Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In honor of comedic actor, John Cleese, today’s entry looks at one of the most highly regarded British sitcoms ever produced, Fawlty Towers (1975, 1979; BBC2). Based on a real life hotel owner in Torquay, Donald Sinclar, Fawlty Towers stars series creator Cleese as the highly-strung, prudish, and social climbing Basil Fawlty, owner of a small hotel on the British Riviera. Working alongside him is his wife, the bossy Sybil (Prunella Scales), a bumbling spanish waiter, Manuel (Andrew Sachs), and level headed waitress Polly, played by Cleese’s then wife and series co-creator Connie Booth. Only twelve episodes were produced — six in 1975 and six in 1979 (during which time Cleese and Booth divorced). The show was not a major hit in its debut season, but popular and critical opinion grew, and following syndication on both sides of the Atlantic, both the U.S. and U.K. have come to consider this series as one of Britain’s funniest.
The duo took pains to make sure that each script was in great shape, and indeed, every single episode is a winner, with several commendable moments and bits. The series’ hallmark is farce, and the more manic the story can make Basil, the better the comedy. Part of the show’s appeal, with hindsight, also stems from its brevity; with only 12 episodes, there is no time for the proceedings to grow stale or grating. This is imperative, for although the situations are brilliantly designed and the dialogue smartly crafted, the only character afforded complete multi-dimensionality is Basil. The others, particularly the meandering Polly, function only as each script allows them. I don’t mean this critique to be disparaging, for the luxury of the shortened seasons (or series, as they’re called over there) means that comedy is the only objective and the other narrative mumbo jumbo is unnecessary, for longevity is not a goal. That’s why Fawlty Towers is so special. It’s short, sweet, and loaded with laughs.
Every Fawlty Towers fan will have a different opinion as to which episodes are the best. That’s because, as mentioned above, they’re all of a high quality. But I intend to share with you my top three favorites, which I think are each among the finest non-American comedic television installments of the decade. Note that every episode is written by John Cleese & Connie Booth.
01) Episode 6: “The Germans” (Aired: 10/24/75)
Basil has a lot on his plate when Sybil is in the hospital for an ingrown toenail.
Directed by John Howard Davies
Voted one of the funniest sitcom episodes ever produced, this is easily, without a doubt, the hands down, best episode of Fawlty Towers. It begins with Sybil in the hospital for an ingrown toenail, moves to the hotel, where Basil has a heck of a time trying to hang up a moose head (which yields a generous supply of physical comedy, at which Cleese is expert) and continues into a riotous sequence in which Basil and the guests find themselves at odds during a pre-scheduled fire drill. Then we go back to the hospital where Basil (who fainted when an actual fire gets started by Manuel in the kitchen) shares a room with Sybil, and return to the hotel for a climax when the delirious Basil, who’s escaped from his room, makes a fool of himself in front of a bunch of German guests by goose stepping and over-mentioning “the war”. The last sequence, with the “don’t mentioned the war” catchphrase is cited as being a comedic tour de force; it is. But I think the best bit is the fire drill, in which several different ringing sounds conspire to drive Basil insane. If you only see one Fawlty Towers episode, make it this one.
02) Episode 8: “The Psychiatrist” (Aired: 02/26/79)
Basil’s guests think he’s nuts when he tries to catch a male guest in a tryst with a young woman.
Directed by Bob Spiers
This is Fawlty Towers’ version of a bedroom farce (and a companion piece, of sorts, to the prior season’s “The Wedding Party”) and it works exceptionally well in this setting, because there are a lot of doors and stairs and rooms from which characters can run. The premise is hinged around Basil’s previously established trait of being prudish when it comes to the personal proclivities of his guests, actualizing itself in his crusade to catch a swinging bachelor with a girl that Basil’s sure has been snuck up to his room. But his attempts to catch the lad redhanded backfire because of a young Australian woman (whom Sybil catches Basil accidentally groping — it’s a hysterical bit) and a confused psychiatrist with his wife, who are staying next door. The show works best when Basil is on a campaign that’s completely ludicrous to everyone but him, and “The Psychiatrist” is the epitome of this idea.
03) Episode 10: “The Kipper And The Corpse” (Aired: 03/12/79)
Basil and staff try to hide a dead guest from the other patrons.
Directed by Bob Spiers
We may take a premise like this for granted, because we’ve seen it on a lot of shows (including Cheers, which owed a lot to Fawlty Towers, and Cleese himself even made a well remembered appearance — and won an Emmy — for a fifth season episode). But Fawlty Towers does it expertly, because it uses the corpse itself as a tool for employing more of that nuanced physical comedy. The hijinks are ridiculous (and would stretch the bounds of believability on a show that didn’t get the tone right), but I’m particularly awed by the bit in which Basil and Manuel try to hide the body of the dead man (along with an old lady guest who fainted when she saw the corpse) in the room of a pair of guests whom they’re trying to keep from finding out. Cleese is as hysterical — both comedically and manically — as ever, and this story is one of the series’ most memorable. Wunderbar — marvelous comedy!
Were I to pick two more episodes to highlight, they would be “The Hotel Inspectors” and “Gourmet Night,” both from the first season. But again, all episodes are commendable.
Come back next Wednesday for coverage on the faulty American adaptations of Fawlty Towers! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules!