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Fawlty Towers — a primer

April 9th, 2010 · 7 Comments · Movies



It was written / created post Monty Python (1969-74), by John Cleese and his wife, Connie Booth.  He had an opportunity to do “something” for the BBC, so they came up with doing a grumpy hotel manager, which was based on a recent film shoot by the Pythons making Holy Grail or something in the south of England.  They stayed at the Glen Eagles Hotel, run by a crazy owner that Cleese then based Fawlty Towers on.

First they made only 6 half-hour episodes.

Then 2 ½ years later, after Cleese & Connie broke up, they made six more.  (they’re all great – it didn’t have time to go downhill)

It’s only 4 main characters (with guests each week) and 12 episodes:

(think of other foursomes:  Seinfeld, All In The Family, The Beatles)

Cleese / Basil Fawlty – the fulcrum.  the essence of his character is he runs a hotel but hates his guests.  And he’s not too keen on his wife, the maid, the waiter, or anybody else who happens to come thru the door.  He’s also not big on working very hard.

Connie Booth / Polly, the co-creator, plays the maid.  Cleese’s wife when they made the first 6 episodes, and they were ex’s when they made the 2nd 6.

Prunella Scales / Sybil Fawlty, who plays Basil’s (Cleese’s) wife did much to create the role herself, and after the first rehearsals Cleese & Connie began to write it with Pru’s character more than the character they’d originally envisioned.

Andrew Sachs / Manuel is the waiter/bellboy.  Sachs is a major British Shakespearean actor.  I watched the show for about 15 years before I found out the guy wasn’t really Spanish.  (maybe I shouldn’t have told you.   : ) )  He won a BAFTA (British TV Oscar) for this performance.

That’s the core quartet – Basil & his wife, the maid, and the bellboy.

And then whoever comes to the hotel each episode.

In the second six episodes they added Terry, the chef.

Oh, one other guy – everybody, including Cleese and Connie’s favorite character — the Major, the dottering old British guy who’s a long-term guest at the hotel.  Also played by a top of the line British theater actor, Ballard Barkley.

It almost all takes place in the lobby of the hotel.

and then secondarily, in the restaurant, bar, office, or upstairs rooms.

I think there’s only 3 episodes with any scene beyond the hotel.

ie; it’s stage theater.

And it’s all shot live in front of an audience.

Wonderfully, you’ll eventually notice little “theatrical” screw-ups – in fact in episode 3 The Wedding Party, 3 different times the other actors can be seen cracking up at Basil/Cleese’s character.

First, at the end of the opening scene with Connie & Cleese behind the desk; Cleese improvises and says in character, “Oh, you find this funny, do you?”

second, Basil’s lobby soliloque ¾ of the way thru

and then third right near the end when Pru is trying to get in the bedroom.

One of the guest stars said in an interview how hard it was for them to stay in character and not break out laughing.

They only did a couple of rehearsals, and since a lot of it was just about blocking and stage directions, they didn’t get to see Cleese in his full character blazing away.

And the guest stars – Cleese has cited the casting director as being so key, and he’s right.  Pretty much all the guest actors each episode are perfect, and most of them are actor’s actors who all did major un-Hollywood work.

It was all done absolutely bottom-barrel BBC, so there was no budget for retakes.  ie it’s pretty much all one take.

In episode 7, (series 2, ep 1) Prunella throws coffee in Cleese’s face – but she misses!  and unintentionally throws it right the Major’s face.  but they keep playing the scene.  And if you look really close you can see the Major is just dripping with coffee.

Also, a couple of the episodes take place in real time, basically 28 minutes of life at Fawlty Towers.  as a writer and a student of writing, there’s just nothing better that’s ever been done.  Cleese talks about how he & Connie worked for weeks and weeks on each episode to tighten them down.  no question Seinfeld and Larry David studied the hell out of these.  it’s the standard nobody’s ever reached.  but Seinfeld came the closest for laugh-lines-per-second.  but sadly “Seinfeld” doesn’t hold up today anywhere Close to Fawlty, which just shows how transcendent it was.

