Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Yes folks, it's time to pay homage to one of the finest sit-coms ever to have graced the small screens. Fawlty Towers was produced by BBC Television and first broadcast on BBC 2 in 1975. Twelve episodes in total were produced (two series each of six episodes). The show was written by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, both of whom played major characters. The first series in 1975 was produced and directed by John Howard Davies; the second in 1979 was produced by Douglas Argent and directed by Bob Spiers.Inspired by the rude behaviour of the proprietor of a hotel in the seaside town of Torquay, on the"English Riviera", the show follows Basil Fawlty (Cleese) in his running of the fictional Fawlty Towers hotel in the same area. In a list of the 100 great British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the BBC's "Britain's Best Sitcom" poll in 2004.
In May 1970 the Monty Python team stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel (which is referred to in "The Builders" episode) in Torquay whilst filming on location. John Cleese became fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, whom Cleese later described as "the most marvellously rude man I've ever met." This behaviour included Sinclair throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive; and placing Eric Idle's bag (containing squash gear) behind a wall in the garden on the suspicion that it contained a bomb (it actually contained a ticking alarm clock). He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam's table manners for not being "British" (that is, he switched hands with his fork whilst eating). Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming, furthering their research of the hotel owner.
At the time, Cleese was a writer on the 1970s British TV sitcom Doctor In The House for London Weekend Television. An early prototype of the character that became 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) with a domineering wife. The show was broadcast on 30 May 1971. Cleese 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.
John Cleese said in 2009 that the first Fawlty Towers script, written with then-wife Connie Booth, was rejected by the BBC. At a 30th-anniversary event honouring the show, Cleese said,
"Connie and I wrote that first episode and we sent it in to Jimmy Gilbert," the executive "whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, and I can quote [his note to me] fairly accurately, 'This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster.' And Jimmy himself said, 'You're going to have to get them out of the hotel, John, you can't do the whole thing in the hotel.' Whereas, of course, it's in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up."
Cleese was paid £6,000 for 43 weeks' work and supplemented his income by appearing in television commercials
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, he gave the go-ahead. He said that the commercial channels, with their emphasis on audience ratings, would never have let the programme get to the production stage on the basis of the scripts.
Although the series is set in Torquay in Devon, none of it was shot in South West England. For the exterior filming, the Wooburn Grange Country Club in Buckinghamshire was used instead of a hotel. In several episodes of the series (notably The Kipper and the Corpse, The Anniversary and Basil The Rat) the entrance gate at the bottom of the drive states the real name of the location. This listed building later served as a nightclub named "Basil's" for a short time after the series ended before being destroyed by a fire in March 1991. The remnants of the building were demolished and a housing estate was built on the site. Other location filming was done mostly around Harrow, notably the 'damn good thrashing' scene in Gourmet Night where Basil loses his temper and attacks his car with a tree branch which was filmed at the T-junction of Lapstone Gardens and Mentmore Close.
In the episode "The Germans", the opening shot is of Northwick Park Hospital. In the episode "Gourmet Night", the exterior of Andre's restaurant was filmed on Preston Road in the Harrow area. The launderette next door to the restaurant still exists today and Andre's is now a Chinese restaurant called "Wings".
Cleese and Booth 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).
Both Cleese and Booth were so keen on every script being perfect, some episodes took four months and ten drafts to write until they were satisfied.
The series focuses on the exploits and misadventures of short-fused hotelier Basil Fawlty, his wife Sybil and their employees, Porter and waiter Manuel, maid Polly, and (in the second series) chef Terry.
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 socially conservative Basil) but it is his eccentricity, not his lust, that drives the plots. The events test what little patience Basil has to breaking point, sometimes causing him to all but have a total breakdown by the end of the episode.
