the BBC’s annual Children in Need charity telethon. The character was seen taking over the management of the eponymous hotel from the BBC drama series Hotel Babylon, interacting with characters from that programme as well as other 1970s sitcom characters. The character of Sybil was used by permission of John Cleese.[26]

Fawlty Towers: Re-Opened

In 2009, Tiger Aspect Productions produced a two-part documentary for digital comedy channel G.O.L.D., called Fawlty Towers: Re-Opened. The documentary features interviews with all four main cast members, including Connie Booth, who refused to talk about the series for 30 years.[27][28] John Cleese confirmed at the 30 year reunion in May 2009 that they will never make another episode of the comedy because they are too old and tired, and expectations would be too high.[29] In a television interview (shown in Australia on Seven Network and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) on 7 May 2009, Cleese also commented that he and Connie Booth took six weeks to write each episode.[30][31]

Overseas

In just 1977 and 1978 alone, it was sold to 45 stations in 17 countries and was the BBC’s best selling overseas programme for that year. Although it was initially a flop in Spain, because of the portrayal of the Spanish waiter Manuel, it was successfully resold, with Manuel’s nationality changed to Italian.[10] In the Catalan region of Spain however, Manuel was Mexican.[22] To show how badly it translated, Clive James picked up a clip containing Manuel’s “¿Qué?” phrase to show on Clive James on Television in 1982.

The series is still shown in the United States on at least one PBS member station. Maryland Public Television, which covers the state of the same name and the surrounding area, airs all episodes in order on Tuesday afternoons (4:00 pm ET) and Saturday nights (11:00 pm ET), along with other BBC sitcoms.[32]

Home video releases

Fawlty Towers was originally released by BBC Video in 1984, but was edited with the credits from all 3 episodes put at the end of the tape. It was re-released in 1995 unedited and remastered. It was re-released in 1998 with a special interview with John Cleese. Fawlty Towers – The complete series was released on DVD on 16 October 2001, available in regions 1, 2 and 4. A “Collector’s Edition” is available in region 2.

Series one of the show was released on UMD Video for PSP.

In July 2009, BBC America announced a DVD re-release of the Fawlty Towers series. The DVD set was released on 20 October 2009. The reissue, titled Fawlty Towers Remastered: Special Edition, contains commentary by John Cleese on every episode as well as remastered video and audio.

All episodes are also available as streamed video-on-demand via Netflix. Both series are also available for download on iTunes.

Australian releases

  • Fawlty Towers: The Complete First Series” VHS
  • Fawlty Towers: The Complete Second Series” VHS
  • Fawlty Towers: The Complete Third Series” VHS
  • Fawlty Towers: The Complete Fourth Series” VHS
  • The Complete Fawlty Towers VHS Box Set
  • The Complete Fawlty Towers – 19 November 2001
  • Fawlty Towers Volume 1: Basil The Rat (3 episodes, 94 minutes) – 31 July 2007
  • Fawlty Towers Volume 2: The Psychiatrist (3 Episodes, 94 minutes) – 6 September 2007
  • Fawlty Towers Volume 3: The Kipper And The Corpse (3 Episodes, 93 minutes) – 2 October 2007
  • Fawlty Towers Volume 4: The Germans (3 Episodes, 93 minutes) – 7 November 2007
  • Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection – Remastered (3 DVD set, all 12 episodes, 374 minutes) – 3 November 2009
  • Fawlty Towers – Series 1: Episodes 1–3 (Comedy Bites) (3 Episodes, 94 minutes) – 4 March 2010

References

  1. ^ BFI TV100. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
  2. ^ a b Britain’s Best Sitcom Top 10. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
  3. ^ Palin, Michael; Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years; p24; 2007, Weidenfeld & Nicholson
  4. ^ Chapman, Graham; A Liar’s Autobiography, Volume VI; p156; 1981,Magnum
  5. ^ BBC Comedy Guide Doctor At Large. Retrieved 24 February 2007.
  6. ^ a b “John Cleese: BBC rejected first episode of Fawlty Towers The Times / TimesOnline, 6 May 2009
  7. ^ “John Cleese recalls golden age of ‘Fawlty Towers'” Newsvine / Newsvine, 6 May 2009
  8. ^ Photographs of fire at Fawltysite.net. Retrieved 14 June 2006.
  9. ^ Britain’s Best Sitcom – The case for Fawlty Towers, BBC Documentary presented by Jack Dee, broadcast 24 January 2004
  10. ^ a b Goddard, Peter. “FAWLTY TOWERS: British Situation Comedy”. Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/F/htmlF/fawltytowers/fawltytowers.htm. Retrieved 8 August 2009. 
  11. ^ An Interview with John Cleese, DVD Special Programs, 2001
  12. ^ John Cleese, VHS or DVD cast interview, 1998
  13. ^ “Variety Club – Jewish Chronicle colour supplement “350 years””. The Jewish Chronicle. 15 December 2006. pp. 28–29. 
  14. ^ Reviewed by David Gómez Tato, 09-01-2005. Retrieved 19 June 2008.
  15. ^ This is revealed at the beginning of “The Psychiatrist” episode in the second series.
  16. ^ “fawltysite.net – Thirteenth Episode”. 2004. Archived from the original on 3 April 2007. http://web.archive.org/web/20070403090421/http://www.fawltysite.net/thirteenth-episode.htm
  17. ^ a b “Awards and audiences for Fawlty Towers”. Fawltysite.net. Archived from the original on 11 February 2008. http://web.archive.org/web/20080211064141/http://www.fawltysite.net/awards.htm. Retrieved 29 February 2008. 
  18. ^ James, Clive (1981) [12 October 1975]. Visions Before Midnight (11 September 1981 ed.). Picador (published 1977). ISBN 978-0330264648
  19. ^ “Strange chorus of praise for poor comedy”. London: Television Today. 14 September 1976. http://badshowgoons.blog.co.uk/?tag=fawlty+towers
  20. ^ List of awards at IMDb. Retrieved 14 June 2006.
  21. ^ Fawlty Towers at the BBC Guide to comedy. Retrieved 14 June 2006.
  22. ^ a b Fawltysite.net. Retrieved 13 December 2006. Archived December 10, 2006 at the Wayback Machine.
  23. ^ “Homesick” (1983) cast list at IMDb. Retrieved 1 September 2006.
  24. ^ Article about the song by Adam Sherwin in The Times, 15 May 2006
  25. ^ Basil’s back, Chortle.co.uk. Retrieved 12 July 2007.
  26. ^ “The Inside Story”. Radio Times 335 (4361): p. 126. 10–13 November 2007. 
  27. ^ Parker, Robin (23 March 2009). “Gold to reopen Fawlty Towers”. Broadcastnow. http://www.broadcastnow.co.uk/news/2009/03/gold_to_reopen_fawlty_towers.html. Retrieved 23 March 2009. 
  28. ^ “Fawlty Towers was originally rejected by the BBC for being clichéd, reveals John Cleese at 30th anniversary reunion”. Daily Mail. 6 May 2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1177908/Fawlty-Towers-originally-rejected-BBC-clich-d-reveals-John-Cleese-30th-anniversary-reunion.html. Retrieved 6 May 2009. 
  29. ^ “Cleese rules out return of Fawlty”. BBC News. 6 May 2009. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8036055.stm. Retrieved 6 May 2009. 
  30. ^ “John Cleese (‘Fawlty Towers: Re-Opened'”. Digital Spy. 8 May 2009. http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/a155249/john-cleese-fawlty-towers-re-opened.html. Retrieved 9 May 2009. 
  31. ^ Deacon, Michael (6 May 2009). “Fawlty Towers: the classic sitcom the BBC didn’t want”. The Telegraph (London). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5286579/Fawlty-Towers-the-classic-sitcom-the-BBC-didnt-want.html. Retrieved 9 May 2009. 
  32. ^ “Fawlty Towers”. MPT. http://mpt.org/schedule/series.cfm?series_id=5520. Retrieved 30 April 2010. 

Further reading

  • Apter, Michael J. (2004). “Fawlty Towers: A Reversal Theory Analysis of A Popular Television Comedy Series”. The Journal of Popular Culture (Blackwell Publishing) 16 (3): 128–138.
  • Bright, Morris; Robert Ross (2001). Fawlty Towers: Fully Booked. London: BBC Books. ISBN 0563534397.
  • Cleese, John; Connie Booth (1988). The Complete Fawlty Towers. London: Methuen. ISBN 0413183904.
  • Holm, Lars Holger (2004). Fawlty Towers: A Worshipper’s Companion. London: Leo Publishing. ISBN 9197366188.
  • McCann, Graham (2007). Fawlty Towers. London: Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0340898119.

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Fawlty Towers
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Series One episodes

Series Two episodes

American adaptations

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A Touch of Class” · “The Builders” · “The Wedding Party” · “The Hotel Inspectors” · “Gourmet Night” · “The Germans
 
 
 

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