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The impact Fawlty Towers has had on our collective conscience is overwhelming. It is the sitcom by which all other sitcoms are judged (whether they like it or not) and it remains the jewel in the BBCs rich comedy crown.
Written by ex-Python John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, the show focuses on Basil Fawlty, the rude, downtrodden and overworked owner of Fawlty Towers, a fictional hotel in Torquay, or the ‘English Riviera’.
When Cleese and Booth presented the first script to Jimmy Gilbert, the BBCs Head of Comedy, he said ‘this is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster.’ Gotta love TV executives.
Each episode (as well as having a running gag where the hotel sign is spelled differently) centres around the adventures, misadventures and exploits of miserly misanthrope Basil, his wife Sybil, Spanish waiter and porter Manuel and pretty chambermaid Polly. It would be remiss of us here to try and describe any individual scene because of the lack of context but the innuendo and farce as well as the eccentricities and the tests of patience are majestically written and delivered with perfection.
While the production values are very 70s, they don’t distract from the hilarity. Not one bit.
Whether it was a budgetary decision or pure genius on the parts of Cleese and Booth, only 12 episodes were filmed and unlike long-running sitcoms, jokes and character traits can end up getting tired and cliché but here they don’t. The Office followed suit and before that, so did The Young Ones.
Writing in The Observer, Clive James noted that the second episode of series two had him ‘retching with laughter’ and in the British Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Television Programmes, Fawlty Towers sits rightfully at the top of the list.
To the casual observer, Fawlty Towers was a very funny sitcom but it’s more than that. Cheers, 3rd Rock from the Sun and Father Ted (amongst many, many others) have cited the show as a major influence and as the litmus test of longevity, we are still using quotes from the show in everyday parlance.
Fawlty Towers Trivia
When the Monty Python team stayed at Torquay’s Gleneagles Hotel in 1971, John Cleese became fascinated with the hotel’s owner and described him as ‘the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life.’
Rumours have persisted for years that there’s a ‘missing episode’ about a hotel black-out. Cast, crew and writers have vehemently denied its existence and the BBC has no supporting documentation. An example of why the Internet was invented…
Cleese and Booth were married during the first series but divorced when the second series came around some four years later.
In The Builders episode, the actor who plays Lurphy went on to play the ‘orrible Mr Baxter in Grange Hill!
Basil used a real frying pan instead of a fake one to hit Manuel over the head and actor Andrew Sachs spent two days nursing an almighty headache!
In the scene in The Germans when Manuel sets himself on fire, the chemical mixture on his jacket burned through to his skin and left him with second-degree burns. Andrew Sachs sued the BBC for damages!
Some of our favourite Fawlty Towers quotes…
Basil: Can’t we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? Next contestant – Sybil Fawlty from Torquay, specialist subject: the bleedin’ obvious.
Basil: Come on, start, will you? Start, you vicious bastard! Come on! I’m warning you: If you don’t start … I’ll count to three: One … two … three! Right, that’s it! You’ve tried it on just once too often. Right. Well, don’t say I haven’t warned you! I’ve laid it on the line to you time and time again! Right! Well, this is it! I’m going to give you a damn good thrashing!
Basil: Listen, don’t mention the war. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it. So! It’s all forgotten now, and let’s hear no more about it. So, that’s two egg mayonnaise, a prawn Goebbels, a Hermann Goering and four Colditz salads.
Basil: Is there something wrong?
Elder Herr: Will you stop talking about the war?
Basil: Me! You started it.
Elder Herr: We did not start it!
Basil: Yes you did – you invaded Poland.
Mrs Richards: When I pay for a room with a view, I expect something more interesting than that.
Basil: That is Torquay madam.
Mrs Richards: Well it’s not good enough.
Basil: Well, may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically…?
The Stars of Fawlty Towers – Where Are They Now
He is one of, if not the greatest comedy talent Britain has ever produced. After the phenomenal global success of Python came Fawlty Towers, then A Fish Called Wanda which he also directed, then Fierce Creatures, Clockwise, two James Bond movies (The World Is Not Enough as R and Die Another Day as Q), two Harry Potter films (The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets) and three Shrek films! In November 2013, he, alongside Palin, Idle, Gilliam and Jones announced a Python comeback!
She co-wrote Fawlty Towers with her then-husband John Cleese (they divorced amicably in 1978) and went on to have a steady if not glittering acting career. She quit showbiz in 1995 and after a five year degree at London University, she is now a psychotherapist practising in London.
Married since 1963 to fellow thesp Timothy West, she is one of our finest actresses and has enjoyed a continuous TV and theatre career since the early 1950s. To younger viewers, she maybe most recognisable as Henry’s Aunt Greta in Horrid Henry: The Movie in 2011!
He has enjoyed a sterling showbiz career in dozens of dramas plays and comedies, both on TV and the stage. He’s also voiced TV and radio documentaries as well as appearing in an online animated version of Shada, a Doctor Who story. Most recently, he is most well known for being the victim of an utterly inappropriate Radio 2 stunt by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, which ultimately cost them their jobs.