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, working class or foreign). Requests both reasonable and impossible test his temper. Even the afflicted seem to annoy him, with the episode "Communication Problems" revolving around the havoc caused by the frequent misunderstandings between the staff and the hard-of-hearing Mrs Richards. By the end, Basil faints just at the mention of her name. This episode is typical of the show's careful weaving of humourous 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 Basil's comments to 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's physical outbursts are primarily directed at the waiter Manuel, an emotional but largely innocent Spaniard whose confused English vocabulary causes him to make elementary mistakes. Basil has beaten hapless Manuel with a frying pan and smacked Manuel's forehead with a spoon. The violence towards Manuel is one of the few reasons for the show's negative criticism. Sybil, on the other hand, is always condescending towards Manuel, excusing his behaviour to guests with, "oh, he's from Barcelona."
Basil often displays blatant snobbishness in order to climb the social ladder, frequently expressing disdain for the "riff-raff", "cretins" and "yobbos" that he believes to regularly populate his hotel. His desperation is readily apparent, as he makes increasingly hopeless manoeuvres and painful faux pas in trying to curry favour with those he perceives having superior social status. Yet, he finds himself forced to serve those individuals that are "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 to the breaking point.
Basil Fawlty played by comic genius John Cleese, is a snobbish and miserly misanthrope who is desperate to belong to a higher social class. He sees a successful 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.
He is terrified of his wife Sybil Fawlty. He yearns to stand up to her, but his plans frequently conflict with her demands. She is often verbally abusive (memorably describing him as "an ageing, brilliantined stick insect") but although he towers over her, he often finds himself on the receiving end of her temper, verbally and physically. Basil usually turns to Manuel or Polly to help him with his schemes, while trying his best to keep Sybil from discovering them. However, Basil occassionally laments the time when there was passion in their relationship, now seemingly lost. Also, it appears that he still does care for her. The penultimate episode — "The Anniversary" — is about his efforts to put together a surprise anniversary party, involving their closest friends. Things go wrong as Basil pretends the anniversary date doesn't remind him of anything, just to enhance the surprise (even accepting a slap in the process). Sybil believes he really forgot and leaves in a huff. In an interview in the DVD box set, Cleese claims that this episode deliberately takes a slightly different tone from the others, 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 similar episodes).
In keeping with the lack of explanation about the marriage, not much is revealed of the characters' back-stories. It is known that Basil served in the British Army and saw action in the Korean War, possibly as part of his National Service. (John Cleese was only 13 when the Korean War ended.) Basil exaggerates this period of his life, proclaiming to strangers: "I killed four men." To this Sybil 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 a shrapnel injury to his leg, although apparently it tends to flare up at suspiciously convenient times. The only person Basil consistently exhibits patience and decent manners towards is old and senile Major Gowen, a veteran officer of one of the World Wars (which one is never specified) who permanently resides at the hotel. When interacting with Manuel, Basil displays a rudimentary ability with Spanish( Basil states that he "learned classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he [Manuel] seems to have picked up"); this ability is also ridiculed, as in the first episode where a guest, whom Basil has immediately dismissed as a working-class bloke, communicates fluently with Manuel in Spanish after Basil was unable to do so.
Cleese 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 as being "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 feature guests who are shown to be deeply annoying with constant, and unreasonable demands. In "Gourmet Night", the chef gets drunk and is unable to cook dinner, leaving Basil to scramble in an attempt to salvage the evening. Much of the time, Basil is an unfortunate victim of circumstance.
Sybil Fawlty, played by Prunella Scales, is Basil's wife. Energetic and petite, she prefers a working wardrobe of tight skirt suits in shiny fabrics and sports a tower of permed hair necessitating the use of overnight curlers. She is often a more effective manager of the hotel, making sure Basil gets certain jobs done or stays out of the way when she is handling difficult customers. Despite this, she rarely participates directly in the running of the hotel; during busy check-in sessions or meal-times, while everyone else is busy working, she is frequently talking on the phone to one of her friends with her phrase "Oohhh, I knoooooooow", or chatting to customers. She has a distinctive conversational tone and braying laugh, which her husband compares to "someone machine-gunning a seal". Being his wife, she is the only regular character who refers to Basil by his first name. When she barks his name at him, he flinchingly freezes in his tracks.
