by Les Chappell
After writing my review of the first two episodes of Fawlty Towers, I did some supplemental research and I was surprised to see that several people (John Cleese included) considered “The Builders” the weakest episode the series ever did. Cleese attributed it to growing pains in the writing and the episode not getting many laughs when it was shot (performed for a studio audience chiefly of Icelandic network executives), while some critics placed the blame on the episode being based too heavily on the archetypes of inept foreigner, lazy Irishman, and shrill wife. I didn’t think much of that at the time I was reviewing, largely because the performances of Andrew Sachs and Prunella Scales worked so well within those archetypes, but in hindsight the arguments certainly make sense.
And they make even more sense after seeing “The Wedding Party” and “The Hotel Inspectors,” Fawlty Towers’s third and fourth offerings. They’re not a decisive leap forward from the first two, but that’s only because the show was so finely cut to start out—all it needed was a little polishing as the involved parties learned to work together. What’s on display here is nothing less than two sterling comedies of error, which fulfill Cleese’s original vision of the hotel as a pressure cooker that would drive up the tensions of the lunatics staying at the hotel and the even bigger lunatic behind the front desk.
“The Wedding Party”
Series 1, Episode 3
Originally aired: Oct. 3, 1975
Summary: Basil gets annoyed when a young, flirtatious couple start “hanky-pankying” under his nose, and tries to avoid the advances of a wealthy French antique dealer.
At the apex of “The Wedding Party,” when Basil’s confronted with the extent of his misguided intentions and forced by Sybil to make amends, all he can do is sputter impotently, “Is that what made Britain great?!” And it makes a lot of sense that this would be his only reply, because so much of what makes Basil Fawlty distinctive is that he’s the walking personification of the worst British stereotypes. His pandering efforts to the supposed Lord Melbury in “A Touch Of Class,” for instance, proved that he’s deeply fixated on the question of status, the promise or even proximity of nobility and titles the only thing that can shake his disdain for the human race.
And in Fawlty Towers’s third installment we learn also that he’s also a model of British repression, so tightly wound that the merest hint of sexual energy turns him into a raving prude. Given the fact that his own marriage only has two settings of glacial and spiteful (“Did you ever see that film How To Murder Your Wife? Awfully good, I saw it six times”) it’s unsurprising that the sight of people who are actually having sex gets under his skin, and unsurprising that he tries to use his position as nominal master of the hotel to keep things chaste and orderly. And it’s even more unsurprising that he finds himself thwarted in these efforts, as Fawlty Towers has the clear intention of punishing poor Basil for his hubris and making sure that no matter the outcome of the story, it’s not going to be him who comes out ahead.
But what’s remarkable about how “The Wedding Party” exploits this particular character trait is the degree to which it goes about setting him up for the fall on multiple levels. There’s a heat wave scorching Torquay at the moment, and the atmosphere has led to a much looser atmosphere amongst the hotel’s residents and guests. A French antique dealer named Mrs. Peignoir is in residence and continually flirting with both Basil and Major Gowan*, a couple named Jean and Alan in town for a wedding can barely keep their hands off each other, Polly’s practically making out with her boyfriend on top of the front desk and even Sybil’s enjoying the company of someone at the bar and laughing uproariously—in a manner that Basil likens to “machine-gunning a seal.” Basil, of course, will have none of it, angrily dismissing Polly for behaving as if the hotel is a “massage parlor” and—upon noticing the couple don’t share a last name—decreeing he can’t rent the couple a single room because it’s the “law of England.” (Overruled almost immediately by Sybil on the latter, of course.)
*I feel guilty not having mentioned Major Gowan in my first review, as he’s a smaller part of the hotel but no less important to its chemistry. As the one resident Basil seems to actually like, he’s a sounding board for the latter’s irritations, and his half-senile, half-deaf persona leads to some amusing reactions to the chaos surrounding things. Kudos to Ballard Berkeley, who if memory serves has a few particularly immortal moments in future episodes.
