Fawlty Towers is a British sitcom made by the BBC and first broadcast on BBC2 in 1975. Only twelve episodes were ever produced (two series, with six episodes each), but the programme has had a lasting and powerful legacy.
The setting is in a fictional hotel called Fawlty Towers, located in the seaside town of Torquay, in Devon, on the "English Riviera" (which was where the hotel that provided Cleese with the inspiration for the series was situated). The show was written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, both of whom played main characters. The first series, in 1975, was produced and directed by John Howard Davies, and the second, in 1979, was produced by Douglas Argent and directed by Bob Spiers.
The writers were married to each other at the time of the first series. By the second, they had been divorced for almost a year, after ten years of union (1968–78).
In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the BBC's "Britain's Best Sitcom" poll in 2004.
At the time, Cleese was also a writer on the 1970s British TV sitcom Doctor in the House for London Weekend Television. An early prototype of the character that would become known as Basil Fawlty was developed in an episode ("No Ill Feeling") of the third Doctor series (titled Doctor at Large). In this edition, the main character checks into a small town hotel, his very presence seemingly winding up the aggressive and incompetent manager (played by Timothy Bateson). The show was broadcast on 30 May 1971. Cleese also parodied the contrast between organisational dogma and sensitive customer service in many personnel training videotapes issued with a serious purpose by his company, Video Arts.
Bill Cotton, the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment in the mid-1970s, said after the first series was produced that the show was a prime example of the BBC's relaxed attitude to trying new entertainment formats and encouraging new ideas. He said that when he read the first scripts he could see nothing funny in them, but trusting that Cleese knew what he was doing (having come into this fresh from helping rip up the TV comedy form book with his fellow Pythons), he gave the go-ahead. He said that the commercial channels, with their emphasis on audience ratings, would never have let the show get to the production stage on the basis of the scripts.
The plots are occasionally intricate and always farcical, involving coincidences, misunderstandings, cross-purposes and meetings both missed and accidental. The innuendo of the bedroom farce is sometimes present, (often to the disgust of the politically conservative Basil), but it is his eccentricity, not his lust, that drives the plots. The events that take place in each episode happen in such a way that they negatively affect Basil's personality, and test what little patience he has to breaking point, sometimes causing his mental state to deteriorate to the point where he's all but suffered a total breakdown by the end of the episode (some cut to the credits as he's on the brink of doing so).
The guests at the hotel are typically comic foils to Basil's anger and outbursts. Each episode's one-shot guest characters provide a different characteristic that he cannot stand (including promiscuity, being working class, or being foreign). Requests both reasonable and impossible test his temper. Even the disabled seem to annoy him, with the episode "Communication Problems" revolving around the havoc caused by the frequent Abbott and Costello-esque misunderstandings between the staff and the hard-of-hearing Mrs. Richards (not to mention the contributions from dotty resident Major, the show's other regular character). By the end, Basil faints just at the mention of her name. This episode is typical of the show's careful weaving of humorous situations through comedy cross-talk. The show also uses mild black humour at times, notably when Basil is forced to hide a dead body, and in some of the comments made by Basil both about Sybil ("Did you ever see that film, How to Murder Your Wife? ... Awfully good; I saw it six times") and the guests ("May I suggest that you consider moving to a hotel closer to the sea? Or preferably in it.").
Basil behaves particularly violently towards Manuel (an emotional, but innocent, Spaniard whose almost total lack of English vocabulary has him make some of the most elementary mistakes) including beating the hapless waiter with a frying pan and smacking him on the forehead with a spoon, despite Manuel's piteous pleading, echoing the antics of the Three Stooges. The violence directed at Manuel has been one of the few reasons for negative criticisms levelled at Fawlty Towers over the years. In this, and in other exaggerated physical mannerisms of Basil, Fawlty Towers employs physical comedy reminiscent of the Marx Brothers' fast-paced slapstick humour.
Basil displays blatant snobbishness in order to climb the social ladder, expressing disdain for the "riff-raff" that he believes currently populate the hotel. His desperation is apparent, as he makes increasingly hopeless manoeuvres and painful faux pas in trying to gain favour with the wealthy, yet finds himself forced to serve and help people he sees as beneath him. As such, Basil's efforts tend to be counter-productive, with guests leaving the hotel in disgust and his marriage (and sanity) stretching further and further towards breaking point.
