By Les Chappell
In my last discussion of Fawlty Towers, I expressed my appreciation that the gap between the first and second series hadn’t done anything to affect the show qualitatively, and that the writing and performances were still head and shoulders above most of what’s aired on television over the last three decades. However, while there hasn’t been much in the way of qualitative differences between series, there is a sense that the focus of the show has tightened up, as some aspects of the world that were understated have been brought forward to a greater degree. In discussing the first two episodes I talked about how the second series further illustrated the toxicity of the Fawltys’ marriage, as it’s gone from a thinly veiled disdain for each other to outright bitterness and contempt between Basil and Sybil.
In addition to the domestic state of affairs, there’s been further clarity added to the professional side of the story. Namely, the fact that Fawlty Towers is a really shitty hotel. In the first series most of the problems could easily be blamed on the prejudices and neuroses of its owner, but the second series has pulled back the curtain to reveal problems across the board. Basil’s too self-centered to keep things working, Sybil doesn’t really care, Manuel’s incapable of keeping up, and Polly’s stretched too thin to really be efficient. As a result, the food is awful, the service is inept, and the only people who stay more than once are too senile to notice the problems. In this light, Basil’s comment that they should have their satisfied customers stuffed comes across as less of a punchline and more another bleak acceptance of the state of his life.
And it’s in the most recent two episodes that we get to see just how bad of a hotel it is, through the aid of two of the most difficult customers Basil’s had to date. Be they living or dead, few things are clearer than that you should take your business elsewhere.
Series 2, Episode 3: “Waldorf Salad”
Original airdate: March 5, 1979
Summary: Basil is not altogether keen on a loud and demanding American guest, who demands a higher class of service and food than Fawlty Towers is accustomed to providing.
When I discussed “The Wedding Party,” I opened up with an observation that Fawlty Towers is a uniquely British show, largely due to the viewpoints of its main character: obsessed with social standing, sexually repressed to a fault, and failing to maintain a stiff upper lip as circumstances go beyond his control. As a consequence of this viewpoint however, the show tends to be more hit-and-miss when it involves other cultures—this is after all a show where one of the main characters is a Spanish native being played by a German actor. Characters like the Irish Mr. O’Reilly and Greek chef Andre are more broadly caricatured, and of course the entire sequence of events involving the German guests is the sort of behavior that would get one banned from Oktoberfest for life.
In “Waldorf Salad,” it’s time for the American way of life to make its way into Fawlty Towers, and once again it’s everything that you’d expect. While the majority of Fawlty Towers’ guests are prisoners of their own social niceties—hesitant to speak up about any of the problems, even when the owner and waiter are grabbing salads from the table to look for something unpleasant under the lettuce—Mr. Hamilton* is a man who expects to get service for his money. Having driven five hours (on the wrong side of the road no less) he refuses to accept that the hotel stops serving dinner at 9 p.m., and bulldozes over every one of Basil’s attempts to dissuade him from accepting the status quo. “Shall we have our after dinner drink before dinner?” he brays sarcastically to a suggestion that the schedule be moved. (“Well if you could it would make things easier on us,” Basil says in his style that manages to be obsequious and insulting at the same time.) And when yelling doesn’t work he moves to bribery, pushing 20 pounds on Basil to keep the chef on hand and prepare a late supper.
*If you’re getting an inexplicable sense of deja vu from this character, that means you’re a Star Wars fan. Mr. Hamilton is played by Bruce Boa, who counts amongst his roles General Rieekan from The Empire Strikes Back. I could easily see him making a veiled threat to Basil that a death mark’s not an easy thing to live with.
Never one to pass up a quick buck, Basil attempts to persuade the hotel’s new chef Terry (Brian Hall) to stay on for the meal, but Terry claims he’s got karate classes to attend and manages to talk Basil out of a larger share of the 20 pounds. At least until Polly pops in to remind him that he’ll be late for their night out—complete with Terry’s new Finnish girlfriend—and Basil angrily snaps the money back and sends him on his way. This series of events, and the more assertive behavior of Mr. Hamilton, is an interesting illustration of one of Basil’s more self-destructive character traits. Basil can nitpick and insult and berate with the best of them, but in the grand scheme of things he’s got no backbone to speak of. As such, he can’t force Terry to stay on, nor can he force Mr. Hamilton to accept that this is the way business is done in the hotel, and he settles on the worst possible middle ground to prepare the meal himself.
This approach makes “Waldorf Salad” an interesting episode structurally compared to the earlier installments of the series. Polly and Manuel aren’t present for the majority of the episode, nor are most of the regulars, so the episode’s action centers solely on Basil and the Hamiltons with an occasional chime-in from Sybil cheerfully enjoying her own dinner right next to them. While other episodes like “A Touch of Class” and “The Psychiatrist” made full use of the Fawlty Towers set, moving from room to room and floor to floor seamlessly, the majority of this episode’s action takes place in the dining room with only brief trips into the kitchen for Basil to freak out over a lack of ingredients. It’s not exactly a bottle episode, but it’s the closest Fawlty Towers has come to that structure.
Narrowing the focus in this way, the episode becomes more of a direct conflict than even “The Hotel Inspectors” was, as Basil is personally catering to every whim and getting more and more frazzled by requests outside what the hotel can provide. He completely misinterprets the drink order (“So it’s one Scotch and you each need a screwdriver”), has never heard of the episode’s titular opening dish (“I think we’re just out of Waldorfs”) and stumbles into faux pas after faux pas in his efforts to make small talk. And most hilariously, Basil never bothers to tell Hamilton that he let the chef go, repeatedly going into the kitchen and pretending to chew Terry out when the latter pushes him to take a stand against poor service. The tension continues to escalate, Hamilton’s yelling crashing up against Basil’s slimy need to be in the right.
Eventually, Sybil finally grows fed up with Basil’s ruse, undercutting his authority to make the salads behind his back and serve the Hamiltons herself. Here, another of Basil’s worst character traits comes into play, as this could be the answer to his problems but he’s incapable of accepting that, snatching the offending Waldorf salad away taking Sybil into the kitchen to yell at her—a move that leads to him coming out with a hat over one eye and a sheepish slump to his shoulders. He still tries to eke out a minor victory by conveying an apology, a letter ostensibly written by Terry which he begs they read. And when they refuse, he’s so busy trying to read it out loud that the steaks he’s preparing set the kitchen alight, and he can’t even let go of the ruse to put out the fire—and that’s where Hamilton finds him, yelling at the air and pretending it’s Terry. As terrible a person as Basil is, one has to admire his dedication, trying to plug the holes in a long-ago sunken ship. “Mr. Hamilton may I introduce Terry… Where did he go?”
At the start of this whole endeavor it may have been fair to root for Basil over an unpopular guest—as happened in “Communication Problems”—but “Waldorf Salad” is an episode that purposely pushes the it beyond the pale that you can’t expect Hamilton to react in any other way than tearing into Basil in the most public fashion, drawing all the other guests out of the bar. “You are the British tourist board’s answer to Donald Duck!” Hamilton yells at the top of his lungs. “The crummiest, shoddiest, run hotel in all of Western Europe!” (“No! I won’t have that!” an ever-loyal Major Gowan interjects. “There’s a place in Eastbourne.”)
Here, Basil finally thinks he’s found the advantage, turning to his loyal customers, the ones who told him that dinner was fine and the service is perfect, and he feels the grand British sense of dignity outshines the boorish American. But instead—and this is the genius of the episode to keep this in its back pocket—every guest* he turns to has a gripe left over from the first third of the episode that they too polite to say anything about at the time. Mr. Hamilton’s tirade gives them the excuse, and an American revolution is sparked. Sugar in the salt shaker! Meat that’s almost all gristle! A plate of prawns that were clearly off! You took our meals to the front desk and never brought them back! The complaints keep coming at Basil, who can’t get a word in edgewise—allowing Mr. Hamilton the triumphant last word by knotting Basil’s tie and heading upstairs to collect his bags.
*Interesting bit of continuity: one of the complaining guests is played by Terence Conoley, who played a different guest in “A Touch Of Class.” I like to think he’s the same guest who still hasn’t gotten his that gin and orange, lemon squash and a scotch and water, and is now simply staying at the hotel out of stubbornness.
Having watched the entire series to date, I’ve developed a radar for when the show is going to explode into comic mania, and the moment of silence as Basil processes the events of the evening is an unquestionable calm before the storm. His face simmers more and more, and there’s a second of quiet acknowledgment, until everything erupts in another of those unequaled tirades that makes the character so indelible:
This is typical. Absolutely typical… of the kind of… ARSE I have to put up with from you people! You ponce in here, expecting to be waited on hand and foot while I’m trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not! You’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well, let me tell you something: this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble! Well, I’ve had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough! I’ve had it! Come on, pack your bags and get out!
But of course one more time, Sybil slides in to undercut Basil’s tirade entirely, and he changes his demand to an ultimatum that either they stay or he goes. One glance from her is enough to make him realize that this is just one more argument he’s never going to win, and—in one of those marvelous tonal shifts Cleese does without peer—he says goodbye, kisses her cheek and strides out into the rain finally free from everything and everyone. However, it takes about 15 seconds for him to realize that there’s nowhere else for him to go. He’s pissed-off, demanding, and in a mood to make someone’s life miserable—is there any place for him in this world?