But even Basil’s not immune to the charged atmosphere of the hotel—witness him answering the phone with the greeting “Fawlty Titties.” The problem there is that the constant notions of sex haven’t inspired him to get any of his own, but are causing him to see it almost everywhere he looks, and as such everything gets misinterpreted for comedic effect. When Alan stops downstairs to see about getting some batteries for his electric razor but fails to mention the item in question, it’s a delightful misunderstanding as Basil thinks he’s looking for something quite different at a late-night drugstore. (His reaction at being asked to borrow some is disgust for the ages.) It’s a rare show that’s willing to go so far in mistreating its central character, and a joy to see John Cleese tie himself up in knots only to unwind entirely once the truth comes out.
And that’s just the appetizer, as the episode uses the tools of both situational misunderstanding and comedic slapstick to put poor Basil through the ringer. Roused out of bed to let some guests in late at night—a welcome reprieve from the snickering and chitchat of Sybil* in the next bed over—Basil finds himself tripping over the tipsy Mrs. Peignoir in full view of Alan and Jean, and later having an incredibly drunk Manuel, post-birthday, celebration tripping him over him and proclaiming his love in full view of Alan. He’s trying so very hard to seem the moral superior here, but every event just makes him seem like the lecherous one, and he knows it. Cleese is on fire as he attempts to make excuses, talking at a rapid clip that doesn’t allow for a single interruption because he knows how flimsy his story is, and if he pauses for breath holes beyond measure will be poked in his logic.
*Going back to the idea of adjusting between episodes, it’s clear Cleese and Booth found a new gear for Sybil. Where she was previously solely the shrill voice of reason, here we see they’re getting mileage out of how she’s more efficient but also more lazy than Basil, given to chain-smoking and gabbing on the phone with her friend Audrey, punctuated with her distinctive “I knowwwww!” Good on them for doing so, and good on Prunella Scales for finding that character’s voice so clearly.
If this wasn’t enough to worry about, Basil’s also hearing and seeing things every time he goes upstairs. If it’s not the moaning of Alan getting a backrub, or the sight of Polly leaving a room with her outfit unbuttoned in the back, it’s the sight of Jane locked in an embrace with the newly arrived Mr. Lloyd—a series of events that all have of course perfectly logical explanations, none of which he’s been made privy to. As such, his already frazzled mind assumes the worst-case scenario—a long-standing comedy tradition to be sure, but one that works here because there’s just so damn many mishaps that keep building on each other.
Desperate to maintain some form of semblance, he corners Mrs. Lloyd on her way up the stairs, first deciding to show her Mr. Stubbs’s work on the kitchen doorway and cornering her in the kitchen for a few minutes (sitting on a wicker chest that contains a longing-for-death Manuel, purposely escorted out of the dining room for being so hungover he could barely stand upright). And then when he walks upstairs only to see Polly and Mr. Lloyd embracing, it’s second verse same as the first, immediately steering Mrs. Lloyd to another room to point out just how much nicer it is and that she should be aware of it just because. By the end of it, Mrs. Lloyd’s been reduced to a daze, her expression growing increasingly like a woman who’s been cornered by a serial killer. “This room is exactly the same as the other one!” she says to her husband in a faint tone with more than a few shades of relief at being freed from Basil’s rapid-fire bullshit.
Finally thinking he has the evidence, Basil barges into the room (where the family is gleefully mocking his stumbling with Manuel and Mrs. Peignoir) and demands they all leave his hotel at once, storming down to present his arguments to Sybil with righteous indignation. The resulting moment of realization as Sybil reveals to him that they’re all related and Polly’s a friend of the family is masterful—a full half-minute of silence as the light goes on in his eyes, gears churning as he desperately tries to figure out a way to make himself right in the affair only to completely realize that there isn’t one. Once again, he’s left backpedaling, running up the stairs in the way only John Cleese can, muttering, “I made a mistake, I made a mistake” and throwing open the door to the Lloyds with the declaration “My wife made a mistake!” (Mr. Lloyd’s flabbergasted response: “I think she did!”)
