Basil Fawlty

Basil Fawlty is the major character in the British sitcom Fawlty Towers, played by John Cleese. The character is often thought of as an iconic British comedy character, and has been deemed unforgettable despite only a dozen half-hour episodes ever being made.


Basil is a snobbish, miserly, xenophobic and sexually repressed paranoiac misanthrope who is desperate to belong to a higher social class. He sees the successful running of the hotel as a means of achieving this ("turn it into an establishment of class..."), yet his job forces him to be pleasant to people he despises or aspires to be above socially. His unstoppable wife Sybil will often get in the way of Basil's treatment towards the guests, often trying to bridge the peace, or pick up the pieces, to quite limited avail.

While he is terrified of his wife's sharp tongue, he wishes to stand up to her and his plans often conflict with her wishes. She is often verbally abusive towards him (describing him as "an ageing, brilliantined stick insect") and though he is much taller than Sybil, he often finds himself on the receiving end of Sybil's 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, and as such he gained a reputation as an unabashed prevaricator.

Basil takes many of his frustrations out on the hapless Manuel, physically abusing him in a variety of ways. On occasions he also assaults others, such as strangling the guest Mr. Hutchinson in "The Hotel Inspectors", kneeing Major Gowen in "Basil the Rat", and even—most famously—striking his "vicious bastard" of a car in "Gourmet Night" with a tree branch when it refuses to move.

Another eccentricity affecting Basil is that of occasionally swapping words around in a sentence while propounding a falsehood, for instance in "The Anniversary" when he announces to the party guests that it's "perfectly Sybil! Simple's not well. She's lost her throat and her voice hurts", and – less obviously – reassuring himself as much as his wife in "The Wedding Party" that the sound of knocking on his bedroom door was "probably some key who forgot the guest for their door". He also has difficulty disconnecting his thought-process from an unrelated incident, as in "The Wedding Party", when he is looking through life-drawing pictures and answers the telephone with, "Hello, Fawlty Titties?" or in "The Psychiatrist", where, after inadvertently staining the chest area of a female guest with paint, he realises that Sybil has noticed, but then in confusion puts his hands all over the woman's breasts as a means of stopping her from seeing it.

Basil served in the Catering Corps of the British Army, possibly as part of his National Service, but makes it seem as if he had been a soldier. He claims: "I fought in the Korean War, you know, I killed four men" to which his wife jokingly replies to the threat, "he was in the Catering Corps; he used to poison them". He is often seen wearing a military tie and a military-type moustache. Fawlty also claims to have sustained a shrapnel injury to his leg in the Korean War, which has a tendency to flare up at convenient moments - usually when Sybil asks him an awkward question.

John 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. He has also made the point that on account of Basil's inner need to conflict with his wife's wishes, "Basil couldn't be Basil if he didn't have Sybil."

He has a slight soft spot for doctors, having aspired to be one himself (however Sybil says that he couldn't even be a tree surgeon: couldn't stand the sight of sap). Basil is constantly maniacally depressed, intimidating towards guests, and liable to pick up a tail-end of a situation and turning it into a farcical misunderstanding. Basil is known for his tight-fisted mannerisms, employing inexperienced builder O'Reilly in "The Builders" because he was a cheaper alternative, and more importantly Manuel, who was in a similar boat.

Basil has been married to Sybil for fifteen years, as stated in the episode "The Anniversary". He very rarely shows any signs of real love for his long-suffering wife ("my little piranha-fish" is one of the kindest epithets he bestows on her), and vice-versa. Sybil's friend Audrey will often be the only support she gets. Ironically, "The Anniversary" was one of the few episodes in which Basil was the one trying to be nice, and Sybil was the one who had misread the situation (i.e., thinking he had forgotten what day it was).

John Cleese reprised the role of Basil in the song "Don't Mention the War", based on the situation in the episode "The Germans", for the 2006 Germany FIFA World Cup. This same phrase, "Don't Mention the War", was used as the title of the first episode of a 5-part BBC documentary series When Rover Met BMW.


Fawlty Towers was inspired by the Monty Python team's stay in the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming for the Python show had finished. The owner, Mr. Donald Sinclair, was very rude, throwing a bus timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive and placing Eric Idle's suitcase behind a wall in the garden in case it contained a bomb (actually it contained a ticking alarm clock). He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam's table manners for being too American (he had the fork in the "wrong" hand while eating), and it is reasonable to assume that his treatment of Gilliam partially inspired Basil's treatment of an American visitor in the episode Waldorf Salad. Cleese used the name, Donald Sinclair for his character in the 2001 film Rat Race. In the episode Gourmet Night, Fawlty refers to a local hotel or restaurant called "Gleneagles" while talking to Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs.

Libel case

In 1989, Cleese successfully sued the Daily Mirror for libel when it described him becoming like his character Basil Fawlty.


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