By Les Chappell
Back when I reviewed Prime Suspect 2, I made the argument that the British model of television, producing a series with a more flexible count of episodes and schedule between them, is a smart approach to take because it means that you’re able to generate better content without being shackled to a schedule of 13 or 22 episodes. And Fawlty Towers certainly took advantage of that format in its first series by only having to churn out six episodes, meaning that those episodes could be sharpened and polished to the point that I found myself at a loss at several points during the first series when trying to find something critical to say.
Fawlty Towers also took advantage of the format to take a considerable break between series, with a gap of nearly three and a half years between the first season finale “The Germans” and the second season premiere “Communication Problems.” While they were able to reunite the entire cast for the second series, I imagine at the time there was no small amount of trepidation as to whether they could recapture the same lightning-in-a-bottle feeling that made all six episodes of the show instant classics. Director John Howard Davies left the series and was replaced by Bob Spiers, a concern for a show that used its set about as well as any sitcom in history. Also worrisome was the fact that in the interim between series, John Cleese and Connie Booth divorced after ten years of marriage; and given that the two wrote every episode of Fawlty Towers’ first series eyeball to eyeball, there was the very real possibility that their professional relationship would also suffer as a result.
So, did the time off between episodes and all the behind-the-scenes changes affect anything? Let’s find out as we enter our coverage of the second series.
Series 2, Episode 1: “Communication Problems”
Original airdate: Feb. 19, 1979
Summary: The arrival of Mrs. Richards, a rather deaf, dotty and bad-tempered woman, interferes with Basil’s attempts to prevent the money he won on a racehorse from being discovered by Sybil.
As I said many times during my coverage of the first series (particularly in “The Germans” when marveling at the display of unrestrained id), Fawlty Towers is commendable in the way that it’s never afraid to make its main character Basil Fawlty as unlikeable as possible. He’s arrogant, rude, petulant, unaffectionate, tightly wound and more than a little bit prejudiced, a man whose only saving grace is that the domain he’s nominally master of is one that keeps him contained. His wife despises him, his employees do just enough work to keep him from breathing down their necks, and the only people who treat him well are the hotel regulars who are so senile they don’t notice just what an awful man he is.
What makes “Communication Problems” such an interesting episode—in addition to being ruthlessly funny—is the fact that for once, we’re actually rooting for Basil to eke out some small victory. This is in large part because he’s being presented with someone who is certainly the most unpleasant guest in the history of Fawlty Towers, one Mrs. Alice Richards (played by legendary British television and stage actress Joan Sanderson). Much like Mr. Hutchinson of “The Hotel Inspectors,” Mrs. Richards is another guest who thinks that the hotel staff needs to drop everything to attend to her whims, imperiously interrupting Polly as she’s in the middle of helping another guest. More problematically, Mrs. Richards is nearly deaf and refuses to turn on her hearing aid as it “runs down the batteries,” meaning that she misses virtually everything that is said to her and treats that as their fault. (This proves to be comic gold almost immediately, as Polly rather maliciously sends her off to talk to Manuel, and she is left with the impression that the manager is one C.K. Watt from Barcelona.)
Much of the time in Fawlty Towers, the comedy comes from how Basil misunderstands a perfectly innocent situation, or when his own natural impatience or high standards keep him from ever coming out on top of a situation. Here though, it’s hard not to see him in the right, as Mrs. Richards finds a flaw in every last detail of her hotel room: the bath is too small, the window doesn’t overlook the sea*, and the radio doesn’t seem to work. She’s the personification of every complaint and slight that Basil’s had to endure in 15 years of hotel management, and you can practically see the steam coming from John Cleese’s ears as he snippily points out the virtues of the hotel, and later downstairs tries to get through to her in writing—though even that fails as she’s misplaced her glasses on top of her head.
*The latter I can understand though, given that the view appears to have just been painted on the window.
Yet the fact that Mrs. Richards forces Basil’s behavior to louder and angrier extremes never quite comes across as putting him in the wrong—a tribute to Sanderson’s equipoise, on par with a Dowager Countess in terms of self-confidence. Normally guests are discomfited or agitated by the way Basil does business, but Mrs. Richards is unfazed by any of his excuses or oddities, simply dismissing his rudeness with more rudeness and culminating in a shouting match: “If you knew anything at all about running a hotel this wouldn’t happen! What do you say to that?!” This is the first moment all series where Basil can think quickly on his feet, and it’s a fantastic bit of comeuppance: first as he pantomimes speaking to make her think her hearing aid’s stopped working, and then once she turns it up he tries to finish it off by yelling into it at top volume.
