In an interview included in the complete Fawlty Towers box set, John Cleese revealed an idea he once had for a feature-length Fawlty Towers special after the second series concluded.
The concept involved a retired Basil and Sybil attempting to travel to Barcelona to visit a similarly retired Manuel, resulting in a series of comedic mishaps.
The plot would climax with Basil taking on a terrorist and subsequently confronting the pilot with a gun.
However, this idea never materialized, and although the actors have made non-canonical appearances in various roles since then, the show has resisted nostalgic reboots.
Cleese confirmed during the series’ 30th anniversary that everyone involved was “too old and tired” to revisit it, leaving the original 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers as the sole representation.
And with these 12 outstanding episodes, it’s challenging to consider this a poor decision.
Many shows overstay their welcome, but Fawlty Towers’ 12-episode run feels just right.
It strikes a balance where its biting humor remains fresh, and it doesn’t force the introduction of contrived guests and scenarios. As mentioned repeatedly, producing fewer episodes allowed Cleese and Connie Booth to refine each script meticulously, ensuring the highest quality.
From a practical standpoint, Fawlty Towers possesses unique qualities that modern television often lacks: the stage-like setting of the hotel and episodes that extend beyond the typical 30 minutes, allowing scenes to breathe.
Before we delve into this final analysis of the show, let’s briefly reflect on the series as a whole.
These reviews aimed to uncover why Fawlty Towers is considered the pinnacle of sitcoms, and after examining these dozen episodes, it’s clear that this show sets a standard that many other sitcoms strive for but rarely achieve.
Each plot masterfully employs classic sitcom elements like mistaken identity, broad farce, and classic misunderstandings, yet it subverts them by not delivering happy endings, mainly because Basil Fawlty, the world’s worst person, doesn’t get to win.
The performances are instantly iconic, the humor is uniquely British in its sharpness, and even when the cringe factor is painfully high, it only adds to the desire to revisit and appreciate the craft behind the humor.
Fawlty Towers is a remarkable achievement in farce and fully deserves the accolades it has received.
So, without further delay, let’s conclude our stay at Fawlty Towers and seek answers to the pressing questions these episodes have raised.
Series 2, Episode 5: “The Anniversary”
Original airdate: March 26, 1979
Summary: Basil plans a surprise wedding anniversary party for some friends, but Sybil, assuming he forgot their anniversary, angrily leaves.
Why, on earth, are Basil and Sybil married?
This question has crossed my mind several times during the series, mostly because the show itself doesn’t seem interested in providing an answer.
Theirs is undeniably one of the most dysfunctional marriages in TV history, lacking any trace of attraction, affection, or even tolerance.
Basil often refers to Sybil as “a rancorous, coiffured old sow,” while she calls him “an aging, brilliantined stick insect.”
They seem to coexist out of sheer lack of better options. Prunella Scales, in interviews, mentioned that Sybil married Basil because he belonged to a higher social class, but given Basil’s own obsession with nobility, it’s hard to imagine he was much higher up.
The second season further underscores the caustic nature of their marriage, with increasingly sharp insults and abuse and a growing sense of resignation evident in their demeanor.
Even in an episode like “The Anniversary,” their marriage remains far from redeeming, despite it ostensibly being about Basil’s attempt to do something nice for his wife.
With the fifteenth anniversary of the Fawltys’ marriage approaching, and Basil still haunted by his failure to remember the fourteenth, he decides to host a gathering of friends at the hotel and has Manuel prepare paella using his mother’s recipe.
He chooses to play it as if he completely forgot the event, an act that, for any other couple, might be seen as a way to enhance the surprise, but Basil does it purely out of spite.
He takes pleasure in witnessing her frustration and looks forward to her humbling when the truth eventually emerges.
(Polly, who is seeking a car loan from him, is disgusted by his callous behavior: “Wouldn’t it be simpler to boil her alive?” “Yes, but not quite as economical.”)
Feigning ignorance is one of Basil’s remarkable skills, and he takes great pleasure in frustrating Sybil.
First, he intentionally ignores her subtle hints when discussing Polly’s memory (“No, she doesn’t forget things. Can you remember the last time she forgot anything?” “I forgot what it was”).
