Fawlty Towers is a British television sitcom written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, broadcast on BBC2 between 1975 and 1979. Two series of six episodes each were made. The show was ranked top of a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000 and, in 2019, it was named the ‘greatest ever British TV sitcom’ by a panel of comedy experts compiled by the Radio Times.
The series is set in Fawlty Towers, a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay on the English Riviera. The plots centre on the tense, rude and put-upon owner Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), his bossy wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), the sensible chambermaid Polly (Connie Booth) who often is the peacemaker and voice of reason, and the hapless and English-challenged Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs). They show their attempts to run the hotel amidst farcical situations and an array of demanding and eccentric guests and tradespeople.
The idea of the show came from Cleese after he stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. It was May 1970, the Monty Python comedy group stayed at the now demolished Gleneagles Hotel while filming on location in Paignton. John Cleese was fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, later describing him as “the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life”. Among such behaviour by Sinclair was his criticism of Terry Gilliam’s “too American” table etiquette and tossing Eric Idle’s briefcase out of a window “in case it contained a bomb”. Asked why would anyone want to bomb the hotel, Sinclair replied, “We’ve had a lot of staff problems”. Michael Palin states Sinclair “seemed to view us as a colossal inconvenience”. Rosemary Harrison, a waitress at the Gleneagles under Sinclair, described him as “bonkers” and lacking in hospitality, deeming him wholly unsuitable for a hotel proprietor. “It was as if he didn’t want the guests to be there.” Cleese and Connie Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming, furthering their research of its owner.
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 with a domineering wife. The show was broadcast on 30th May 1971.
Cleese said in 2008 that the first Fawlty Towers script he and Booth wrote 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, whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, and I can quote 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.”
The series focuses on the exploits and misadventures of short-fused hotelier Basil Fawlty and his caustic wife Sybil, as well as their employees: waiter Manuel, Polly Sherman, and, in the second series, chef Terry. The episodes typically revolve around Basil’s efforts to “raise the tone” of his hotel and his increasing frustration at 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, Sybil, 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, Basil frequently feels intimidated, Sybil being able to intimidate him 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 occasionally are 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 test to the breaking point what little patience Basil has, sometimes causing him to have a near breakdown by the end of the episode.
The guests at the hotel typically are comic foils to Basil’s anger and outbursts. Guest characters in each episode provide different characteristics (working class, promiscuous, foreign) that he cannot stand. Requests both reasonable and impossible test his temper. Even the afflicted annoy him, as for example in one episode, revolving around the havoc caused by the frequent misunderstandings between the staff and the hard-of-hearing Mrs Richards. Near the end, Basil pretends to faint 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 his comments about Sybil (“Did you ever see that film, How to Murder Your Wife? … Awfully good. I saw it six times.”) and to 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 Manuel, an emotional but largely innocent Spaniard whose confused English vocabulary causes him to make elementary mistakes. At times, Basil beats Manuel with a frying pan and smacks his forehead with a spoon. The violence towards Manuel caused rare negative criticism of the show. Sybil and Polly, on the other hand, are more patient and understanding toward Manuel; everyone’s usual excuse for his behaviour to guests is, “He’s from Barcelona”; Manuel even once used the excuse for himself.
Basil longs for a touch of class, sometimes playing recordings of classical music. In one episode he is playing music by Brahms when Sybil remarks, after pestering him asking to do different tasks: “You could have them both done by now if you hadn’t spent the whole morning skulking in there listening to that racket.” Basil replies, with exasperation, “Racket?? That’s Brahms! Brahms’ Third Racket!” Basil often displays blatant snobbishness as he attempts to climb the social ladder, frequently expressing disdain for the “riff-raff”, “cretins” and “yobbos” that he believes 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 he perceives as having superior social status. Yet he finds himself forced to serve those individuals that are “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 to breaking point.
In 1980, Cleese received the BAFTA for Best Entertainment Performance and, in a 2001 poll conducted by Channel 4, Basil Fawlty was ranked second on their list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters. The popularity of Fawlty Towers has endured, and it is often re-broadcast. The BBC profile for the series states that “the British sitcom by which all other British sitcoms must be judged, Fawlty Towers withstands multiple viewings, is eminently quotable (“don’t mention the war”) and stands up to this day as a jewel in the BBC’s comedy crown.”
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