But even this isn’t the end of his woes, as he tries to close out a long and difficult day only to be continually cornered by the seductive Mrs. Peignoir. Twice she corners him, first to open a door and then to return a tape recorder, clearly hinting he should take advantage of his wife’s absence. He’s so terrified of Sybil’s wrath and of any other misunderstandings that he backs into the room, responding to the next knock by pretending to be asleep and then begging her to leave before something happens. In an episode of wonderful moments, this leads to quite possibly the couple’s best interaction yet: “Go away, my wife will hear us!” “…This is your wife!” “Oh, what a terrible dream!” Basil heads down at Sybil’s insistence she heard a burglar, winds up braining the staggering Manuel, and once again appears to mounting the hapless Barcelonian in full view of the wedding party.
Can you blame him for taking a second crack at Manuel’s head? When it comes to someone who wants to be taken seriously, Basil is (rather ironically) well and truly screwed.
“The Hotel Inspectors”
Series 1, Episode 4
Originally aired: Oct. 10, 1975
Summary: When Basil hears of hotel inspectors roaming Torquay incognito, he realizes with horror that the guests he has been abusing could easily be among them.
Before discussing this episode, I feel I should provide a bit of personal context: this is not my first time going through Fawlty Towers. I originally watched the show more than 15 years ago, back in the olden days when the only way to watch a show that was off the air was either to scan the local TV listings for a rerun or rent a VHS tape containing two or three episodes. Of those episodes, I’m reasonably sure I did watch all of them at various points, but despite some memories of particular scenes there’s only two where I was able to recall most or all of the punchlines and plot details before rewatching. The clearest was season two’s “The Kipper and the Corpse” (which I’m looking forward to discussing in a few weeks) and the second is “The Hotel Inspectors.”
So why does this one stick in my mind so clearly? Well, beyond the fact that it’s a fantastic episode of television, it’s also an episode that for the first time gives Basil a clearly defined adversary, as opposed to having him rebel against the general forces surrounding his hotel. That adversary is one Mr. Hutchinson (Bernard Cribbins), a man given to a long-winded style of speech, an aversion to telephones, and a manner that clearly indicates he thinks being a guest makes him master of the hotel. (“Now, is it possible for me to reserve the BBC2 channel for the duration of this televisual feast?” Basil: “Why don’t you talk properly?”) In “A Touch Of Class” and “The Wedding Party” the guests were normal people who made Basil look worse by comparison, but here it’s more of a match of wits… or lack thereof.
Basil’s determined not to yield Hutchinson’s snippy behavior, particularly as he’s engaged in a feud with Sybil over their difference in styles of management or lack thereof (“I would find it a little easier to cope with some of the cretins we get in here, my little nest of vipers, if I got one smidgen of cooperation from you.”“Cooperation? That’s a laugh! The day you cooperate you’ll be in a wooden box”). His tone changes, however, when it turns out Sybil has coaxed a bit of information from her friend Audrey that goes past her typical “I knowwww” reactions: there’s a trio of hotel inspectors moving through Torquay. When Hutchinson makes reference to being regularly involved with hotels professionally, what I’m going to call the Melbury switch is flipped yet again, as Basil realizes that despite all of his best instincts he’s going to have to be nice to this insufferable twit.
The decision to do so means that all Basil’s attention goes to making sure Hutchinson has the best lunch of his life, which refocuses the show’s structure in an interesting way. Unlike “The Wedding Party,” which got excellent mileage out of moving between floors and between rooms as Basil desperately tried to figure out what was going on, “The Hotel Inspectors” is chiefly centered around the hotel’s dining room. As such, the rhythm’s less about the flow between sets as it is the flow between characters, with Basil, Polly, and Manuel all moving in and out of the hotel kitchen to bring out courses or drinks and shift the dynamic of the room.