Yes, there is, and it’s being a guest at Fawlty Towers, asking for service that includes a Waldorf salad and lashings of hot screwdriver.
Series 2, Episode 4: “The Kipper And The Corpse”
Original airdate: March 12, 1979
Summary: Chaos reigns as a guest dies at the hotel in his sleep, and Basil and the staff are left with the unpleasant task of removing the body discreetly.
Early on in this project, I mentioned that this is only the second time I’ve watched Fawlty Towers in my life, and the first time in nearly eighteen years I’ve watched these episodes. And while there have been several scenes and lines that have managed to stick in my mind since then—a testament to the writing of Cleese and Booth, and also my oddly eidetic abilities when it comes to remembering pop culture quotes—only two episodes have remained almost perfect in my memory since. The first of those was “The Hotel Inspectors,” memorable for the adversarial relationship between Basil and Mr. Hutchinson the spoon salesman, and its glorious culmination in a moment of slapstick and Basil’s terrified scream, an episode that lived up to all my expectations upon revisiting.
The other episode that’s remained in my head was “The Kipper And The Corpse,” and it’s probably been the episode that I’ve been looking forward to most out of any of the 12 episodes that were made. And in rewatching it, it’s easy to see why this is the one that would cement itself into my 10-year-old brain, because it’s probably the most broadly comic episode Fawlty Towers ever did. Certainly other episodes might be funnier or have more memorable sequences—the show’s certainly never topped Basil’s mental breakdown at the end of “The Germans” for instance—but this one has such an innately funny concept that the show can just throw the idea up and roll with it. Yes, we may as well call this one “Weekend at Fawlty’s,” because there’s a body in the hotel, and it’s vital no one finds out.
Before he becomes the second half of the title, the corpse in question is one Mr. Leeman, a visiting businessman who comes to the hotel suffering from what appears to be indigestion. Sybil sympathizes with his condition and offers to provide him breakfast in bed the next morning, but—in another sign that in her own way she’s as bad of a hotel manager as her husband—she keeps throwing him option after option when he clearly just wants to go lie down and think of anything other than food. Basil of course makes it even worse by sarcastically asking what type of wood he’d like the tray to be made of, and then takes personal offense at not being told “Good night” that he spends the rest of the evening angrily muttering to himself. And in a moment that says a lot about the psychological abuse Basil’s been under for years, he closes his rant with an imitation of Sybil’s hissed “Basil!” and slaps his own wrist.
The next morning doesn’t see Basil in anything of a better mood, as he’s suspicious of the quality of the kitchen’s kippers despite Terry’s reassurance they’re good—though given how the customers of “Waldorf Salad” reacted Basil’s probably right to be suspicious. He takes the breakfast up to Leeman griping about the day’s news and the man doesn’t even bat an eye, which Basil’s self-centered tendencies can only interpret as typical rudeness. But it turns out Leeman’s not just batting an eye, he’s not even blinking as he expired over the night, which a horrified Polly discovers when she takes up the milk for his coffee. (A revelation that leads to some terrific horrified faces from both Terry and Manuel, salt spilling over a plate of sausages that’s going to come back many a time this episode.)
Basil hears the news second-hand, but can’t believe that the man died after he just served him a kipper, and makes entirely the wrong connection. Again, he’s such a self-centered character that of course something this bad is because of something only he noticed, so the potentially spoiled fish becomes a murder weapon in his eyes that needs to be disposed of immediately. Here, he’s as frantic as he was trying to cover up O’Reilly’s botched work in “The Builders,” trying to pry open windows to throw the fish out and then indignantly asking how he was supposed to know the man was dead. (“He’s been dead for ten hours!” “Rather final, isn’t it.”) And yet again, John Cleese remains the master of the tonal shift, as after his sputtering excuses Sybil smoothly tells him there’s a kipper sticking out of his sweater, and he looks down and throws it away without batting an eye.
They may not need to get rid of the kipper, but they certainly need to get rid of the body, as the sight of two orderlies carrying a body down the stairs would be a disaster no hotel could recover from. After the mostly solitary action of “Waldorf Salad,” “The Kipper and the Corpse” turns into a team effort, as Basil, Polly, and Manuel team up to get him downstairs and out of sight. A move that’s easier said than done, as we’ve seen over nine episodes to date—things never stop moving in this hotel, and they can’t even get ten feet outside the door before one of their elderly patrons* runs into the body, screams murder and forces Polly to slap her unconscious. (“Two down, twenty-five to go!” Basil says in fatalistic tones.)
