1 9 7 5 (UK)
1 9 7 9 (UK)
12 x 30 minute episodes
America may lay claim to inventing the sitcom, but it was the British who elevated it to a perfect art form. Look no further for evidence of this than the 12 near-faultless episodes of Fawlty Towers.
The first episode of Fawlty Towers aired on 19 September 1975, introducing the world to misconstrued conversations, befuddled guests and an eternally hostile Basil Fawlty, played by the magnificently manic John Cleese, bitterly bad-mouthing his guests when they were not around and cheerily serving them when they were.
A Spanish-speaking waiter (“I ham from Barthelona”) and a bit of slapstick were thrown in for good measure. It was an absolute winner.
Created by Cleese and his then-wife, Connie Booth, the idea occurred to him while on location in Torquay in 1971 for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, when an overzealous hotel owner threw Eric Idle’s briefcase into the street because he believed it contained a bomb and complained that American Terry Gilliam’s table manners were “too American”.
The establishment was the Gleneagles Hotel in Asheldon Road, Torquay. The owner was one Donald Sinclair. In 2002 Sinclair’s widow complained that Cleese had held her family up to ridicule, adding that her husband was “a gentleman and a very brave man”.
A documentary on the Fawlty Towers DVD found plenty of witnesses who gave evidence to the contrary, with tales including Sinclair locking customers out at night if they came home too late for his liking.
There is actually a reference to the real Gleneagles in the Fawlty Towers episode ‘Gourmet Night’ when Basil tells Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs to “go to Gleneagles for your din-dins”.
With riotous interplay between Cleese and a cast headed by Basil’s wife Sybil (with a laugh like “someone machine-gunning a seal”), sensible but exasperated chambermaid Polly, inept stereotypical Spanish waiter Manuel, and a number of resident guests, the series was a huge success.
A keen worker, Manuel is eager to please but possesses a very poor command of the English language.
In the position of the dog to be kicked following run-ins with his wife, Basil vents most of his frustrations on Manuel, screaming at the hapless soul, browbeating him and often physically assaulting him – “That Sybil, me Basil, this a slap round the ear!”.
Andrew Sachs (pictured at right) portrayed Manuel as a frightened rabbit, often flinching in Basil’s presence, expecting and usually receiving punishment for errors he was usually unaware he had committed.
Manuel wasn’t quite as stupid as Basil thought him, but the character was thought likely to offend Spaniards, so when the series aired in Spain, he was made out to be Italian.
Manic-depressive Basil Fawlty was a near psychopathically hyper-active, middle-aged, stick insect caricature of a human being with pretensions beyond both his social and moral status.
He was also breathtakingly funny, whether fawning insincerely over his upper-class guests or heaping abuse on the “riff-raff we get around here”.
Basil’s snobbishness was frequently undermined by his ignorance, a facet of his character which emerged in a conversation with guest Mr Walt (James Cossins):
Basil: It’s always a pleasure to meet someone who appreciates the boudoir of the grape. I’m afraid most people we get in here don’t know a Bordeaux from a claret.
Mr Walt: A Bordeaux is a Claret.
Basil: Oh, Bordeaux is a claret, yes, yes, but they wouldn’t know that.
Whether attempting to have building alterations done on the cheap, getting rid of a rat Manuel is keeping in the mistaken belief that it is a hamster, trying to hide the body of a guest who has had the temerity to die in his hotel, or concealing from his friends the fact that Sybil has left him, Basil commits every social blunder under Torquay’s pale sun.
Almost every episode of Fawlty Towers was a classic. Carrying out a fire drill is, for Basil, a boring duty to be quickly completed, and with which he will allow nothing to interfere – nor even the fact that Manuel has managed to set fire to both the kitchen and himself.
Basil’s attempt to improve the hotel’s status by holding a gourmet evening is ruined when the chef drinks himself into a stupor.
Basil has to drive to a friend’s restaurant for the meal – in a car which breaks down and has to be beaten with a branch ripped from a tree.
In ‘The Germans’, try as he might to ‘not mention the war’, Basil (who has received a crack on the head) confirms with his German guests that their meal order is “two eggs mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering and four Colditz salads” before launching into a hysterical parody of Hitler, goose-stepping around the dining room.
A US adaptation of Fawlty Towers, titled Snavely (aka Chateau Snavely), transferred the Torquay hotel setting to an off-highway hotel in middle America.
Otherwise, the characters and situation mirrored the UK original with Harvey Korman as the Basil-like Henry Snavely, Betty White as his domineering wife Gladys, Frank LaLoggia as the bellhop Petro who barely speaks English, and Deborah Zon as a college student Connie, working as a waitress.
ABC screened the pilot episode on 24 June 1978, but it failed to be picked up for a series. In 1983, ABC reworked the concept as Amanda’s, which aired from 10 February to 26 May 1983.
Inexplicably Basil was now a woman called Amanda, played by Bea Arthur (Maude) – the formidable owner of Amanda’s By The Sea, a hotel overlooking the Pacific. She had some of Basil’s anger and frustration, but the series had none of Fawlty Towers‘ class.
They tried adapting the series again in 1999 with a show called Payne (surely a spelling mistake) starring John Larroquette.
“May I ask what you were expecting to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? . . . Sydney Opera House perhaps? . . . The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? . . . Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plains?”
Fawlty Towers was not warmly received by all at the BBC when the script first appeared in 1974, as evidenced in the memo below which comedy script editor Ian Main sent to the BBC’s Head of Comedy and Light Entertainment.
External scenes were filmed at the Wooburn Grange Country Club in Bourne’s End, Buckinghamshire. Sadly it burnt down in 1991 and eight residential houses were built in its place.
A Touch of Class | The Builders | The Wedding Party | The Hotel Inspectors | Gourmet Night | The Germans Communication Problems | The Psychiatrist | Waldorf Salad | The Kipper and the Corpse | The Anniversary | Basil the Rat