Later, when she confronts him with the date, he acts as if he doesn’t know, innocently asking if it’s the anniversary of the battles of Agincourt or Trafalgar.
Unfortunately, he carries out his act too convincingly, and she storms off in anger.
Basil misses her departure as he’s busy trying to pacify Terry, who despises anyone else in his kitchen, and she drives into town without acknowledging his hasty attempts to apologize.
Left helplessly pounding the pavement, Basil is greeted by the first group of friends who want to see Sybil.
This kind of farce is what Fawlty Towers excels at, but, despite that, “The Anniversary” is my least favorite episode of the show.
Once again, the show takes a classic sitcom trope—the unnecessary lie that spirals out of control—and gives it a twist within the established framework of Basil being a terrible human being who doesn’t deserve the redemption typically granted to central characters in sitcoms.
In this instance, however, I don’t think it works exceptionally well.
The plot feels somewhat contrived, even when executed competently.
Basil could have simply pleaded ignorance about Sybil’s absence, suggesting she had gone into town for some reason, or he could have offered a veiled version of the truth, claiming it was meant as a pleasant surprise.
Instead, he invents a lie about Sybil being unwell and becomes entangled in a series of increasingly exaggerated symptoms to deter her curious friends from visiting.
The plot also becomes somewhat predictable as the episode unfolds and circumstances intensify.
The group Basil has gathered starts to appear complicit in the unfolding joke.
While we’re accustomed to seeing guests become increasingly frustrated by Basil’s antics and inability to provide straightforward answers, this time, the guests have reached the conclusion that Basil is concealing something.
They go along not out of British propriety but because they derive pleasure from entangling him in more elaborate lies.
The rebellion, spearheaded by Roger (portrayed by renowned British theater actor Ken Campbell), is quite enjoyable.
Roger, a charming individual who is either a few drinks into the evening or simply relishes how easy it is to provoke Basil, firmly believes that Sybil is giving her husband the silent treatment, and he’s determined to make Basil confess.
To the episode’s credit, their willingness to play along drives Basil to comical extremes, particularly when he attempts to set things right:
Basil (frantically): Look, it’s entirely Sybil. She’s not feeling well. She lost her voice, and it’s causing her discomfort.
The doctor visited and mentioned it’s somewhat serious but not too much.
He left, and she began to swell up. He’s returning later today, and it’s best for her to be alone. So what’s so unusual about that?!
Roger (cheerfully): Her driving around in town!
After attempting some reverse psychology to encourage the guests to stay downstairs (“Right! Everything’s fine! No problem! I’ll just go upstairs and ask her to start dying!”), Basil is compelled to seek assistance, physically dragging Polly up the stairs and requesting her to impersonate Sybil.
Connie Booth excels when Polly takes a stand, and here, she’s reached her limit, as he’s dismissed her loan requests throughout the episode.
She delivers a speech that champions all the straight men throughout comedy history, those tasked with going along with someone whose behavior should land them in jail.
After listing everything she does for him, she tells him off. Basil then appears to suffer from some sort of stomach issue, and Polly, either out of disgusted pity or pragmatic self-interest, offers to impersonate Sybil in exchange for the loan.
He agrees, hands her a wig, and returns downstairs.
What follows is top-tier slapstick comedy—Polly likened Basil’s antics in her tirade to a Marx Brothers film, and there’s a definite sense of that comic sensibility in the ensuing events. Initially, Basil must stall the entire group from entering the room while Polly gets ready. He keeps them entertained with details about the wallpaper and carpet, even allowing Major Gowan to offer his take on the situation cheerfully. Then, it transitions into a series of slapstick escapades as they enter the room with the lights off to protect “Sybil’s” eyes, causing guests to trip over repeatedly and collide with each other in their efforts to locate the bed. Even that isn’t safe, as once someone gets too close, the wig-wearing Polly punches her directly in the face. (“Don’t hit our friends!” Basil exclaims in one of the episode’s best throwaway lines.) Finally, Basil spots Sybil returning, manages to get her to leave with his indifference, and leads the bewildered visitors out—only to run into her coming back in for one last piece of her mind.
