What do you get if you take one slightly shabby hotel, one crazed social-climbing hotelier and his domineering wife, one incompetent Spanish waiter, one relatively normal waitress/receptionist/chambermaid/dogsbody, a few eccentric residents and some needy paying guests? Twelve episodes of timelessly quotable comedic genius, that’s what.
Fawlty Towers is one of the most perfect British sitcoms ever made. Written by and starring the indomitable John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth, each line was considered and reworked until it couldn’t possibly be any funnier. As is common knowledge now, the fictional hotel and its owner is based on a real life experience that Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python team had when filming in Torquay. Donald Sinclair, proprietor of Gleneagles Hotel, can never have imagined that by unleashing his crabbiness on the group he was also gifting Cleese with the idea to write what is now one of Britain’s best loved sitcoms of all time.
The first episode went out on BBC1 on 19 September 1975, running for another five episodes until 24 October that year. The second series began on 19 February 1979 and ran weekly until 12 March; the BBC technical strike then prevented the fifth episode being shown until 26 March. Audiences were then left hanging until 25 October before they could see the sixth and final episode ever. Initial reception to the programme wasn’t as favourable as you would perhaps have thought, given its popularity since then, but reviews picked up as more shows went out until critics were falling over themselves to tell the country how funny it was. It also picked up three BAFTAs, including Best Situation Comedy in 1976 and 1980, and Best Light Entertainment Performance for Cleese, also in 1976.
If you were to choose the worst person to run a hotel, Basil Fawlty (Cleese) would be as near to it as you could possibly get. Rude, snobbish and intolerant of anybody who doesn’t fit into his blinkered world view, Basil wants to elevate Fawlty Towers to a hotel which fits his aspirations of class and social standing, and the comedy generally comes from his utter failure to do so. Basil has his own ideas of the kind of people the hotel should be attracting, and he resents everybody who enters that doesn’t fit this ideal. Saying this, Basil is not an unsympathetic character - the situations he finds himself in are as often down to circumstance as they are to his inability to cope with the pressure of running a hotel – and you can’t help feeling sorry for what seems like life always conspiring against him. His outbursts are legendary; vein-popping hollers of insult and outrage at the perceived unfairness of what has happened leave him perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with his assault on the bonnet of his broken down car with a tree branch being a textbook example.
Holding what little sanity remains in the hotel together is Basil’s wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) and general all-round problem-solver Polly (Booth). Sybil may be half the size of her husband (and her bouffant hair makes up a lot of what height she has), but she definitely wears the trousers in their relationship. She spends most of her time playing golf, talking on the phone to her friends (‘Ooooh, I know…’) or flirting with the more handsome hotel guests, but when she has to step in to rectify her husband’s mistakes she proves that she’s actually extremely good at running the place. Basil has a handy line of insults for her; some of which he’ll say to her face (‘My little piranha fish’) and plenty of others that he only say when she’s out of earshot (‘Sabre-toothed tart’), but for all his dreams of freedom and escape from his life he’s scared enough of her to get back in to line when she snaps.
Polly: sweet, clever, pretty, normal Polly. Why on earth does she stay in her job at Fawlty Towers? Her being a student is alluded to on several occasions, so presumably she is working to help pay the bills, but even so…Underpaid and overworked, Basil alternates between belittling her, and desperately begging her to help him when he realises he’s in trouble. And as a genuinely nice person, and loyal to the fool that pays her she often puts herself into ridiculous situations to stop either Sybil or the hotel guests finding out about his cock-ups. Although saying that, she does make Basil sweat when he asks her to impersonate his wife in front of their friends after another of his chaotic plans unravels in The Anniversary, refusing to do it until he pays her for her trouble.
Manuel (Andrew ‘¿Qué?’ Sachs) inhabits a confusing world; arriving from Barcelona with very limited English the gentle waiter often misunderstands what is asked of him. When Polly asks him to take some toilet paper up to Room 22 we see Manuel staggering past under the weight of 22 rolls. Basil claims to have learnt ‘classical Spanish’ and doesn’t understand the ‘strange dialect’ that Manuel speaks although a Spanish-speaking guest manages to communicate with Manuel fluently… And again, why Manuel stays working at the hotel is a mystery; Basil treats him appallingly, is rude about his intelligence and waiting-skills in front of the guests (‘it would be quicker to train an APE!’) and is physically abusive (try and watch Basil hitting him on the forehead with a spoon without wincing). Manuel is a good-hearted man though and grateful to be employed, and however badly he is treated he will always cheerfully step up to help Basil out of trouble, whether that means sneaking about the hotel to catch suspicious guests, or singing to a starving dining room when the food for Basil’s Gourmet Night gets delayed.
Manuel is nearly pushed too far in the episode The Kipper and the Corpse though; when a guest dies in the night and Basil mistakenly thinks it was the out-of-date kippers that he brought up for breakfast which killed him, a farcical situation ensues involving the dead body being unceremoniously hauled around the hotel. Manuel eventually climbs into a laundry basket, exhausted and psychologically scarred, but even then he still rallies one last time to save Basil from yet another compromising situation. What so easily could have turned into the familiar stereotype of the ‘stupid foreigner’ was made into so much more by the beautiful writing and Sach’s wonderfully layered performance, making Manuel naïvely charming, and vulnerable yet resilient. And of course, hilarious.
Recurring characters throughout the series included Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs (Renee Roberts and Gilly Flower); two sweet and slightly batty old ladies who fuss round Basil like he’s a child. He is alternately tolerant and rude to the pair depending on his mood, although they never seem to mind which he is. Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley) is the only guest that Basil is outwardly pleasant too; a retired soldier who loves cricket, he is friendly to everybody but generally confused about what is going on, and therefore no use in keeping Basil’s secrets from anybody. Terry Hughes (Brian Hall) is Fawlty Tower’s Cockney chef in series two. His laidback approach to mealtimes plays on Basil’s neuroses, especially in regard to the use-by dates on the aforementioned kippers.
It’s hard to pick a stand-out episode; the fashion and décor has obviously dated but the humour in every single episode is as sharp and clever now as it was when it first went out. The Germans is probably the most memorable, with Basil’s increasingly erratic and inappropriate behaviour reducing viewers to hysterics, and ‘Don’t mention the war’ now regular parlance for not talking about something. The stellar range of guest actors also added to the fun; The Hotel Inspector features the wonderful Bernard Cribbens’ performance as the overly-fastidious and germ-phobic spoon salesman Mr Hutchinson, whilst Joan Sanderson excelled as the selectively deaf Mrs Richards in Communication Problems.
Whether it’s a conman, a builder, a wedding party, a psychiatrist, an American, a dead body or a rat; each episode has somebody or something to annoy, frustrate or panic Basil – and quite frankly, there is nothing funnier than an ‘ageing, Brilliantine stick insect’ on the verge of hysteria.