by Les Chappell
It’s not every television show that can pinpoint one exact event for its inspiration—most shows being a composite of ideas from various writers and actors—but every so often there stands one person, place or event who’s so distinct that it sets off a creative firecracker. And in 1971, the Gleneagles Hotel in the English seaside town of Torquay was home to one of those firecrackers. Its owner at the time was one Donald Sinclair, who was regarded by his guests as the rudest man in existence. According to one guest, highlights of his stay included Sinclair flying into rages at the sight of his construction crew taking a break, throwing a timetable at a guest asking when the bus would arrive, criticizing an American guest for their style of eating, and relocating a briefcase to the garden on the off chance it contained a bomb.
Unfortunately for Sinclair, the guest who made these observations happened to be John Cleese, who was at the time a member of the legendary comic troupe Monty Python. Cleese was so fascinated by Sinclair’s behavior towards his partners—it was Terry Gilliam’s dining style that was criticized and Eric Idle’s briefcase exiled to the garden—that not only did he stay at the hotel after the Pythons moved on to greener pastures, but he brought his wife Connie Booth back to the hotel to observe Sinclair’s idiosyncratic managerial style and take notes. After moving on from Monty Python, Cleese decided to develop a new project for the BBC, and the experience of Sinclair was at the top of his mind.
From this experience was born Fawlty Towers. In the world of television, Fawlty Towers is to sitcoms as The Sopranos is contemporary cable drama or The Simpsons is to animated comedies, widely praised as one of the greatest shows ever made—and at one point named the greatest British television series of all time. Despite only airing twelve episodes over two series, its fingerprints are all over thirty years of British comedy, and it’s inspired American sitcoms from Cheers to Frasier to 3rd Rock From The Sun.
So what makes this show so beloved, timeless and inspirational? Well, we invite you to check in for a spell, as This Was Television goes through the complete series. Be sure not to mention the war.
“A Touch Of Class”
Series 1, Episode 1
Originally aired: Sept. 19, 1975
Summary: The aristocratic Lord Melbury comes to stay at the hotel, causing Basil to neglect or annoy other guests as he fawns over him at every opportunity. Sybil orders Basil to hang a picture.
During a thirtieth anniversary celebration of Fawlty Towers, John Cleese related an anecdote that after he and Connie Booth had written the first script for the show and presented it to the creative team at the BBC, it was shot down almost immediately. Amongst the criticisms, it was marked down for having what they saw as “clichéd situations and stereotypical characters,” and that none of the story was going to go anywhere unless the characters set foot out of the hotel. Cleese obviously took umbrage at all of these comments, but most of all the last suggestion: as he explained it to the Times, “it’s in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.”
If I had to pick one sentence to summarize what makes Fawlty Towers work, I can’t select anything other than that one, because the pilot episode “A Touch Of Class” is situational comedy of the highest order. Within the walls of the Fawlty Towers hotel, the egomaniacal Basil Fawlty lords over his employees and guests with little to no effect, a sea of frustrations and misunderstandings beyond parallel.
And of course, like so many comedies, the reason why it works so well is that it takes its time to set up its humor. The episode’s plot, centered around Basil’s desire to attract a better clientele than his existing guests (“Have you seen the people in Room Six? They’ve never even sat on chairs”) plays out in the background, opting instead to establish the natural rhythm of the hotel. Basil’s wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) sets him a list of chores he’s never quite able to finish before another one comes up, and it manages to introduce running gags in the span of only a couple of minutes—forms to sign, a picture to hang, and an inability to listen to his music in peace. And of course, there’s the language barrier that exists between Basil and his waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs), a good-natured chap from Barcelona who doesn’t quite grasp how meticulously Basil wants his hotel managed:
The hotel may certainly not be efficiently managed, but it’s built with remarkable efficiency. Other shows have used a limited set to great effect before—Cheers was of course famous for never leaving the bar once in its first season, and in the TWTV roundtable discussions I regularly praised Taxi for its long garage scenes—but what director John Howard Davies does here is above and beyond what Jim Burrows pulled off in those show’s pilots. Every room in the hotel—the lobby, the dining room, Basil’s office, the bar—are all situated so you know where every room is in relation to the whole, giving it a feel that’s closed off and yet wide-spanning at the same time. Indeed, this might the finest constructed set a multi-camera comedy has ever had, and it’s easy to see why episodes of Fawlty Towers have been adapted for the stage over the years.