In terms of moments of stunned silence, this one is a Platonic ideal.
On one side, the guests are all staring at a woman they literally just saw upstairs a moment ago.
On the other side, Sybil stares at a group of people she has no reason to expect.
In between them, Basil watches his worlds collide in a most terrible fashion.
These are the moments when Fawlty Towers shifts abruptly and unhesitatingly, becoming one of those rare occasions when Basil can think on his feet with ease.
Without missing a beat, he seamlessly transitions into one of the previous lies, greeting his angry and bewildered wife as the guest from up north who happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to Sybil.
He escorts her into the kitchen—stepping over Manuel and Terry, who have wreaked havoc on the room and are now grappling on the floor—shoves her into the cupboard, and walks out without a hint of unease to bid his guests farewell.
*This episode stands out for featuring a complete secondary plot entirely off-camera.
The conflict between the two parties has been simmering throughout the episode, but the only hints of it come when Manuel desperately attempts to involve Basil, who is preoccupied with his scheme.
It’s an intriguing choice that helps maintain the focus on Basil’s escalating panic as he struggles to keep his plan intact.*
As everyone departs, with Roger suggesting they should repeat the gathering soon, Basil can finally exhale in relief.
The scheme is a “success,” Polly has secured her money, and Manuel and Terry are resolving their differences, leaving just Sybil in the closet.
Once again, the show demonstrates its knack for ending on a high note.
It leaves the confrontation to our imaginations, drawing a charitable curtain over the scene.
The episode concludes as Basil (as Bertie Wooster might phrase it) “squares his shoulders and strides 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 presents the staff with an extensive list of hygiene violations that require immediate attention. One pressing issue is Manuel’s pet rat, which has escaped its cage and is now roaming freely in the hotel.
If “The Anniversary” raised the question of why Basil and Sybil ever got married, “Basil The Rat” delves into another puzzling aspect: how a poorly managed place like Fawlty Towers manages to stay in business.
In my previous review, I discussed how the second season has highlighted the hotel’s dismal quality.
Unlike iconic television locations like Cheers, Central Perk, or Monk’s, there’s nothing appealing about Fawlty Towers.
Basil once quipped that a satisfied customer was so rare they should have him stuffed, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone—whether it’s Mr. Hutchinson, Mrs. Richards, the Drs. Abbott, or the entire population of Germany—ever wanting to return.
Reality finally catches up with the Fawltys and their lax standards as they return from a drive into town, bickering with each other.
Upon entering the kitchen, they find a man deeply engrossed in a pile of chopped meats.
Basil initially directs his sarcasm at the intruder, asking if he opened a self-serve department.
However, when Polly discloses his identity as Mr. Carnegie from the health department, Basil’s enjoyment quickly vanishes.
Within an hour, Mr. Carnegie compiles a list of charges against the hotel, which he recites with an authoritative tone that even Basil can’t undermine.
The charges align perfectly with the growing anxiety on the faces of Basil, Sybil, and Polly as they realize that each one of these accusations is entirely valid.
Mr. Carnegie: I shall list a series of violations, threatening prosecution or recommending closure to the council’s appropriate committee unless immediate action is taken.
These violations include the absence of proper cleaning routines, dirty and greasy filters, a greasy and crusted deep-fat fryer, unclean, cracked, and stained preparation surfaces, soiled, cracked, and missing wall and floor tiles, marked and stained utensils, grimy interior surfaces of the ventilator hoods, inadequate temperature control in the storage of perishable food, improper storage of cooked and raw meat in the same trays, with raw meat positioned above confectionery resulting in meat juices dripping onto dairy products.
Moreover, loose and cracked refrigerator seals, an un-defrosted icebox, and an overstocked refrigerator were noted.
The food handling procedures were questionable, and there was evidence of smoking in the food preparation area.
Dirty and shabby food-handling overalls were observed, and the wash handbasin that had been verbally assured to be installed during the last visit six months ago was still missing.
Furthermore, two dead pigeons were found in the water tank.
Basil: Otherwise, okay?
*Interestingly, Sybil poses the same question I raised in my review of the preceding episode, demonstrating that even they lack an explanation for their union.
