By Les Chappell
In an interview conducted for the complete Fawlty Towers box set, John Cleese told the interviewer that at one point he had an idea for a feature-length Fawlty Towers special following the conclusion of the second series. The special would have seen a retired Basil and Sybil trying to take a flight to Barcelona to visit a similarly retired Manuel as all manner of high jinks ensued, culminating in Basil taking down a terrorist and then threatening the pilot with a gun himself. The idea never got off the ground (apologies for that pun) and despite the actors reprising the roles in various cameos and non-canonical guest appearances at various points since, the show has remained immune to any nostalgic attempts to reboot it. Cleese put the lid on the series’ coffin during its 30th anniversary, saying that everyone involved was “too old and tired” to ever revisit the series again, meaning that the 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers are all that will ever exist.
And with 12 episodes as good as these, it’s hard to feel like this is a bad choice to make. Too many shows wear out their welcome, but 12 feels like the right length for Fawlty Towers, just enough that its mean-spirited qualities doesn’t feel tiring and it doesn’t feel contrived in its introduction of crazy guests and scenarios. As discussed many times over, doing fewer episodes allowed Cleese and Connie Booth to polish each script until it gleamed, and forcing more out for the sake of nostalgia would unquestionably have produced a weaker product. Plus from a more practical perspective, everything that makes Fawlty Towers unique—the stage-like construction of the hotel, the 30 minutes-plus airtime that lets scenes breathe—are all qualities that modern television has tragically stamped out of sitcoms.
So before we get to this final study of this very special show, a few words on the series as a whole. I wanted to write these reviews to see exactly why Fawlty Towers was regarded as the apex of the sitcom genre, and why despite having only seen the show once almost two decades ago I could still remember routines and punchlines near-perfectly. And I found all the evidence I needed, as these dozen episodes are marks at which many sitcoms shoot at in vain. Each plot is simultaneously a flawless execution of classic sitcom tropes—mistaken identity, broad farce, classic misunderstandings—and at the same time subversions of them because they never end happily, because Basil Fawlty is the worst person in the world and doesn’t get to win. The performances are instantly iconic, the insults are cutting in the way that only British comedy permits, and while they’re at times so painfully cringe-inducing it’s difficult to watch that doesn’t take away from wanting to go back and see how the jokes were crafted. It’s a an epic achievement of farce, and to my mind a show that deserves every accolade it’s been given.
So, without further ado, let’s finish out our reservations at Fawlty Towers, and see if we can get answers to two big questions that these episodes have left me asking.
Series 2, Episode 5: “The Anniversary”
Original airdate: March 26, 1979
Summary: Basil invites some friends for a surprise wedding anniversary party, but Sybil assumes he has forgotten their anniversary and storms off.
Why on earth are Basil and Sybil married? This is the question I’ve found myself asking more than once during the series, largely because the show itself doesn’t seem to have any interest in answering the question. Of all the dysfunctional marriages in TV history this is certainly the most dysfunctional, given there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of attraction, affection or even tolerance between the two of them. He refers to her as “a rancorous, coiffured old sow,” she refers to him as “an aging, brilliantined stick insect,” and the two seem to exist together only because they’ve got no better option. (Prunella Scales has said in interviews that Sybil married Basil because he was of a higher social class than she was, though given Basil’s own obsession with nobility it’s hard to imagine he was much higher up.) The second season has been even more caustic in depicting their marriage, the insults and abuse ever more biting and a sense of resignation clear in both their bearings.
Even an episode like “The Anniversary” doesn’t do much to redeem the perception of this marriage, despite ostensibly being about Basil’s attempt to do something nice for his wife. With the fifteenth anniversary of the Fawltys’ marriage coming up—and Basil still bearing the scars from forgetting the fourteenth—he’s organizing a gathering of their friends at the hotel and enlisted Manuel to cook paella with his mother’s recipe. He’s choosing to play it as if he forgot the event entirely, a move that would for any other couple be seen as a method to heighten the surprise but he’s doing purely out of spite because he enjoys seeing her frustrated and wants her to eat crow when the truth comes out.(Polly, who’s trying to hit him up for a car loan, is disgusted by his callous attitude: “Wouldn’t it be simpler to boil her alive?” “Yes, but not quite as economical.”)