Having fun at Mrs. Richards’ expense is a necessary distraction for Basil, as he’s got another problem on his hands, oddly enough because of a rare bit of good fortune. Responding to a hot tip given to him by one of the hotel’s regulars (“A satisfied customer, we should have him stuffed,” Basil muses), he enlists Manuel to place a small bet on a horse in defiance of Sybil’s moratorium on gambling. The sharpness of the earlier crosstalk proves that Booth and Cleese were still able to write together successfully after their divorce, though there’s definitely a sense that they may have taken out some of their frustrations on paper. Basil and Sybil were never even close to affectionate in the first series, but the bickering between the two felt somewhat routine, the only way they could communicate with each other after fifteen years. Here, the dialogue comes across as more caustic, even spiteful, as if they blame each other for everything that’s gone wrong in their lives:
“If I find out the money was yours, you know what I’ll do Basil.”
“You’ll have to sew them back on first.”
“Sybil, do you remember, when we were first manacled together, we used to laugh quite a lot?”
“Yes, but not at the same time, Basil.”
“It’s nice to share a moment like that in a marriage, isn’t it dear? I know, I read it on the back of a matchbook.”
As such, Basil has no intention of letting her compromise the one good thing he’s got going on, and he needs to find a way to keep his winnings secret and his co-conspirators under control. In theory, he has a good plan, first telling Manuel that he should forget about placing that bet, and Polly that if asked she should say the money is hers. The first effort goes about as well as one would expect, a circular conversation that may well be the best scene John Cleese and Andrew Sachs have shared all series:
After that frustration, you would think Polly would be easier for Basil communicate with, but Sybil’s bullshit detector is going off and she smoothly asks Polly what the name of the horse she bet on was. Historically, Cleese and Booth work well together when they’re communicating over a third person—the ping-pong conversation over Mr. Hutchinson in “The Hotel Inspectors,” Polly trying to get Kurt’s inebriation across in “Gourmet Night”—and this is the best one yet as Basil tries to silently give Polly the name of the horse behind Sybil’s back. Cleese doing physical comedy is never not funny, and his efforts to convey the name via charades once again makes good use of his full range of motion. The highlight is a callback to his earlier analogy of Sybil as a dragon, which Polly misreads to cheerfully declare “Flying Tart!” as the horse’s name.
Unfortunately for Basil, his finances are further complicated by the fact that Mrs. Richards is going through an opposite situation, with almost the exact same amount of money missing from her room. With Sybil about to organize a search, he needs to find someone who’s above suspicion, and he finds his man at the bar in Major Gowan. Clearly after how successfully Major Gowan was used in “The Germans,” Cleese and Booth decided to give Ballard Berkeley more material to play in the second series, and yet again his half-senile bearing bounces well off Basil’s stubborn determination to get a point across. “Tie’s a bit bright for a memorial service?” Basil muses. “Well, I didn’t like the fellow,” Gowan responds, right before keeping the money for the time being. (This scene also ends on beautiful piece of physical comedy, as Basil successfully tosses an ice cube in the air and catches it flawlessly with a glass, downing the whole thing in one swig.)
Basil tries to reclaim the money the next day, but unfortunately he does so at a moment where Mrs. Richards happens to have her hearing aid on. This is that beautiful moment of Fawlty Towers chaos, where everything that’s been introduced pays off in spades, in this case an elite syncopation of incomprehension where Basil tries to get them to recant the stories he spent so much time drilling into their heads. Major Gowan has simply forgotten all the events of the previous day (“Remembrance service?!” “I don’t remember that.”) and Manuel clearly thinks this is a test and is so proud to declare* he knows nothing about the horse. Basil practically spits out that he’s going to send the latter to a vivisectionist, and the smile on Manuel’s face indicates that once again, he’s missed the point. (Or maybe vivisectionist is the Barcelona term for ice cream parlor.) It seems as if every episode Basil gets more and more unhinged, and the extent to which he distends his face as the money moves into Mrs. Richards hands deserves a wax mold in the comedy hall of fame.
*It’s reminiscent of the moment in Blackadder Goes Forth’s “Corporal Punishment,” where Baldrick and George cheerfully parrot the line about how Captain Blackadder didn’t shoot that delicious plump-breasted pigeon regardless of context and wind up making things even worse.
But then, in the quiet after the storm, something unexpected happens as a visitor comes by to deliver a vase to Mrs. Richards. It turns out that she left her money in town, not the hotel, and suddenly Basil finds himself in possession of more than his original sum—handing his winnings over to Mrs. Richards turns out to have been an unwittingly shrewd investment. “Polly, for the first time in my life, I’m up!” he crows excitedly. Does this mean that Fawlty Towers has had a change of heart over the hiatus, and Basil’s allowed to win one every now and then?