She posits a theory: “Black magic, my mother says.” To this, Basil responds impotently, muttering, “Well, she’d know, wouldn’t she?”
Carnegie grants the Fawltys a 24-hour grace period to bring the hotel back up to par, prompting a cleaning frenzy throughout the hotel.
However, Terry doesn’t share the same concerns about the griminess, viewing it as an atmosphere that George Orwell would appreciate.
Sybil takes charge of the kitchen’s cleaning efforts, relegating Basil to inspect the rooms and ensure they meet the required standards.
He heads upstairs to seek Manuel’s assistance.
This visit provides our first glimpse of Manuel’s living quarters, revealing that despite enduring daily abuse, he has managed to keep a relatively comfortable space adorned with decorations from his homeland and even a flamenco guitar—a callback to his earlier performance in “Gourmet Night,” proving that his guitar skills are more than just a party trick.
In his room, there’s also a surprising sight that sends shivers down Basil’s spine: a rat in a cage.
The idea of Manuel having a pet rat is inherently amusing, and it suits his character perfectly.
Manuel’s enduring charm, present since “The Builders,” lies in his relentlessly cheerful disposition, even in the face of constant confusion and mistreatment by Basil.
His explanation of the pet rat’s origin is brilliantly delivered by Andrew Sachs, and John Cleese’s response is equally spot on.
Manuel: I told the man in the shop, “It’s a rat.” He responded, “No, no, no. It’s a unique type of hamster, a filigree Siberian hamster.”
He claimed it was the only one in the shop and offered a special price of only five pounds.
Basil: Manuel, have you ever heard of the bubonic plague? It used to be prevalent in this area, and many purebred hamsters were brought here from Siberia on ships.
Basil decides to immediately dispose of the animal, a choice that horrifies Manuel and receives disapproval from Sybil and Polly.
Even when he suggests euthanizing both the rat and its owner for a discount, the idea doesn’t sit well with the others.
Polly proposes a compromise, suggesting they take the rat to a farm owned by her friend, a proposition that Manuel reluctantly agrees to.
Fawlty Towers, known for its lack of sympathy or pathos, makes an intriguing stylistic choice by introducing an unexpectedly somber moment as the two walk away together.
This choice also cleverly ties back to Manuel’s earlier guitar playing, accompanied by a melancholic flamenco-style guitar performance.
Twenty-four hours later, the hotel has been mostly restored to a favorable condition.
Despite Manuel wearing a forlorn expression, which Basil finds intolerable, stating, “Don’t gaze at me with those pitiful cow eyes. I can’t tolerate this self-indulgence!”
It seems like they might succeed, at least for a brief moment.
However, it turns out that Manuel and Polly had concealed the rat in the shed.
When Manuel checks on the rat and quietly calls out “Basil!” without a response, they discover that the animal is now loose on the grounds.
With that note, we embark on another farcical adventure reminiscent of “The Kipper and the Corpse.”
If possible, this episode is even more tightly focused than the excellent one before it.
In interviews, John Cleese has mentioned that this episode is his favorite.
This preference is largely due to the fact that it’s not guest-centric and allows for increased interaction among the hotel staff as they work together to solve the problem.
Here, Polly is not just an unwilling accomplice; this scheme is as much her creation as it is Manuel’s.
Now, they are compelled to enlist Terry’s help in locating Basil the rat before Basil the human discovers the situation.
This sense of camaraderie is a welcome addition to the show, providing a dynamic element that previous episodes lacked, where they were typically tethered to one of the Fawltys, taking sides in their ongoing conflicts.
*The fact that Manuel named the rat after his overbearing employer adds an ongoing layer of intrigue.
It not only introduces ambiguity into their relationship – is Manuel genuinely fond of Basil Fawlty, or is this a subtle form of retaliation for the daily mistreatment? – but it also creates confusion as the rat, the human, and the spice are repeatedly mistaken for one another.
Manuel’s horrified exclamation, “HE PUT BASIL IN THE RATTATOUILE?!” is a delightful moment.*
Certainly, Basil cannot remain oblivious for long, especially when he spots Major Gowan entering the lounge with a shotgun in hand.
