It was when Monty Python were filming in the small southern seaside town of Torquay that one of the best comedies of all time was discovered.
Tired from filming, the Python crew were put up in a hotel run by Donald Sinclair, who according to Michael Palin, acted as though the guests were a major inconvenience. His antics including critiquing “too American” eating, throwing a briefcase out the window “in case it contained a bomb” and being unwilling to serve drinks at lunchtime. Basil Fawlty was born. John Cleese witnessed these events to some amusement, plotting the format of what would become Fawlty Towers.
Alongside his then-wife Connie Booth, Cleese devised a perfect formula. The mixture of slapstick, observational, and surrealist humour built on a brilliant cast, tight script, and a wobbly set, has meant that the show remains as fresh as it did when it first aired in 1975, as well as still being one of Britain’s most popular TV exports. People are often surprised when realising there were only 12 episodes. The simple, yet jam-packed plots that slowly become more and more outrageous make it feel as though there is far more content than there actually was.
The characters are brilliantly constructed and the chemistry between them undoubtedly aids the hilarity that ensues in each episode. The owner, eccentric and neurotic Basil, is motivated by impressing guests of a “higher clientele” rather than his usual customers, some of which look “as though they had never sat on chairs before”. His wife, Sybil is disinterested in her husband’s antics, seemingly only still with him and the hotel through convenience. Polly the young maid, portrayed by Booth, is perhaps the most normal character, sensible and taken for granted by her employers. Finally, Manuel the Spanish waiter provides most of the slapstick humour, with his lack of a grasp of the English language creating several humorous problems.
There are some issues that may reduce its popularity today
Absurd but believable plots are what rounds this show off as a classic. The arrival of guests such as a con-man posing as a Lord, cowboy builders which remove the wrong doors, a spoons salesman who Basil is sure is a hotel inspector, and a woman who refuses to turn her hearing aid on in case it “wears the batteries down” all contribute to this fine show. However, being a product of its time, there are some issues that may reduce its popularity today. Particularly the final episode of the first series, ‘The Germans’ which is coincidentally considered by many to be the finest episode. Racist language is used by one of the elderly guests in a scene which is now often cut from TV repeats, plus the premise of German’s staying at the hotel whilst Basil, recovering from a concussion, mistakenly mentions the Second World War, which may be problematic for some. Although, in its defence, Cleese has always been open to the fact that the racism and xenophobic language and premise of the episode is more of a reflection on Britain’s own arrogance and world view, with the episode ending on the immortal line by a German guest “however did they win” after witnessing Basil chased through the hotel by a doctor from the hospital he had escaped from. The episode is incidentally one of the most popular in Germany.
The show easily still stands up today, coming up to 50 years since it first aired and arguably far better than similar sitcoms, some of which from the last decade. It is testament to the quintessentially British humour and drama, and will be enjoyed for years more to come.
Last modified: 19th November 2019