And the structure also means that characters can move from one room to another without ever breaking stride once, giving the action an unmatched flow. Save a couple occasions where Basil steps out of the hotel, and one instance where Polly goes to town, there’s nothing in the way of scene breaks. Basil can be taken out of slapping Manuel in the dining room to answer the bell in the lobby without missing a beat, go straight from there to fawning over a guest in the bar, and from there to brooding in his office.
The design of the set does a lot to keep the show moving, but full credit to the show’s momentum falls squarely on John Cleese. I don’t know exactly how close Donald Sinclair was to this character in real life—evidently his family took umbrage with this performance—but whatever impression John Cleese got from the man it was worth it. Even in his first appearance, Basil Fawlty is immediately an indelible character, a man utterly convinced of his own self-importance and yet also cravenly seeking a sense of validation. That dichotomy is illustrated to remarkable effect in the way he deals with everyone around him: looking down his nose at every single guest with thinly veiled contempt, but when the seemingly distinguished Lord Melbury shows up a switch is flipped and suddenly he can’t bend over backward fast enough. (Literally in some cases—Cleese’s height and gangly frame lets him pack a lot of energy into his movements, particularly in the cramped setting of the hotel dining room.)
Until of course, Polly reveals that that Melbury is only a confidence trickster, a move Sybil verifies by opening his briefcase of “valuables” to reveal bricks over close to a minute of Basil’s orders to stop, and the sight deflates Basil entirely. What follows is no less than a complete comic culmination of everything that’s built for the previous 26 minutes, as the tension coiled inside Basil from every last idiocy—Manuel’s inability to comprehend a wine list, not getting a minute’s peace to listen to Brahms’ Third Racket, trying to make his coin collection sound good—finally explodes in the shouting of “BASTARD!” at Melbury. Cops run through the hotel, Melbury is detained—intentionally by Polly, unintentionally by Manuel—and everyone collapses together like a stack of dominoes.
And of course, there’s an unforeseen consequence, which (in what would become a Fawlty Towers trademark) comes from a forgotten little detail. Sir Richard, a legitimate member of nobility who had an outstanding reservation, shows up at the exact moment all of this is boiling over, and is understandably so horrified he quickly heads back to the car. Basil desperately tries to talk him out of it, and when the car drives away, all that energy finally explodes in one twitching, vitriolic shout: “You SNOBS! You stupid, stuck-up, toffee-nosed, half-witted upper-class piles of… PUS!”
Any other show would present a moment like this as one of self-awareness for its central character, but despite this resolution there’s still not a moment of peace for poor Mr. Fawlty. Why? Because even with Lord Melbury gone, there’s still a picture to hang up, and one of those “lower-class” customers asking for a drink for the fourth time. There’s not a single breath available to the Fawlty Towers owner—and there’s none for the Fawlty Towers viewer either, if only because they’re laughing so hard.
Series 1, Episode 2
Originally aired: Sept. 26, 1975
Summary: Maintenance is made on the lobby while the Fawltys are out, but when a misreading by Manuel causes the builders to mess it up spectacularly, Basil must try to remedy the situation before Sybil finds out.
While “A Touch Of Class” may have given the impression that Fawlty Towers was John Cleese’s show entirely, “The Builders” is one that proves the golden rule of a successful comedy: it lives and dies by its ensemble. By its very nature the Fawlty Towers hotel served as a location where guests could check in and check out at will to allow for various adventures, but it was the way the hotel’s staff dealt with those people that transformed them into misadventures. It was a small ensemble—only four members of the regular cast—and as a result it didn’t have to deal with the frequent complaint that larger shows deal with in that they’re not serving every member.
Of course, it’s still a failing of Basil’s that drives the plot’s action. We learned in the pilot that he’s a snobby misanthrope with little love for his guests, employees or wife, and “The Builders” adds to his character flaws by pointing out that he’s dirt cheap. So cheap in fact that he’s willing to go back to the building company of one Mr. O’Reilly*, who was mentioned in “A Touch Of Class” as being particularly slow to finish the garden wall. (As Basil comments over the phone, “We’ve only been waiting for that wall as long as Hadrian.”) Sybil has forbidden him to use O’Reilly’s services again, opting for the more professional firm of Mr. Stubbs, but Basil decides that his opinion is the one that matters and that he’ll bring O’Reilly in to handle the addition and removal of a few doors. And he’s decided to avoid Sybil’s edicts by bringing in O’Reilly’s team to do the job while Sybil and Basil are on holiday. (Sybil: “You need to get away from things.” Basil: “Yes, but we’re going together.”)
