The year is 1971. The Monty Python’s Flying Circus team is staying at a hotel in the British vacation resort of Torquay and are absolutely amazed at the incompetence of the hotel manager, an ill-tempered man who tells Terry Gilliam to stop eating like an American, throws Eric Idle’s suitcase over a wall because he thinks there’s a bomb in it, and starts arguing with John Cleese when he asks him to call for a cab.
Fast-forward a few years and the BBC asks Cleese to write a sitcom. He lets his wife, Connie Booth, in on the deal and the couple come to think of a certain hotel manager…
Bent on attracting sophisticated guests
That’s how The Best Sitcom Ever came about. Only twelve episodes were produced (six per series), but they all have several moments of absolute brilliance. Cleese cast himself as Basil Fawlty, manager of a hotel in Torquay, and his wife was cast as Polly, the maid. Basil was married to Sybil (Prunella Scales), pretty much a shrew who had her hands full trying to stop her husband from scaring the guests off. Basil was bent on attracting as sophisticated guests as possible and to keep the riff-raff away. That wasn’t easy because Basil ran a pretty shoddy business and was outrageously insolent to the guests he disapproved of. Hiring a Spanish bellboy/waiter, Manuel (Andrew Sachs), who wasn’t very good and spoke no English, didn’t help matters either.
Several episodes would present Basil with a foe of some kind, such as the young stud who sneaked a girl into his room, or Mrs. Richards, the nearly deaf and very rude lady who accused Basil of allowing her money to be stolen from her room. Other episodes posed challenges to the entire staff, such as the incident where one of the guests died just in time for the health inspector to arrive, or the fancy dinner party where the hired chef got plastered and couldn’t cook the food. Unlike Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers did not consist of a series of absurd comedy skits, but had a linear narrative in the classic tradition of British sitcoms. Not that that was a bad thing. What Cleese created may not have been blindingly original, but it sure was funny as hell.
Wild and inspired performance
The major reason why it worked so well was clearly the wild and inspired performance by the star himself. On several occasions, Cleese has said that few things are funnier than a man who desperately desires to be respected and sophisticated but constantly finds himself in situations where he’s embarrassed. Basil Fawlty always found himself going from bad to worse. Sometimes the brilliance lay in the details. I am particularly fond of those moments where he’s in the middle of a crisis and can’t think of any other way to handle it but to focus on what’s irrelevant. The car breaks down and what does Basil do? Grab a twig and start penalizing the car. The renovation of the hotel goes terribly wrong and what does Basil do? Start choking the garden gnome. That kind of pointless meltdown is hilarious and Cleese played it to the hilt.
The supporting cast served him well, including Sachs as the tormented, clueless Manuel (“Que?”) and particularly Scales; she knew how to lace her lines with venom.
The most famous episode must be the one where Basil starts arguing with German visitors and reminds them of “the war” over and over again. He doesn’t mean to do it, but can’t help himself. Cleese has always enjoyed being politically incorrect and that serves the show very well. It’s great fun watching Basil Fawlty try to give his establishment a touch of class, a challenge too difficult to master, but Cleese and Booth sure made Fawlty Towers a lot classier than most of the popular David Croft sitcoms of the time in Britain.
Fawlty Towers 1975-1979:Britain. Made for TV. 12 episodes. Color. Created by John Cleese, Connie Booth. Theme: Dennis Wilson. Cast: John Cleese (Basil Fawlty), Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty), Connie Booth (Polly Sherman), Andrew Sachs (Manuel), Ballard Berkeley.
Trivia: The series was adapted by CBS for American audiences twice, first as Amanda’s (1983), then as Payne (1999). Later a stage show.
Quote: “This is typical. Absolutely typical… of the kind of… arse I have to put up with from you people! You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while I’m trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not, you’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well, let me tell you something – this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble. Well, I’ve had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough. I’ve had it. Come on, pack your bags and get out!” (Cleese, letting his guests have it)
Last word: “I was really pleased with each episode when I watched them back. I can still see where the moose didn’t quite fall quickly enough on Basil’s head and other moments where we could have done things better, but on the whole, I was very, very pleased with them. Especially when you consider that we used to produce them on a single day in a studio. The average sitcom on the BBC was about 65 pages, but on ‘Fawlty Towers’ we did around 135 pages or 140. People always say ‘did you enjoy it?’, but there was never really time to enjoy it. The timed pressure was pretty hair-raising! That’s why I think people keep on watching it, simply because there’s so much more in there than there is in most shows.” (Cleese, Digital Spy)