Unfortunately for Basil, no, as there’s one moment of whiplash left to play. Major Gowan, as proud as Manuel was to come through for Basil, declares he’s just remembered where the money came from, and announces the truth to a full lobby—a declaration that causes poor Basil to yelp and let the vase slip from his hands to the floor. It shatters along with all his hopes, as Sybil doesn’t even miss a beat by snatching the money from his hands and handing it to Mrs. Richards to pay for the cost. A brilliant close to a brilliant episode, and one that washes away any fears the show lost its magic.
Series 2, Episode 2: “The Psychiatrist”
Original airdate: Feb. 26, 1979
Summary: A psychiatrist and his wife come to the hotel for a weekend break and cannot help but notice the eccentricities of their host, who’s busy trying to catch a non-paying guest.
“The Psychiatrist” feels very much like the spiritual successor to series one’s “The Wedding Party,” in that it brings back to the forefront two of Basil’s most unpleasant character traits: his archly conservative viewpoints on sex and his megalomaniacal efforts to control the actions of everyone staying in his hotel. And much like in “The Wedding Party,” it’s an episode where the harder Basil tries to take control of the situation, the worse off he makes things, a series of inopportune moments making him come across as either an utter lunatic or a pervert.
But if “The Wedding Party” gave you a moment or two to breathe in between misunderstandings, “The Psychiatrist” never lets up once, with an utterly relentless pace in delivering its jokes that makes it a superior episode. Fawlty Towers is already one of the most tightly plotted sitcoms in history, using the “pressure cooker” of the hotel to drive the action, pushing its cast members back and forth between the rooms and introducing progressively more problems until the whole thing climaxes in either an epic shouting match or a spectacular failure. “The Psychiatrist” is possibly the finest execution of that pacing to date, an episode where the worst possible turn of events keeps happening over and over until you have to watch the entire thing through your fingers.
And its construction isn’t just limited to how it leads up to its jokes, as it’s one of the most cleverly constructed episodes yet from a technical perspective. The first act of the episode should be included in comedy textbooks when teaching the virtue of pacing, as the action never leaves the front desk of the hotel. Basil and Sybil take turns manning the front desk, a stream of guests come through the doors, but in almost ten minutes it never follows anyone upstairs or to the kitchen or even the office right next door. In an era where sitcoms are almost frenetic in switching between scenes and locations to keep the momentum going, the opening here is content to let the action unfold gradually.
*Granted, this episode is also longer than most Fawlty Towers episodes, running a full 36 minutes without commercials, a luxury which very few network comedies today can afford.
The stream of guests also means that we get to see both of the ways Basil treats his guests right next to each other, and proves yet again that there’s no middle ground for him. “You’re either crawling all over them licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some benzedrine puff adder,” as Sybil so astutely notes. The recipient of the poison is Mr. Johnson, a lothario type in leather pants with a series of gold chains, the sort who Sybil’s more than happy to cozy up to and share all the details of her mother while he’s on the phone. The latter is the most extended scene Prunella Scales has had without any of the other hotel staff around, and for the first time—reflected in Johnson’s increasingly annoyed facial expressions—we start to see just what Basil’s had to become inured to over the years. The recipients of the boot-licking are the Abbotts, a vacationing couple who flip Basil’s Melbury switch the moment they reveal themselves to be doctors. (Except with sexism being yet another negative trait of Basil’s, he misses this truth at first and assumes that the husband comprises both doctors. “Did you take the test twice?”)
Of course, Basil’s fawning admiration is thrown overboard when he learns that the male Dr. Abbott is a psychiatrist, a profession that terrifies him with its potential insight into his brain and ability to link anything to sex. At least, that’s his interpretation, which leads to a lively misunderstanding when they ask him how often he and Sybil go on vacation. The fact that it’s been inserted into his mind also doesn’t help him when dealing with yet another new guest, an attractive Australian woman named Raylene. Basil tries to enjoy some of the same look-but-don’t-touch enjoyment that Sybil gets, and of course only comes off as a creep as he weakly compliments Raylene’s necklace—and even worse, finds his hands in an inopportune place when he goes to repair her light switch. (It certainly says something about the state of the Fawlty marriage that Sybil can’t even regard this as a threat, or anything other than one of Basil’s fumblings. “If you’re going to grope a girl, be good enough to be in the same room as her.”)
