Considered 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.
Like 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.
Cleese 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.
Fawlty 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.
Powerless 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.
Such 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.
Beyond 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 hands.
The 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 Sachs
Polly................................................... Connie Booth
Major Gowen ...................................Ballard Berkeley
Miss Tibbs............................................ Gilly Flower
Miss Gatsby ......................................Renee Roberts
John Howard Davies, Douglas Argent
12 30-minute episodes
19 September 1975-24 October 1975
19 February 1979-26 March 1979
Cleese, John, and Connie Booth. The Complete Fawlty Towers. London: Methuen, 1988.
Skynner, Robin A. C., and John Cleese. Families and How To Survive Them. London: Methuen, 1983.
Wilmut, Roger. From Fringe To Flying Circus. London: Methuen, 1980.