Basil refers to her by a number of epithets, occasionally to her face, including "that golfing puff-adder", "the dragon", "toxic midget", "the sabre-toothed tart", "my little kommandant", "my little piranha fish", "my little nest of vipers", and "you rancorous, coiffured old sow". Despite these less than complimentary nicknames, Basil is terrified of her. There is only one time that he loses patience and snaps at her. Basil: "Shut up, I'm fed up.", Sybil :"Oh you've done it now."
Sybil and Basil Fawlty are said to have married on 17 April 1958 and started their hotel in 1960. Prunella Scales has said that the reason Sybil married Basil was because his origins were of a higher social class than hers. In Gourmet Night she recounts an anecdote about "Uncle Ted and his crate of brown ale." This and some of Sybil's behaviour suggests a working-class background
Polly Sherman, played by Connie Booth, is a waitress and general helper at the hotel. She often stands as the voice of sanity during chaotic moments, but is frequently embroiled in ridiculous masquerades as she loyally attempts to aid Basil in trying to cover a mistake or keep something from Sybil.
In "The Anniversary" she complied with Basil's request that she impersonate a purportedly ill Sybil in front of the Fawltys' closest friends, under the mask of semi-darkness and a makeshift disguise. In this case there was a condition: she would only assist him if he lent her the money he had previously refused to lend.
Polly is generally good-natured but sometimes shows her frustration, and odd moments of malice. In The Kipper and The Corpse, the pampered shih-tzu dog of an elderly guest bit Polly and Manuel.
As revenge Polly laced the dog's sausages with hot pepper, chilli powder and Tabasco Sauce causing it to take ill.
Polly is apparently employed part-time (during meal times). In the first series she is said to be an art student who, according to Basil, has spent 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" 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.
Manuel, a waiter played by Andreew Sachs, is a well-meaning but disorganised and confused Spaniard from Barcelona with a poor grasp of the English language and customs. He is verbally and physically abused by his boss. When told what to do, he often answers, "¿Qué?" ("What?"). Manuel's character was used to demonstrate Basil's instinctive lack of sensitivity and tolerance. Every episode would involve Basil becoming enraged at Manuel's confusion at his boss's bizarre demands and even basic requests. Manuel is afraid of Fawlty's quick temper and violent assaults, yet often expresses his appreciation for being given employment. He is relentlessly enthusiastic and is proud of what little English he knows.
During the series, Sachs was twice seriously injured while playing Manuel. Cleese describes using a real metal pan to knock him unconscious in "The Wedding Party", although he would have preferred to use a rubber one. The original producer/director, John Howard Davies, explains 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 to the type of comical farce that they were creating. Later, when his clothes were treated to give off smoke after he escapes the burning kitchen in "The Germans", the corrosive chemicals ate through them and gave Sachs severe burns.
Manuel's exaggerated Spanish accent is part of the humour of the show. His native language is German; he emigrated to Britain as a child.
The character's nationality was switched to Italian (and the name to Paolo) for the Spanish dub of the show, while in Catalonia he is a Mexican (still called Manuel).
The series was not held in as high esteem on its original broadcast as it later was. The Daily Mirror review of the show in 1975 had the headline "Long John Short On Jokes". Eventually though, as the series began to gain popularity, critical acclaim soon followed. Clive James writing in The Observer said the second episode had him "retching with laughter". By the time the series had ended, it was an overwhelming critical success. This did not stop the critic from Television Today from condemning such praise in an article on 14 September 1976, who called it:
"...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 caused by 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."
Three BAFTAs were awarded to people for their involvement with the series. Each of the two series was awarded the BAFTA in the category for "Best Situation Comedy", the first won by John Howard Davies in 1976, and the second by Douglas Argent and Bob Spiers in 1980. John Cleese won the BAFTA for "Best Light Entertainment Performance" in 1976.
More recently, in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Shows 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.