Also, being BBC, the episodes are not forced into a 23 minute script, which is SO to their advantage.  the lengths vary between 28 and 35 minutes.  and they don’t have to structure in ads.  So, American comedies did have unfortunate limitations this “half-hour” show did not.

The “problem” with Monty Python’s Flying Circus was that the characters could never develop because they only existed for 3 minutes or so in a single sketch.  and the problem with their movies was that they were drawing out a single premise for 90 minutes or 2 hours.  with Fawlty Towers, the characters continue, but each premise is only worked out for 30 minutes.  ten times longer than a sketch, and just the best quarter of a movie.

As a wiseman once said, “I envy those who have these yet to discover.”

Savor them.  don’t watch more than 2 or 3 (tops) at a time;  I even suggest just one.  let em sink in, draw it out.  Plus, they’re phucking exhausting to watch!  If you live it, you’re just drained by the end of one!

Remember:  you can only see them for the 1st time once.

But it’s also something that actually gets even funnier the more times you see it – because of the depth & strength of the four main characters.  It Really seems like these people have been working and living together for years.  I’ve seen every episode probably 20 or more times and still end up laughing through every one every time.

Watch for the evolution of the hotel’s sign in the opening credits.

Series 1: A Touch of Class, The Builders, The Wedding Party, Hotel Inspectors, Gourmet Night, The Germans.

Series 2: Communication Problems, The Psychiatrist, Waldorf Salad, Kipper and The Corpse, The Anniversary, Basil The Rat.

Episode 1 – “A Touch of Class” – the “pilot” experimental episode, the birth of the characters and series.  There was a different production crew, cameramen, editor, make-up and lighting from the middle 10 episodes.  The final episode (12, Basil The Rat) was also different crew due to a BBC strike.

theme:  class.

Pru largely created her character but based on the script Cleese & Connie created.  But once she “became” Sybil in the taping of this episode, they forever wrote Sybil for Pru’s creation.

one of only three episodes with a scene beyond the hotel.

It opens with a joke that works better on paper than stage — one of the very few in over 6+ hours that don’t totally work.  Basil is saying “on those trays” but Manuel hears “Uno, dos, tres” as tho Basil’s trying to count in Spanish.  It’s just weird funny that the first note is a little flat.

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For a detailed riff on the other funniest show of all time, check out Seinfeld and The Beatles and The Beats and such.

Or for some other funny shorts on the Merry Pranksters and other Crazy Characters check out Makin’ Movies.

Or for a similarly well-casted and written movie check out Lucky Numbers.

Or another funny twisted crazy movie — My Dinner With Jimi.

For an overview of all the movies fit to watch see Brian’s Hot 300.

For more comedic fantasy check out The Secret Life of Winifred Mitty.

Or for an encounter with another funny guy, check out The Franken Fracas.

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Brian Hassett

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Cassady // Apr 10, 2010 at 7:44 PM

    Nothing “Beats” British comedy!

  • 2 Brad Verebay // Apr 11, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    Thanks for the background. Look forward to seeing it.

  • 3 Joe Myles // Apr 12, 2010 at 3:09 AM

    We grew up on this!!! It’s only the bloody Americans who need to learn about it!!!

  • 4 Susan Howard // Apr 24, 2010 at 10:31 PM

    I always loved how it’s done like a play … the sets, the audience responding, the one-take performance … it really feels like you’re in the West End in London.

  • 5 Kurt Westbrook // Jun 7, 2010 at 7:13 PM

    Funniest show in the history of television. Period.

  • 6 Brian Humniski // Jun 28, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Amazing history to an amazing show. And Cleese is so right to have never made more. Not even he would be able to top this.

  • 7 Mike Bruner // Sep 22, 2013 at 11:37 PM

    The one and only! I could watch any episode a thousand times and never get tired of it.

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