He is terrified of his wife's sharp tongue (in the episode "The Germans", he wishes that it was this that was ingrowing and not her toe). He wishes to stand up to her, but his plans often conflict with her desires. She is often verbally abusive towards him (describing him as "an aging, brilliantined stick insect") and though he is larger physically than Sybil, he often finds himself on the receiving end of her temper, expressed verbally or physically. Basil usually turns to Manuel or Polly to help him with whatever scheme he has planned, while trying his best to prevent Sybil from finding out. However, there are occasions where Basil is shown to lament about the time when there was passion in their relationship, now seemingly lost forever. Also, it seems as though he still does care for her. The penultimate episode - "The Anniversary" - revolves around his efforts to put together a nice surprise anniversary present, involving their closest friends. Things go wrong immediately, as she believes he has forgotten, and leaves the hotel. In an interview for the documentary on the DVD boxset, Cleese claims that this episode deliberately takes a slightly different tone from the others, focusing on fleshing out their otherwise inexplicable status as a couple (as well as saying that, if a third series had been made, there would have been more episodes like this).
In keeping with the general lack of explanation about the Fawlty relationship, not much is revealed of the characters' back-stories. It is known that Basil served in the Korean War - he was a cook for the British Army, possibly as part of his National Service. He grossly exaggerates this period of his life suggesting he spent time in active front line service and proclaiming to strangers: "I killed four men." To this Sybill jokes that "He was in the Catering Corps. He used to poison them." Basil is often seen wearing a military tie, (as well as that of the Royal Agricultural College), and his moustache seems to betray an army background. He also claims to have sustained an injury to his leg during the action, caused by shrapnel, although this tends to flare up at surprisingly convenient times. The only person who Basil shows patience and decent manners towards on a consistent basis is the old and senile Major Gowen, World War II veteran officer, who holds permanent residence at the hotel.
Cleese himself described Basil as thinking that "he could run a first-rate hotel if he didn't have all the guests getting in the way," and "an absolutely awful human being", but says that in comedy, if an awful person makes people laugh, people unaccountably feel affectionate toward him. Indeed, he is not entirely unsympathetic. The "Hotel Inspectors" and "Waldorf Salad" episodes both feature guests who are shown to be deeply annoying in their constant, and unreasonable, demanding. Much of the time, he is an unfortunate victim of circumstance.
In addition to those mentioned above, Basil also refers to her by a number of epithets, occasionally to her face, including "the dragon", "toxic midget", "the sabre-toothed tart", "my little kommandant", and "a rancorous, coiffured old sow". Despite these less than complimentary nicknames, Basil is terrified of her.
Polly is apparently employed part-time (during meal times), and is an art student whom Basil refers to as spending three years at university. (Polly is not referred to as a student in the second series.) Despite her part-time employment, as the most competent of the hotel staff, she is frequently saddled with many other duties. In one episode, she is seen to draw a sketch (presumably an impressionistic caricature) of Basil, which everyone but Basil immediately recognises. Polly is also a student of languages, displaying ability with both Spanish and German; in "The Germans" episode Basil alludes to Polly's polyglot inclination by saying that she does her work "while learning two oriental languages". Like Manuel, she has a room of her own at the hotel.
During the making of the series, Sachs twice suffered an actual serious injury while playing Manuel. Cleese describes using a real metal pan to knock him unconscious in "The Wedding Party" episode, although he would have preferred to use a rubber one. The original producer/director, John Howard Davies, explains in the director's commentary that he made Basil use a metal one and that he was responsible for most of the violence on the show, which he felt was essential and intrinsic to the type of comical farce that they were trying to create. Later, when his clothes were treated in order to make them give off smoke after he had been let out of the burning kitchen in "The Germans", the corrosive chemicals used went through them and gave Sachs severe burns.
Manuel's exaggerated Spanish accent is an integral part of the humour of the show. Sachs's native language is actually German, Sachs having emigrated to Britain as a child. When the series was dubbed for broadcast in Germany, he became one of the few actors to reprise a role for the foreign translation, although he found the Spanish accent more difficult in German.
The character's nationality was switched to Italian (and the name to Paolo) for the Spanish dub of the show broadcast, while in Catalonia he is a Mexican (still called Manuel).
Major Gowen, played by Ballard Berkeley, is a slightly senile old soldier who holds permanent residence in the hotel, but is one of the few that Basil likes. This is possibly due to his former high-ranking status in the military, making him a symbol of the establishment status that Basil craves. He is often introduced as their "oldest resident". He enjoys talking about the world outside (especially the cricket scores and bemoaning workers' strikes) and is always on the lookout for the newspaper. He seems to have trouble forgiving the Germans due to the World Wars (the best he can say about them is that German women supposedly make good card players). He also has outdated mannerisms towards race, evidenced in the scene where he makes clear the ethnic difference between "wogs" and "niggers" - but in an innocent manner. Despite his good intentions, the Major can cause Basil's devious plans to go catastrophically awry, notably in "Communication Problems" when Basil tried his best to keep his secret (albeit successful) betting from Sybil.
