to be one of the finest and funniest examples of British situation
comedy, Fawlty Towers has become a critical and popular success
throughout the world to the extent that all twelve of its episodes
can stand as classics in their own right. The series succeeded in
combining the fundamentals of British sitcom both with the traditions
of British theatrical farce and with the kind of licensed craziness
for which John Cleese had already gained an international reputation
in Monty Python's Flying Circus. Comic writing of the highest
quality, allied to painstaking attention to structure and detail,
enabled Fawlty Towers to depict an extraordinarily zany world
without departing from the crucial requirement of sitcom--the maintenance
of a plausible and internally consistent setting.
so many sitcoms, the premise was simple, stable and rooted in everyday
life (reputedly being based on the proprietor of a genuine Torquay
hotel in which Cleese and the Monty Python team stayed whilst
shooting location footage). Basil Fawlty (Cleese) and his wife Sybil
(Prunella Scales) ran the down-at-heel seaside hotel of the title
hampered by a lovingly-drawn cast of believable characters embellished
in varying degrees from comic stereotype. Yet Fawlty Towers stood
out from the commonplace through its intensity of pace and exceptional
characterisation and performance, with the result that otherwise
simple narratives were propelled, through the pandemonium generated
by Basil and Sybil's prickly relationship, to absurd conclusions.
played Basil as a man whose uneasy charm and resigned awkwardness
scarcely contained his inner turmoil. An inveterate snob, he was
trapped between his dread of Sybil's wrath and his contempt for
the most of the hotel's guests--the "riff-raff" whose petty demands
seemed to interfere with its smooth running. In Sybil, Prunella
Scales created a character which was the equal of Basil in plausible
idiosyncrasy--more practical than him but entirely unsympathetic
to his feelings, a gossiping, over-dressed put-down expert who could
nevertheless be the soul of tact when dealing with guests.
Towers turned on their relationship--an uneasy truce of withering
looks and acidic banter born of her continual impatience at his
incompetence and pomposity. For Basil, Sybil was "a rancorous coiffeured
old sow" while she called him "an ageing brilliantined stick insect".
With Basil capable of being pitched into wild panic or manic petulance
at the slightest difficulty, the potential was always present for
the most explosive disorder.
against Sybil, Basil vented his frustrations on Manuel (Andrew Sachs),
the ever-hopeful Spanish waiter, whom he bullied relentlessly and
with exaggerated cruelty. Manuel's few words of English and obsessive
literalism ("I know nothing") drew on the comic stereotype of the
"funny foreigner" but reversed it to make him the focus of audience
sympathy, especially in later episodes. When the final show revealed
Manuel's devotion to his pet hamster (actually a rat!), it was gratifying
to find it named "Basil".
Connie Booth, co-writer of the series and Cleese's wife at the time,
completed the principal characters as Polly, a beacon of relative
calm in the unbalanced world of Fawlty Towers. As a student
helping out in the hotel, her role was often to dispense sympathy,
ameliorating the worst of Basil's excesses or Manuel's misunderstandings.
was Cleese's reputation, however, that even the smaller roles could
be cast from the top-drawer of British comedy actors. Amongst these
were Bernard Cribbins, Ken Campbell and, most notably of all, Joan
Sanderson, whose performance as the irascible and deaf Mrs. Richards
remains her most memorable in a long and successful career.
the tangled power relations of its principal characters, a large
part of the comic appeal of Fawlty Towers lay in its combination
of the familiar sitcom structure with escalating riffs of Pythonesque
excess. The opening of each episode (with hackneyed theme, stock
shots and inexplicably rearranged name-board) and the satisfying
circularity of their plotting shared with the audience a "knowingness"
about the norms of sitcom. Yet it was this haven of predictable
composition which gave licence to otherwise grotesque or outlandish
displays which challenged the bounds of acceptability in domestic
comedy. Basil thrashing his stalled car with a tree-branch, concealing
the corpse of a dead guest or breaking into Hitlerian goose-stepping
before a party of Germans were incidents outside the traditional
capacity of the form which could have been disastrous in lesser
British practice of making sitcoms in short series gave Cleese and
Booth the luxury of painstaking attention to script and structure
which was reflected in the show's consistent high quality. An interval
of nearly four years separated the two series of Fawlty Towers
and some episodes took four months and as many as ten drafts
to complete. Perhaps as a result, the preoccupations of the series
reflected those of the authors themselves. Basil's character was
a study in the suppression of anger, a subject later explored in
Cleese's popular psychology books. This, together with an acute
concern with class, contributed to the peculiarly English flavour
of the series and may have had its roots in his boyhood. A long-standing
fascination with communication problems seems to have been the motivation
for the creation of Manuel and is characteristic of much of the
interaction in the show (as well as being the title of the episode
involving Mrs. Richards).
Fawlty Towers has been shown repeatedly throughout the world.
In 1977-78 alone it was sold to 45 stations in 17 countries, becoming
the BBC's best-selling programme overseas for the year, although
the treatment of Manuel caused great offence at the 1979 Montreux
Light Entertainment Festival where Fawlty Towers was a notorious
flop. More recently, however, it has successfully been dubbed into
Spanish with Manuel refashioned as an Italian. In Britain, Fawlty
Towers has almost attained the status of a national treasure
and Basil's rages and many of his more outlandish outbursts ("He's
from Barcelona", "Whatever you do, don't mention the war", "My wife
will explain") have passed into common currency.
Basil Fawlty ..........................................John
Cleese Sybil Fawlty.....................................
Prunella Scales Manuel ..............................................Andrew
Connie Booth Major Gowen ...................................Ballard
Berkeley Miss Tibbs............................................
Gilly Flower Miss Gatsby ......................................Renee
John Howard Davies, Douglas Argent
HISTORY 12 30-minute episodes
19 September 1975-24 October 1975
19 February 1979-26 March 1979
John, and Connie Booth. The Complete Fawlty Towers. London:
Robin A. C., and John Cleese. Families and How To Survive Them.
London: Methuen, 1983.
Roger. From Fringe To Flying Circus. London: Methuen, 1980.