Feigning ignorance is one of Basil’s greatest strengths, and he gets terrific mileage out of frustrating Sybil. First he deliberately avoids any of her more subtle hints when they discuss Polly’s memory (“No, she doesn’t forget things. Can you remember the last time she forgot anything?” “I forgot what it was”) and then when she throws the date in his face he innocently asks if that’s the anniversary of the battles of Agincourt or Trafalgar. Unfortunately, he does it too well, as she storms off—which Basil misses as he’s trying to mollify a Terry who hates anyone else in his kitchen—and drives into town ignoring his hasty attempts to apologize. Basil’s left pounding the pavement impotently—shades of his nervous breakdown in “The Psychiatrist”—only to be greeted by the first group of friends asking to see Sybil.
This sort of farce is the sort of thing that Fawlty Towers does better than anyone else, but despite that I find “The Anniversary” to be the episode of the show I like the least. Once again, the show is taking one of the classic sitcom tropes—the unnecessary lie that spins out of control to ludicrous extent—and twisting it around thanks to the established framework of Basil being a terrible human being and not worthy of the redemption sitcoms usually grant their central character. In this instance though I don’t think it works spectacularly well, as this is a plot that simply feels contrived even when executed well. Basil simply could have feigned ignorance at her disappearance, saying she’d just stepped into town for some reason, or he could have told a shaded version of the truth and said he meant it as a surprise in a good way. Instead, he find himself inventing a lie about Sybil being ill, and falling victim to a series of more and more garish symptoms to keep her inquisitive friends from visiting her.
The plot also feels a bit worn down because as the episode goes on and circumstances escalate, the group that Basil’s assembled start to come across as being in on the joke. We’re used to seeing guests grow increasingly frustrated by Basil’s antics and inability to give a straight answer, and there’s still plenty of that as they try pushing back his excuses. This time however, the guests have come to the conclusion that Basil is in fact concealing something, and they’re playing along not out of British sense of propriety but because they enjoy forcing him into more elaborate knots. The revolt led by Roger (played by legendary British theatre actor Ken Campbell), a delightful fellow who is either a few drinks into the evening already or simply enjoys how easy it is to get a rise out of Basil, convinced that Sybil’s giving her husband the silent treatment and he just won’t admit it. And to the episode’s credit, their sense of playing along does drive Basil to many hilarious extremes, especially when he tries to straighten everything out:
Basil (frantically): Look, it’s perfectly Sybil. Simple’s not well. She lost her throat and her voice hurt. The doctor came and said it was a bit serious. Not a lot; a bit. He went away, she started to puff up, he’s coming back later this afternoon, and it’s best for her to be on her own. Now what is so peculiar about that?!
Roger (cheerfully): Her driving round in the town!
After attempting to employ some reverse psychology to keep the guests downstairs (“Right! All fine! No problem! I’ll just pop upstairs and ask her to start dying!”) Basil’s forced to enlist a confederate, literally dragging Polly up the stairs and asking her to impersonate Sybil. Connie Booth is always best when Polly’s taking a stand, and here she’s at the end of her rope as he’s brushed her requests for a loan off for the entire episode. She gives a speech that stands up for all the straight men throughout comedy history, the thankless task of going along with someone whose behavior should get them arrested, and after pointing out every last thing she does for him tells him to shove it. Basil then has what appears to be some sort of stomach embolism, and Polly—either out of disgusted pity or mercenary pragmatism—offers to do it in exchange for the loan. He agrees, hands her a wig and pops back downstairs.
What follows is slapstick of the highest order—Polly compared Basil’s behavior in her rant to a Marx Brothers film, and there’s a definite sense of that comic sensibility in what happens next. First Basil has to delay the entire group from going in as Polly gets ready, leading to bowls of nuts served in the hallway as he describes the wallpaper and carpet in detail, also allowing Major Gowan to cheerfully show up and offer his take on the situation. It then moves into a series of slapstick endeavors as they enter the room with the lights off to protect “Sybil’s” eyes, guests repeatedly tripping over and slamming into each other trying to find the bed. And even that’s not safe, as once someone gets too close, the wigged-up Polly punches her directly in the face. (“Don’t hit our friends!” Basil yells in one of the episode’s best throwaway lines.) And finally, Basil spies Sybil coming back, manages to get her to leave with his indifference, and then leads the wounded visitors out—only to run into her coming back in for one last piece of her mind.
