Like many Monty Python addicts, I’m also a fan of Fawlty Towers, John Cleese’s series set at a small hotel in Torquay, on the coast of Britain. Cleese played innkeeper Basil Fawlty, basing the character on a “marvelously rude” innkeeper he had met when the Pythons were filming in Torquay years before. Other main characters included Fawlty’s patient and practical wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), a confused Spanish waiter, Manuel (Andrew Sachs), and a waitress, Polly (played by Connie Booth, Cleese’s wife at the time, and the show’s co-creator with him). A typical Fawlty Towers episode involved Basil’s attempts to impress his guests while at the same time hating most of them, and being perpetually annoyed by his wife and the hotel staff. In 2000, the show topped the British Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest British Television Programmes, ahead of such series as Doctor Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Only a dozen Fawlty Towers episodes were produced and aired on the BBC—six in 1975 and six more in 1979. Each one often took months to write, which accounts for the delay between series. Cleese refused to do a third series because he was concerned about running out of material, a concern that had caused him to leave Monty Python’s Flying Circus before the end of that show’s run. (He actually had to be talked into staying with Python after the first series of 13 episodes.)
The first series of Fawlty Towers began playing in the United States on PBS in 1977. On several occasions since then, American producers have tried to modify the formula for network viewers, but without success. Harvey Korman and Betty White starred in a 1978 pilot called Chateau Snavely that never saw air. Bea Arthur played the Basil role in Amanda’s by the Sea, which ran briefly in 1983. Most recently, John Larroquette produced and starred in Payne, which lasted eight episodes in 1999, and which borrowed liberally from the plots of Fawlty Towers episodes. The casting of Arthur and Larroquette, both capable of playing lovably nasty characters, seems right enough on the surface—but in Fawlty Towers, Cleese is not just lovably nasty. He plays Basil as a man who often has murder in his heart but who could never follow through, largely because he’s terrified of other people, especially his wife. That’s a subtle characterization, and American sitcoms don’t do subtlety well. In addition, much of the humor in Fawlty Towers comes from Basil’s attempts to impress people of higher social classes—a dimension that’s largely incomprehensible to Americans, although Payne attempted to finesse the issue by making its Basil character (rather obviously named Royal Payne) obsessed with a second, fancier hotel located nearby.
Fawlty Towers got three VHS releases in the 80s and 90s, and it first came out on DVD in 2001. This week, a newly remastered 30th anniversary DVD set is being released. The set features all-new commentaries by Cleese on every episode plus new cast interviews and documentary material. The Facebook page for the new set is here. There’s also information about the set here. It’s a good excuse to watch the series again, or to discover it for the first time.
Recommended Reading: An entirely predictable edition of One Day in Your Life is up at Popdose. Also, check out the autumn playlist at My hmphs. I would have discovered few of these songs on my own, but I’m glad to know about them now.