*This is a great episode for the elderly regulars of Fawlty Towers. Miss Tibbs passes out twice in proximity to the body, and takes increased coddling each time it happens. (“Anything could have happened!” “The man was dead.” “A man is a man.”) And Major Gowan’s made a new best friend, even if he thinks someone shot him.“Died in his sleep!” Basil says. “In his sleep. Well, you’re off your guard, you see,” Gowan muses.
And when they try to get him into an empty room out of sight, it gets even worse when the guests Mr. and Mrs. White try to get into that room. This turns into one of the absolute best sequences in Fawlty Towers history as Polly prevaricates desperately about just how important it is that the room be cleaned, and Basil and Manuel stumble along inside room to conceal the body. Mostly at least, given that an arm is sticking out of the wardrobe and Manuel has to do a rapid flamenco dance to distract from that. And then when Miss Tibbs’ moaning comes over—as she’s shoved in there right alongside the late Mr. Leeman—Basil’s back in the same position he was in “The Psychiatrist” explaining what exactly is going on inside a guest’s wardrobe. This one goes a little bit better, if only a senile old woman is easier to explain than a few inappropriate copped feels.
The team effort to keep Leeman out of sight is part of what makes “The Kipper and the Corpse” such a fantastic episode, but what’s even more striking about it—and another part of why it remains so memorable—is that it’s an episode that’s continually in motion. This episode has been adapted for the stage on at least one occasion, and it’s not hard to see why as the events keep moving from one room to another. When Mr. Leeman’s business partners show up to collect him for his meeting, it sets off another chain of misunderstandings in the vein of “The Hotel Inspectors” as Basil mistakes them for the coroners; and after the body is misplaced they even have to run outside and chase down a laundry truck that took the chest he was hiding in. (It can conceal hungover Spaniards, why not a corpse?)
And getting the body out of sight this final time turns into a struggle so comically futile all it needs is “Yakety Sax” to be the pinnacle of farce. They can’t put him in the office because Miss Tibbs has passed out yet again, they can’t put him in the kitchen because Dr. Price is taking matters into his own hands and cooking sausages, they can’t put him in the first room they hid him because the Whites are in there and not going to buy this a second time, and they can’t put him back in his original room because it’s already rented out to a new guest who’s busy inflating a blowup doll (a glorious throwaway gig and a testament to how distracted Basil is he can’t even get morally outraged). It’s a series of movement that finally reduces poor Manuel to such exhaustion that he crawls into a linen chest for peace, and where the only way Basil can keep Leeman out of sight is to prop him up behind the coat rack.
And it all comes crashing down on everyone’s head once again, as with “Waldorf Salad,” an entire hotel with problems congregates in the center of the hotel airing its grievances. Except this time, it’s a series of events that have been popping up time and time again all episode. Mrs. Chase, whose little dog incurs the wrath of Polly and was fed an overly spicy plate of sausages, has been fussing all episode over it and finally screams that he’s dead, the last thing anyone running the hotel wants to hear. Dr. Price has spent the entire episode trying to get his hands on a plate of sausages—which culminated in a particularly memorable moment as poor Manuel finds his daily routine interrupted and has to be forcibly stopped from clearing the table—and has now found out they’re past the stale date even moreso than the kippers. Basil’s now in such a bad place he can’t even say his back is to the wall, it’s to Mr. Leeman, but for once he doesn’t crack under the pressure and instead has a shining moment of inspiration to calm everyone down: “You all deserve an explanation, and I am pleased to say… my wife will give it to you!”
Everyone turns to her, Basil hops into the linen chest occupied by the late Mr. Leeman, and a jovial Major Gowan walks in and asks how Leeman’s day is going. And all comes crashing down with the third loud scream from Miss Tibbs (and presumably the third instance of passing out), a series of dumbfounded stares from the guests, and a series of “Basil!” shrieks from Sybil that approach supersonic levels. But Basil’s passed the buck and he’s not doing it halfway, letting the laundrymen load him into the truck and drive him to freedom through the front gates.
Going back in my memories, I believe this may have been the last episode of Fawlty Towers I ever saw—episodic order wasn’t nearly as big of a deal to a pre-adolescent watching on rented VHS cassettes—and I remember thinking at the time that it seemed like a perfect end to the show. Basil’s simply carried away by the truck to a new life, finally free of his burdens as the hotel implodes behind him. And while 18 years later I still feel this would make a satisfying end to the series, but we’re not quite there yet, as there’s still one last brace of episodes to close things out.
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.