As far as moments of stunned silence go, this is a Platonic ideal. One one side the guests all staring at a woman who they literally just saw upstairs a moment ago, on the other Sybil staring at a group of people she has no reason to expect, and in between Basil seeing his worlds collide in a most terrible fashion. These are the moments where Fawlty Towers turns on a dime without question, and it turns into one of those rare occasions when Basil can think completely on his feet. Without dropping a beat he segues right into one of the forgotten lies from before, greeting his angry and confused wife as the guest from up north who happened to have an uncanny resemblance to Sybil. He walks her into the kitchen—stepping over Manuel and Terry, who have destroyed the room and are now grappling on the floor*—shoves her into the cupboard, and then walks out without batting an eye to bid his guests farewell.
*The episode is noteworthy for having a full secondary plot take place entirely off camera, as the conflict between the two has been brewing all episode but the only signs we’ve seen of it have been when Manuel’s desperately trying to get Basil to intervene and the other man’s too busy with his ruse to care. It’s an interesting choice, and one that helps maintain the focus on Basil’s increasing panic to keep his scheme together.
Everyone departs—Roger cheerfully saying they should do this again sometime soon—and Basil finally breathes a sigh of relief. The ruse is a “success,” Polly’s got her money, Manuel and Terry are working out their differences—the only thing left is Sybil in the closet. And once again the show proves it knows to end on a high note, choosing to leave that confrontation to our imaginations and draw the curtain of charity on the scene, ending as Basil (as Bertie Wooster would put it), “squared the shoulders and strode to the door, like Childe Roland about to fight the Paynim.”
Series 2, Episode 6: “Basil the Rat”
Original airdate: October 25, 1979
Summary: The local health inspector issues a long list of hygienic aberrations which the staff must immediately sort out—not the least of which is Manuel’s pet rat, escaped from its cage and running loose in the hotel.
If “The Anniversary” brought to the forefront the question of why Basil and Sybil ever got married in the first place, “Basil The Rat” brings up the other big question of how such a mismanaged place like Fawlty Towers manages to stay in business in the first place. I talked in my last review about how the second season had clarified just how lousy of a hotel Fawlty Towers was, and how unlike any of the other iconic locations in television—Cheers, Central Perk, Monk’s—there’s nothing appealing about the hotel at all. Basil mused back in “Communication Problems” that a satisfied customer was so rare “we should have him stuffed,” and it’s hard to see anyone—Mr. Hutchinson, Mrs. Richards, the Drs. Abbott, the entire population of Germany—ever wanting to repeat their stay.
And reality finally catches up to the Fawltys and their lax standards, as they return from a drive into town—sniping at each other* all the way—to find a gentleman in the kitchen with his nose deep in a pile of chopped meats. Basil shifts his sarcasm straight to the interloper (“Opened the self-serve department?”) but once Polly reveals his identity as Mr. Carnegie from the health department his enjoyment is deflated. In just the span of an hour he’s able to find a list of charges against the hotel, which he rattles off in an officious tone that even Basil can’t crack. It’s a list that pairs nicely with the increasingly nervous expressions on Basil, Sybil and Polly’s faces, blood draining from their faces as they realize every single one of these charges is entirely true:
Mr. Carnegie: Unless appropriate steps are taken instantly, I shall have no alternative than to prosecute or recommend closure to the appropriate committee of the council. Specifically: Lack of proper cleaning routines, dirty and greasy filters, greasy and crusted deep-fat fryer, dirty, cracked and stained preparation surfaces; dirty, cracked, and missing wall and floor tiles; dirty, marked and stained utensils, dirty and greasy interior surfaces of the ventilator hoods, inadequate temperature control in storage of dangerous foodstuffs, storage of cooked and raw meat in same trays, storage of raw meat above confectionery with consequent dripping of meat juices onto cream products, refrigerator seals loose and cracked, icebox un-defrosted and refrigerator over-stocked, food handling routines suspect, evidence of smoking in food preparation area, dirty and grubby food-handling overalls, lack of wash handbasin which you gave us a verbal assurance you’d have it installed at our last visit six months ago, and two dead pigeons in the water tank.