Once again, Ballard Berkeley perfectly embodies the persona of a slightly senile military man.
He channels his inner Elmer Fudd as he initially retreats in confusion from the rat and then decides to hunt it down.
Basil reassures him that no Germans are on the premises (a good thing, as mentioning the war would only worsen the situation).
However, when the major declares his pursuit of vermin, a menacing glint appears in Basil’s eyes as he turns sharply to confront his deceitful staff.
His threats to terminate their employment are interrupted when the major fires his rifle, with poor timing, as Carnegie has just returned.
A rapid series of excuses and explanations involving “starling inspectors” and a rather painful encounter between the major and the butt of his own gun is barely sufficient to maintain some semblance of order.
Clearly frustrated, Basil takes matters into his own hands, grabbing a box of rat poison from the sink and liberally applying it to one of the kitchen’s spare veal cutlets, all without notifying anyone, which plunges Manuel deeper into despair.
Here, Terry’s laissez-faire cooking approach proves potentially lethal, as the contaminated cutlet is inadvertently mixed with the others to be prepared for lunch.
Basil had previously suspected the spoiled kippers of causing Mr. Leeman’s demise, and this situation is ten times worse, prompting them to promptly decline any orders for veal with a curt “Sorry, veal’s off” (evoking memories of the “Gourmet Night” debacle) and attributing the problem to a poor batch of Norwegian meat.
The efforts to manage the veal result in a lot of back-and-forth movement on the hotel’s ground floor, providing one more excellent example of the show’s craftsmanship.
Similar to “The Kipper and the Corpse,” this episode has been adapted for the stage multiple times and perfectly suits it.
The quick transitions between the kitchen and the dining room showcase the excellence of the Fawlty Towers set. Cleese’s frantic movements seamlessly carry him between rooms.
Things get even more frenzied when the hotel cat becomes the sole indicator of whether a cutlet is safe.
This compels Basil to exchange Carnegie’s plate no fewer than three times, as Fawlty’s cat becomes Schrödinger’s cat, simultaneously safe or not, depending on when Basil lays eyes on it.
The matter of the poisoned veal consumes a considerable amount of time, nearly causing poor Basil the rat to be forgotten.
However, Manuel sees him under a table where a young couple is dining.
Once again, the awkward sexual misunderstandings between Basil and Manuel, which provided comic delight in “The Wedding Party” and “The Psychiatrist,” take center stage.
They grope under the table to such an extent that they contemplate leaving the hotel entirely.
Then, Basil becomes the intruder as he attempts to search through her handbag without realizing it.
Polly, once again, comes to his aid with excuses involving a bomb scare.
The pet named after Basil bites his hand and darts into the dining room.
Manuel swiftly gathers it up and conceals it in a biscuit box, which happens to be on Major Gowan’s table.
The major remains oblivious to the event and cheerfully hands it over to Basil, unaware that this is now the second loaded “weapon” he’s handed to his host today.
And when Basil reaches over to offer Carnegie an after-dinner treat, cheerfully assuming that the issue has been resolved? BANG. (Or at least, as much bang as you can get from a puppet even more conspicuous than what was manipulated into the dining room.)
This reveal surpasses the grandeur of the trifle, the hotel inspectors, or even poor Mr. Leeman – it’s a comedic climax to the entire episode’s futile attempts to avert this situation.
Basil can think swiftly on his feet when required, when pressed against the wall, or when an escape route is available, but now, there’s none of that.
You can practically hear the air escaping from his lungs and brain when he sees what he’s done.
He’s unable to close the tin or make any jokes, only weakly asking if Carnegie would like a rat.
In our final moment at Fawlty Towers, we observe the explosion’s aftermath.
Carnegie sits in a daze, staring straight ahead.
Polly stands rigidly, Sybil attempts to converse about the weather, and Manuel drags Basil out of the room.
The owner has finally succumbed to one indignity too many.
Or perhaps he has simply disregarded the consequences and take a bite of the poisoned veal cutlet, heading up to manage that big hotel in the sky.
In any case, it’s a conclusion that perfectly befits the episode, the season, and the series as a whole.
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