And what a dynamic it is. Basil’s willing to bend over backward to accommodate Mr. Hutchinson, but in doing so he moves up the lunch timetable—a move that would throw off any kitchen dynamic, let alone the badly-tuned apparatus that is Fawlty Towers. Adding the fact that he purposely bumps another guest named Mr. Walt (James Cossins) from his table and poor Manuel can’t figure out which order goes where, and inefficiency reigns supreme. There’s also room for some wonderful silent or nearly silent comedy: when Hutchinson moves out to make a phone call, Basil reluctantly moves over to assist Mr. Walt with serving his wine, only to fail not once, not twice, but four times to produce even drop from the bottle. And when he finally does succeed, the bottle turns out to be corked. (Not that Basil’s willing to acknowledge this failure: “No, I just uncorked it!”)
All this would be bad enough for Basil if Hutchinson really were a hotel inspector, but Sybil—never one to miss out on eavesdropping—lets Basil know that’s not the case, and in fact Hutchinson sells spoons. The light of rage goes on, and Basil immediately starts needling the other man, even going so far as telling him to his face to shut up. This almost drives him to violence, but Basil and Polly quickly deflect his anger with confusion, convincing him that they’re speaking to each other when they look at Hutchinson, in a sideways ping-pong style of conversation that’s a delight to witness (and also the best bit of comedy Connie Booth’s been given in the series to date.) The show never breaks stride even once, moving from table to table, joke to joke, and ever escalating the tension.
But there’s no reprieve for the staff as Mr. Walt mentions he’s meeting two other men staying at different hotels, establishing yet another threat of inspection. Once again, so much of the joy is in watching the gears grind behind Basil’s eyes: he can’t let loose on Hutchinson anymore because Walt might pick up on it, and he’s done so much damage towards Hutchinson he has to remedy it almost immediately. He manages to find an odd balance between these conflicting emotions as Hutchinson explodes about the mistakes with his meal, in a move that clearly seems like a good idea at the time but which any lawyer would try to claim as temporary insanity: essentially forcing Hutchinson’s cheese omelet down his throat until he blacks out, and dragging him into the bar to recuperate out of sight.
Basil once again heads out to the front desk to cozy up to Walt, but Hutchinson gets his second wind back very quickly, moving out to do what likely half the guests of Fawlty Towers have wanted to do and beat the stuffing out of its owner. Basil proves that while he’s possessed of the worst instincts of British character, keeping a stiff upper lip does still remain in his repertoire, and he takes the beating cheerfully—even having the brass to tell Walt that Hutchinson’s an old friend acting out a routine. Of course, that act vanishes the instant he’s in danger of losing Walt’s business, resorting to bribery and then raw begging not to be marked down in “the book.” And then, the epiphany! Walt’s not a hotel inspector but an outboard motor salesman, who’s put off by Basil’s behavior but no real danger to the hotel—a revelation that Basil practically weeps at, knowing he’s been set free.
And of course, he revels in that freedom to be an utter bastard immediately. An evil grin spans his face and he walks to the kitchen quickly, pausing only to have Manuel catch Hutchinson on his way down the stairs and say Basil wants to bid him “adios.” That he certainly does, in one of the show’s finest manic moments to date: two cream pies splattered on face and crotch respectively and a pitcher of cream chaser poured into the briefcase for good measure before Hutchinson’s banished from the premises. A rare moment of victory for Basil Fawlty, a rare moment of validation for Manuel (who earns a kiss on the forehead), and a rare burst of confidence as the former strides to the front desk to greet a set of guests who witnessed the entire spectacle: “What can I do for you three gentlemen?”
Eyes widen, a great scream begins; and now, as Mark Twain would say, we draw the curtain of charity over the scene. A scene that never lets up even once, and is pitch-perfect from start to finish.
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.