Basil: Otherwise okay?
*Amusingly, Sybil winds up asking the same question I asked in my review of the previous episode, proving that not even they have an explanation for how they ended up together. “Black magic, my mother says,” she theorizes. “Well she’d know, wouldn’t she,” Basil mutters impotently in response.
Carnegie gives the Fawltys a 24-hour grace period to bring the hotel back up to par, which throws the hotel into a cleaning frenzy. (Most of it at least, as Terry doesn’t see the griminess as a problem but an atmosphere that George Orwell would be proud of.) Sybil takes over the kitchen’s cleaning efforts and banishes Basil upstairs to make sure the rooms are up to par, and he heads up to enlist Manuel’s assistance. It’s our first glimpse at Manuel’s living quarters, and we see that despite the abuse heaped on him daily he’s kept relatively comfortable upstairs, complete with decorations from home and a flamenco guitar—a callback to his performance back in “Gourmet Night,” proving it’s more than just a trick he can pull out at parties. And his room also contains his pet animal, the sight of which stiffens every bone in Basil’s body: a rat in a cage.
The idea that Manuel has a pet rat is amusing in and of itself, but it also manages to be a very in-character pet for this good-natured and easily befuddled man. What’s always been Manuel’s most charming character trait, all the way back to “The Builders,” is his relentlessly cheerful attitude even after endless confusion and abuse from Basil. His explanation of his pet’s origins is a wonderful delivery by Andrew Sachs, and John Cleese’s response is similarly perfect:
Manuel: I say to man in shop “Is rat.” He say “No, no, no. Is a special kind of hamster. Is filigree Siberian hamster.” Only one in shop. He make special price: only five pound.
Basil: Have you ever heard of the bubonic plague, Manuel? It was very popular here at one time. A lot of pedigree hamsters came over on ships from Siberia.
Basil decides to get rid of the animal immediately, an option greeted with horror by Manuel and disapproval by Sybil and Polly, even after he suggests they could put both the rat and its owner to sleep and get a discount. Polly offers a compromise to take the rat to a farm run by a friend of hers, which Manuel sadly acquiesces to. Fawlty Towers is not in any way a show possessed of sympathy or pathos, so it’s an interesting stylistic choice to add an oddly somber moment as the two walk off the grounds together—also offering a nice thematic callback to Manuel’s earlier guitar playing by accompanying the scene with some somber flamenco-style guitar playing.
Twenty-four hours later the hotel has been restored to a mostly favorable condition, and despite the sad-sack expression on Manuel (a look Basil finds intolerable: “Don’t look at me with those awful cow eyes. I cannot stand this awful self-indulgence!”) it appears they might pull this off. Or at least it seems that way for about 30 seconds. It turns out Manuel and Polly hid the rat in the shed, and after Manuel goes to check on him and calls out a quiet “Basil!” to no reply, it turns out the animal is loose on the grounds.
And with that note we’re off to the races, back for more farce in the vein of “The Kipper and the Corpse,” and if possible even more tightly focused than that excellent installment. John Cleese has said in interviews that this episode is his favorite, largely due to the fact that it’s not a guest-focused installment and it allows for more interplay between the hotel staff as they try to solve the problem. Polly isn’t just an unwilling accomplice here, this was one of her schemes as much as it was Manuel’s, and now the two are forced to recruit Terry to help track down Basil the rat before Basil the human* finds out. It’s a nice sense of camaraderie that the show could have used a little more of in previous episodes, as typically they’re shackled to one of the Fawltys and forced to take sides in that eternal conflict, and it makes all three of those characters more dynamic than they usually are.
*The fact that Manuel has named the rat after his domineering employer is a gift that keeps on giving. Not only does it add a nice level of ambiguity to their relationship (Did Manuel do so because he’s actually fond of Basil Fawlty, or is this a minor revenge for the daily abuse?) but it adds layers upon layers of confusion as the rat, the human and the spice are confused over and over again. Manuel’s horrified “HE PUT BASIL IN THE RATTATOUILE?!” is a delight.