Miss Tibbs & Miss Gatsby, played by Gilly Flower and Renee Roberts respectively, are the other two (often inseparable) permanent residents, who are slightly scatty spinsters. They seem to take a fancy to Basil, and feel as though they need to take care of him, although he switches from being overly kind to utterly rude during various talks with the two women.
Audrey, a mostly unseen character, had one onscreen appearance in "The Anniversary". Audrey is Sybil's lifelong best friend, and mostly appears in the form of gossiping, trivial telephone calls to Sybil. Audrey is used as a source of refuge for Sybil from the hotel and from Basil's ludicrous situations. When times get tough for Audrey (she has a dysfunctional relationship with her husband George), Sybil will offer solutions and guidance, often resulting in the infamous catchphrase "Ooh, I know..." when Mrs. Fawlty tries to commiserate with her problems.
The Paperboy, though only seen in one episode, is significant as he is revealed to be the prankster who rearranges the letters on the "Fawlty Towers" sign to read various (sometimes crude) phrases. The shot of the sign (with the hotel exterior in the background) appears at the beginning of every episode but one, "The Germans", when a shot of a hospital is used, as this is the only episode which doesn't begin in the central location. During the first series, the sign slowly deteriorated throughout the season until almost no letters were left. In the second series, the first episode starts again with the sign spelling 'Fawlty Towers' with a few letters slightly askew, and changes in each subsequent edition, from the correct spelling to various semi-anagrams (only "Flowery Twats" from the 11th episode, "The Anniversary", is a proper anagram using all original letters.) The changes progress as follows:
The first edition of Fawlty Towers was originally broadcast on 19 September 1975. The 12th and final show was first shown on 25 October 1979. The first series was directed by John Howard Davies, the second by Bob Spiers. Both seasons had their premieres on BBC2
Production of the last two episodes was disrupted by a strike of BBC technical staff, which resulted in the recasting of the role of Reg (the wisecracking friend of Basil and Sybil) in "The Anniversary", and delayed the episode's transmission date by one week. The episode "Basil the Rat" was also delayed, not being screened until the end of a repeat showing six months later.
Not the Nine O'Clock News was originally scheduled to debut after an episode of Fawlty Towers and Cleese was to have introduced Not the Nine O'Clock News in a sketch referring to the technicians' strike, explaining (in character as Basil Fawlty) that there was no show ready that week, so a "tatty revue" would be broadcast instead. However, the 1979 general election intervened, and Not the Nine O'Clock News was postponed as being too political. Later that year, Cleese's sketch was broadcast, but its original significance was lost.
When originally transmitted, the individual episodes had no on-screen titles. The ones in common currency were first used for the VHS release of the series in the 1980s. There were working titles, such as "USA" for "Waldorf Salad", "Death" for "The Kipper and the Corpse", and "Rat" for "Basil the Rat", which have been printed in some programme guides. In addition, some of the early BBC audio releases of episodes on vinyl and cassette included other variations, such as "Mrs. Richards" and "The Rat" for "Communication Problems" and "Basil the Rat" respectively.
It has long been rumoured that a thirteenth episode of the series was written and filmed, but never progressed further than a rough cut . Though Lars Holger Holm, author of the book Fawlty Towers: A Worshipper's Companion, has made detailed claims about the episode's content, little further evidence has been unearthed to prove its existence. Holm dedicates a chapter to the story of his opportunity to watch a finished thirteenth episode called "The Robbers". Neither BBC officials nor John Cleese have ever confirmed or denied the existence of this episode.
On the subject of whether any more episodes would ever be produced, Cleese has revealed (in an interview for the complete DVD boxset, which was republished in the book, Fawlty Towers Fully Booked) that he once had the genesis of a feature-length special - possibly sometime during the mid-1990s. The plot (which was never fleshed out beyond his initial idea) would have basically revolved around the chaos that a now-retired Basil typically causes as he and Sybil fly out to Barcelona to visit their former employee Manuel and his family. Of the idea, Cleese said:
We had an idea for a plot which I loved. Basil was finally invited to Spain to meet Manuel's family. He gets to Heathrow and then spends about 14 frustrating hours waiting for the flight. Finally, on the plane, a terrorist pulls a gun and tries to hijack the thing. Basil is so angry he overcomes the terrorist and when the pilot says, "We have to fly back to Heathrow", Basil says, "No, fly us to Spain or I'll shoot you". He arrives in Spain, immediately arrested and spends the entire holiday in a Spanish jail. He is released just in time to go back on the plane with Sybil.
It was very funny, but I couldn't do it at the time. Making Fawlty Towers work at 90 minutes was a very difficult proposition. You can build up the comedy for 30 minutes, but at that length there has to be a trough and another peak. It doesn't interest me. I don't want to do it.