*Played by David Kelly, recognizable as Grandpa Joe from the Tim Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here, he wins the coveted award of Most Irish Character.
The absence of Basil means that the hotel has to pass out of his neurotic control, placing Polly in charge of making sure O’Reilly’s builders get the job done right. Unfortuately for Basil, Polly decides to practice the time-honored tradition of passing the buck while the boss is away, and heads upstairs to take a nap, leaving Manuel in charge of the desk with instructions to wake her when the builders arrive.
This is, as expected, something that doesn’t work. “A Touch Of Class” gave the impression that Basil was as much to blame for Manuel’s ineptitude as Manuel himself was, but here he’s completely out of his depth. Too nice to wake Polly up, he decides to handle things himself, a move that leads him into some fantastic cross-talk with a man dropping off a garden gnome Sybil ordered:
“Is this number 16?” “No, this lobby, 16 upstairs.”
“Who’s in charge here?” “No, charge later, after sleep.”
“Number 16!!!” (Stares at the gnome) “You want room 16 for him?!”
There’s a clear danger to just how much of a dolt Manuel could be played as—and of course, the fact that it’s a German actor playing a Spanish character gives it a slightly uncomfortable undertone in our politically correct times—but there’s an innocence to Sachs’ portrayal of Manuel that keeps it from ever seeming too insulting. The humor here comes not from caricature, but that he’s clearly in over his head, and the harder he tries the more he makes it worse with his domineering boss. (A boss who’s not afraid to have someone else do his dirty work, as the “hideous orangutan” moment proves.)
Though of course, Basil gets his own comeuppance once he gets a glimpse of what O’Reilly’s men have done on Manuel’s half-understood instructions:
A scene that bears repeating, if only for some fine slapstick between Cleese and Booth that fits well into the tradition of spouses blowing off some steam on camera.
Both in “A Touch Of Class” and “The Builders,” we saw that Sybil was the one thing that could get Basil to shut up, and even instill fear in him (“She can kill a man at ten paces with one blow of her tongue, how am I not supposed to worry?!”). Ad we finally get a sign of that viper side Basil speaks so disparagingly of when Sybil comes back for her golf shoes*—left on the front desk despite her admonition to Basil not to forget them, yet another of those marvelous little details Fawlty Towers scatters through its episodes to call on when necessary. The first thing she sees when she arrives at the hotel is O’Reilly’s truck, a sight that immediately has her steaming, and one Basil pretends doesn’t even exist when she enters the hotel.
*Best to avoid the reptile zoo unless you have them. Impossible to walk in this muck, no footing at all.
This is a bad, bad move for Basil, and Sybil knows this—and it’s impossible to put into words just how good Prunella Scales is in these moments, as versatile and convincing as Cleese. The impossibly sweet smile on her face as she says “Would you like to deal with this, Basil” as Polly tries to fake a phone call, the iron in her voice when she promises he’ll regret this for the rest of his life (cowing him into schoolboy status) and then an explosion of rage on the chipper O’Reilly when he finally shows his face. “Oh, don’t smile” Basil utters under his breath, and it’s a warning proved true as she alternates between slapping her husband and screaming insults: “I’ve seen better organized creatures than you running around barnyards with their heads cut off!” And then ending it on a beautiful calm insult, once she sees the gnome has arrived: “I’ll leave him in charge. I’m sure he’s cheap and he’ll certainly be better at it than you are.”
But once she leaves, Basil thinks he has one card left to play, pushing O’Reilly into repairing the door despite his umbrella-enforced orders to leave, all repairs completed to satisfaction. And upon her return, he’s able to show off the new repairs to the tune of his favorite classical music (and take full advantage of the added mobility the new doors give the set) and finally place her in a position of having to answer to an outside figure in the repairman she ordered to fix the mistake. Might this be a shift in the hotel’s power structure?
No, of course not! As Sybil says, you get what you pay for, and despite O’Reilly completing renovation in record time, the image is destroyed once Stubbs points out the fact that the former has ruined the load-bearing wall and the whole place is within an inch of collapse. Faced with this news, Basil makes the only sane decision in his mind: take Sybil’s garden gnome to O’Reilly, insert it in a very uncomfortable fashion, and then possibly make his way to Canada. Possibly his smartest decision all episode.
Les Chappell is one of the founders of This Was Television, a freelance writer for The A.V. Club’s TV Club and founder of the television blog A Helpless Compiler and the literature blog The Lesser of Two Equals. You can follow him on Twitter @lesismore9o9.