Of course, Basil can’t be kept in the dark for too long, particularly once he sees Major Gowan walking into the lounge with a shotgun under his arm. Once again, Ballard Berkeley has the perfect bearing of the half-senile military man, here channeling his inner Elmer Fudd as he first backs away from the rat in confusion and then decides to hunt it down. Basil assures him there aren’t any Germans on the premises (a good thing too as mentioning the war would make the whole situation even worse) but after the major hisses that he’s looking for vermin, an ugly light enters into Basil’s eyes as he turns on his heel to confront his lying staff. His threats to fire the whole lot of them are unplugged when the major fires his rifle—poor timing as Carnegie has just returned—and a rapid series of excuses, explanations of “starling inspectors” and boffing the major in the crotch with the butt of his own gun are scarcely enough to keep things on an even keel.
Clearly fed up, Basil decides to take matters into his own hands, snagging a box of rat poison from the sink and dousing one of the kitchen’s spare veal cutlets with it—neglecting to mention it to anyone and send Manuel deeper into despair. And here Terry’s laissez-faire approach to cooking proves potentially fatal, as the bowl of cutlets is dropped and Chekov’s cutlet is swept up with the rest to be prepared for lunch. Basil suspected the spoiled kippers of killing poor Mr. Leeman, and this is an offering ten times worse, forcing them to rapidly claim any plates that are ordered with an abrupt “Veal’s off, sorry” (flashbacks to the ending of “Gourmet Night”) and blaming a bad batch of Norwegian meat.
The efforts to control the veal also means there’s a lot of back-and-forth through the ground floor of the hotel, giving us one last stellar example of the show’s construction. Like “The Kipper and the Corpse,” this is another episode that has been adapted for the stage on several occasions, and it’s perfectly designed for that—the rapid movement between the kitchen and the dining room demonstrates again how peerless the Fawlty Towers set was, Cleese’s frantic movements never breaking stride between rooms. Movements become especially frantic when the hotel cat seems to be the only bellwether for whether or not a cutlet is safe, forcing Basil to trade Carnegie’s plate no fewer than three times as Fawlty’s cat becomes Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously fine and not depending on when Basil sees it.
So much time is spent on the matter of the poisoned veal that poor Basil the rat is almost forgotten, until Manuel gets a glimpse of him under a table where a young couple is dining. Once again the awkward sexual misunderstandings of Basil and Manuel that provided such comic joy in “The Wedding Party” and “The Psychiatrist” are given free rein, groping under the table to such an extent that they decide to leave the hotel entirely. Then it’s Basil’s turn to turn into the creeper as he tries rooting around in her handbag without noticing—Polly once again coming to his rescue with excuses of a bomb scare—and the pet named after him bites his hand and flies into the dining room. Manuel scoops it up and hides it in a biscuit box—the box on Major Gowan’s table, who misses the event and cheerfully hands it to Basil, unaware that this is now the second loaded weapon he’s handed over to his host today.
And when Basil reaches over to offer Carnegie an after-dinner treat, cheerfully assuming that the issues has been resolved? BANG. (Or at least, as much bang as you can get from a puppet even more obvious than what was dragged on the string into the dining room.) This is a reveal more epic than the trifle, the hotel inspectors or even poor Mr. Leeman—a comic culmination of the entire episode’s failed efforts to prevent this circumstance from happening. Basil can think quickly on his feet when called for, when backed up against the wall or when an escape route is in sight, but now there’s none of that. You can practically hear the air being sucked out of his lungs and brain when he sees what he’s done, not able to close the tin or make a joke other than to weakly ask if Carnegie would care for a rat.
And in our last moment in Fawlty Towers, we’re left gazing at the blowback from the explosion. Carnegie sits in a daze staring straight ahead, Polly stands ramrod stiff, Sybil makes a stab at conversation about the weather, and Manuel drags Basil from the room, the owner having finally collapsed under one indignity too many. Or perhaps he just decided to abandon the consequences and took a bite out of the poisoned veal cutlet, heading up to manage that big hotel in the sky. Either way, it’s an ending that’s entirely appropriate for the episode, the season and the series as a whole.
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.