Cleese may also have relented due to the definite lack of Connie Booth's involvement. She had practically retreated from public life after the show finished (and had even been initially unwilling to collaborate on a second series, which explains the four-year gap between productions.)
The decision by Cleese and Booth to quit while ahead, and "pull the plug" before a third series, has often been lauded, as it ensured an avoidance of the possibility that the show's immediately-high status could be weakened with lower quality work later down the line. (Cleese in particular was most likely motivated in making the choice by the end of his involvement with the Monty Python's Flying Circus TV series, which he departed from claiming to have run out of ideas for sketches.) Subsequently, it has inspired the makers of other shows to do likewise. Most notably, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant refused to make a third series of either The Office or Extras, citing Fawlty Towers' short lifespan as the reason. Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Lise Mayer, the writers behind The Young Ones, which also only ran for two series (each with six episodes likewise), used this explanation too. Elton also took the decision to end his next sitcom Filthy Rich & Catflap after only one series, despite its popularity.
"devoid of everything that makes good modern comedy. The programme is reminiscent of the post-war university drama society production.....The idea behind Fawlty Towers had the makings of one good sketch for John Cleese, who has in the past been shown to such good effect in original sketch material. The series, however, has over-acting and exaggeration on his part which is embarrassing to watch, writing that has no vestige of wit or skill about it and set pieces that are protracted and neither funny nor slapstick; the whole is pervaded by ill-humour. There is no warmth, no vulnerability of characters, no pathos, no visual cleverness, no funny lines. It is an amalgam of everything that does not reach out to an audience and is the epitome of self indulgence by those concerned. One funny walk and a shouting, bullying tone do not make a comedy series; it is twenty-five years too late for that.....Mr Cleese has to learn (if he has not already done so) not to be deluded by applauding critics just as he must observe those who do not applaud. Fawlty Towers is a try and there have to be many in comedy. But when the try has been made it is time to move on, to change and adapt, bearing the lessons in mind: the most important being a growing awareness of what one is good at doing and what is out of reach of one's ability and personal attributes
Another critic of the show was Richard Ingrams, then television reviewer for The Spectator. Cleese got his revenge by naming one of the guests in the second series 'Mr Ingrams', who is caught in his room with a blow up doll.
In an interview for the "TV Characters" edition of Channel 4's 'talking heads' strand 100 Greatest (in which Basil placed second, between Homer Simpson and Edmund Blackadder), TV critic A. A. Gill theorised that the initially muted response may have been due to Cleese seemingly ditching his label as a comic revolutionary - earned through his years with Python - to do something more traditional. He also admitted that he had been one of that chorus when he was young (despite his mother, Yvonne Gilan, being in one of the episodes; she played the saucy French woman in "The Wedding Party"). According to Gill, "that shows you what I know about this business."
More recently, in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the BBC's "Britain's Best Sitcom" poll in 2004 and second only to Frasier in The Ultimate Sitcom poll of comedy writers in January 2006. Basil Fawlty came top of the Britain's Funniest Comedy Character poll, held by Five on 14 May 2006.
The popular sitcoms 3rd Rock From The Sun and Cheers (both of which Cleese appeared in) have cited Fawlty Towers as an inspiration, especially regarding its depiction of a dysfunctional "family" in the workplace. Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan have also cited Fawlty Towers as one of the major influence on their sitcom Father Ted.
Several of the characters have made other appearances, as spin-offs or in small cameo roles. In 1984, in character as Manuel, Andrew Sachs recorded his own version of the Joe Dolce cod-Italian song "Shaddap You Face" (with the B-side "Waiter, There's a Spanish Flea in My Soup"). However, the record was not released after Joe Dolce took out an injunction; he was about to issue his version in Britain. Gilly Flower and Renee Roberts, who played Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby in the series, reprised the roles in a 1983 episode of Only Fools and Horses. In 2006, Cleese played Basil Fawlty for the first time in 27 years, for an unofficial England 2006 World Cup song, "Don't Mention the War", named after the phrase Basil famously used in "The Germans". In 2007, Cleese and Sachs reprised their roles for a six-episode corporate video for Norwegian oil company Statoil. In the video, Fawlty is running a restaurant called "Basil's Brasserie", while Manuel owns a Michelin Star restaurant in London.
In November 2007, Prunella Scales returned to the role of Sybil Fawlty in a series of sketches for the BBC's annual Children in Need charity telethon. The character was seen taking over the management of the eponymous hotel from the BBC drama series Hotel Babylon, interacting with characters from that programme as well as other 1970s sitcom characters. The character of Sybil was used by permission of John Cleese.