Both those scenes make for vintage Fawlty Towers misunderstandings, but it’s when night falls that everything shifts into a higher gear. Mr. Johnson has picked up a girl in town and brought her back to his room—in direct defiance of Basil’s draconian rule that guests aren’t allowed to have company overnight—and the quest to root out the truth turns the second floor of the hotel into a perpetual motion machine of comedy. As mentioned above, Bob Spiers replaced John Howard Davies as the director for the full series, and like Davies, Spiers knows exactly how to use the interconnected set of the hotel to the greatest advantage. The placement of all three hotel rooms—the Abbotts, Johnson and Raylene—is akin to an expertly placed row of dominos, where all you have to do is tap one and things keep falling down in response. And the falling down here is nothing short of spectacular, as Basil bounces from the Johnson’s door to the Abbotts’ wall, to the wall of Raylene’s room, to the window outside the Abbotts’ room—all the while keeping up with his pretense of making sure everything’s level. And it ends with plenty of beatings on his part, first when the ladder heads to the ground, and then when Sybil heads to him to slap him once, twice, and thrice for being so obsessive about a female guest.
What sells this moment is Basil’s complete and total confusion in the moment: he truly believes that he’s doing the right thing, and can’t understand why Sybil doesn’t agree with him, at least until Manuel explains just what he told Sybil. This is one of those moments of dawning fear that we’ve come to expect when the truth comes out on this show, where the confusion bleeds out of Basil’s form only to be replaced with white-hot rage, and poor Manuel continues to miss all of it right up to the point where Basil drives him into the ground. (Which of course leads to Dr. Abbott emerging yet again, and Basil making one more explanation.)
After spending a night in the closet and in the hallway, Basil’s quest to uncover the girl has now become very personal, as he’s determined to vindicate himself in the eyes of Sybil and the universe. First he tries explaining things to Sybil, who is utterly unimpressed, and then he winds up once again making himself look like a fool in front of the doctors. (“There’s enough material there for an entire conference,” Dr. Abbott mutters to his wife in the understatement of the century.) He springs back into the closet to hide, only for his hand to get on some black paint that spilled, just as he hears someone coming down the hall.
By this point in the episode everyone knows where this is going, but once again it’s the way they keep escalating and piling one problem on top of the other that makes it so masterfully done and so hard to watch. Of course Basil’s going to spring out and catch the wrong person, and of course his hand’s going to wind up back on Raylene’s breast. But then they add Sybil walking out of her room at the exact moment they’re breaking contact, and that the hand copping a feel was the one coated in black paint. And what’s even more marvelous is that even after a moment this mortifying, Basil still can’t let go of his desire to uncover the truth, running back into Raylene’s room to try to hear Johnson’s guest one more time, and getting caught by Sybil again—this time in the closet. (And funniest of all, he still can’t abandon his pretense of checking the doors.)
Understandably, Sybil’s lost any and all patience with her husband, as even by his standards this is craven desperation from “an aging, brilliantine stick insect.” She tears into him with gusto, until the sleep-deprived, desperate Basil snaps himself and yells “Shut up!” This is yet another moment that needs to be added to comedy textbooks as an argument for the multicam sitcom, as you can practically hear the live studio audience inhale in fear and anticipation once he says it. Prunella Scales deserves an award for the icy way she delivers the response “Oh, you’ve done it now,” and Cleese deserves something similar for the tirade he lets out in response to years of perceived insults:
“No, I haven’t, I’m just going to. I’m fed up with you, you rancorous, coiffured old sow! Why don’t you syringe the donuts out of your ear and get some sense into the dormant organ you keep hidden in that rat’s maze of yours?”
Tired of sneaking, he heads to Johnson’s door, practically beating it down, and confronts him directly about the woman in his room, which Johnson admits to. Except it turns out it’s not the same woman. That long scene that took place in the lobby? Well, one of the details that came out there is that his mother was coming to stay the next day, and she happened to arrive in that window of time between Basil getting caught black-handed and being yanked out of a pantry. What was thought to be a throwaway detail turns out to be a seed bearing fruit, and the longer Basil’s tirade goes on, you’re practically begging her to come out and put him out of his misery. And to his credit, Basil manages to maintain the British stiff upper lip to happily welcome Mrs. Johnson to the hotel, only to fold into himself and start hopping around in the middle of the hallway the minute he’s left alone.
Will the passing Drs. Abbott finally take pity on this man, so clearly in the throes of a nervous breakdown, by offering some therapy, tranquilizers or a straightjacket? No, they’re on vacation. Something which Basil clearly, deeply, desperately needs.
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.