From Brit to American Sit: Adapting FAWLTY TOWERS for the Yanks

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Last week we discussed the classic British sitcom, Fawlty Towers (1975, 1979; BBC2). Today we’re looking at the three attempts to adapt the series over here. The first was in 1978, called Snavely [a.k.a. Chateau Snavely], and starred Harvey Korman in the Basil role and Betty White, fresh off her failed MTM sitcom, as his wife. A pilot was made for ABC, but not green-lit for series. The network did air it — once — in the summer of 1978. It was apparently quite close to its source material, but is unfortunately not in circulation today. Snavely is on a short list of ’70s pilots that I’d love to eventually track down (sharing company with Bachelor At Law and Harry And Maggie).

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The second adaptation was Amanda’s [a.k.a. Amanda’s By The Sea], which starred Bea Arthur and consisted of 13 episodes for ABC in the spring of 1983. Executive produced by former Maude writer Elliot Shoenman, Arthur agreed to the project after being delighted with Cleese’s performance and role in Fawlty Towers, upon which she was told the show would be based. Unfortunately, instead of making her Basil and casting a male Sybil, the decision was made to have Amanda be a widow, instead giving her a preppie son (Fred McCarren) and a spoiled rotten daughter-in-law (Simone Griffith) off of which to play. This was an unwise choice, for the son is as bland as unbuttered bread, and the daughter-in-law is less than one-dimensional. (Cleese was so disgusted that he took his name off the project.) But the series’ origins came more into play with the incorporation of a foreign waiter/bellboy (Tony Rosato) and a goofy chef (Rick Hurst). Early episodes utilized brief plot points of the original series, but it was quickly decided that something was missing. Keene Curtis was brought aboard as a banker and resident guest, intended to be a foil for Amanda. Eight episodes were filmed, six of which aired starting in February ’83 (against Magnum P.I. and Fame). With disappointing ratings and a disappointed star, Shoenman knew a change was in order.

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The show went on hiatus after a late March broadcast, and the team scrambled together a five episode arc (to complete their 13 show commitment) in which Kevin McCarthy joined the regular cast as Amanda’s brother-in-law, who moved in to help her manage the business, entered with her into a romantic relationship, and married her in the 13th and final episode. It was a fast development to be sure, but the thinking was that if this move worked, the show could go back to the Basil-Sybil dynamic, giving Arthur a full-fledged partner off of whom she could react. These episodes are infinitely better written than the preceding installments, which either were poor adaptations of Fawlty scripts or poor attempts to adopt the Fawlty tone. These later offerings are focused, original scripts, and every character, with the exception of the son and daughter-in-law, are put to good use. Arthur was reportedly pleased with the development. The show returned in May, but the ratings didn’t improve, and the show was canceled with only four of these new episodes broadcast (that’s ten in total). The remaining three were seen when the series entered cable syndication, and note that the entire series is, as of this writing, available on YouTube. Having seen them all, I’m here to share my favorites.

 

01) Episode 1: “All In A Day’s Work” (Aired: 02/10/83)

Amanda falls all over herself trying to please a hotel reviewer.

Written by Elliot Shoenman | Directed by John Rich

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The pilot episode of the series is an amalgamation of several Fawlty Towers bits, most notably “The Hotel Inspectors.” The biggest change involves the identity of the magazine reviewer, who, per the more obvious and American form of storytelling, is the disgruntled guest whom Amanda has been abusing in her mistaken attempt to please the man that she thinks is the critic. (Also new is the subplot of her flirtations with another guest). Of all the episodes before the reformatting, this easily has the strongest script — likely because the most time and energy went into it. Yet, all of the major flaws, namely the two kids, are present, giving you a good clue as to what will not work. However, for a taste of how the Britcom’s humor was translated for America, this episode, or the marginally inferior “I Ain’t Got Nobody” (a remake of “The Kipper And The Corpse”), are the ones to watch.

02) Episode 8: “I’m Dancing As Close As I Can” (Aired: 05/12/83)

Amanda is surprisingly giddy when Zack asks her for a date

Written by Bill Davenport & Sam Greenbaum | Directed by Howard Storm

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As the second in the five episode arc involving McCarthy as Arthur’s new love interest, this, produced as the tenth offering total, is obviously the one that works the best. McCarthy’s first episode introduces his character as Amanda’s brother-in-law and invites an antagonistic relationship between the pair, while this one sets up their romance. (The next three deal with their first physical encounter, the aftermath of that, and then their wedding.) I’m paraphrasing, but Arthur described these last five episodes as working because they’re driven by real people having conversations. Free from any need to match the energy of its source material, the show is allowed to explore the characters. And, as mentioned above, most (except the two “kids”) are viable. There are some genuine laughs, a well-written script, and great performances by Arthur, McCarthy, and Curtis. Definitely the best of the series.

 

The next adaptation of Fawlty Towers was Payne, which aired on CBS in the spring of ’99 and adhered closer to the structure established by Cleese and Booth. John Larroquette starred as Royal Payne, JoBeth Williams starred as his ball-busting wife, a young Julie Benz was the “straight man” waitress, and Rick Batalia was the foreign bellhop. Yet, aside from the character combination, nothing else remained from Fawlty Towers; only the pilot, aired fifth, uses story elements from the source material (yet Cleese didn’t take his name off of this one). The scripts are mediocre at best (too bland to even be considered bad), while the hotel setting is expanded into what seems like a bigger resort. Worst of all, however: Larroquette is utterly miscast in the role originated by Cleese. Without any of the snobbery or manic energy of his predecessor, Larroquette has nothing of the character to which he can cling except Basil’s penchant for scheming. So aside from his self-serving motivations and the bantering relationship between Larroquette and Williams, nothing of Cleese’s Basil remains. (At least Arthur could half-channel Cleese’s hysteria and make it her own.)

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As a result Payne, despite more format fidelity, is even less enjoyable than Amanda’s. Eight episodes were broadcast on CBS, with one going unaired. At the time of this writing, all nine installments are available for viewing on Youtube. Having screened them all, I’m here to share my one favorite.

 

01) Episode 6: “Trouble In Room 206” (Aired: 04/14/99)

Royal rents out a room for the afternoon, while its confirmed occupants are away.

Written by Joseph Staretski | Directed by John Rich

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This is the episode that comes closest to evoking the farce employed by Fawlty Towers, yet with a key difference: Basil Fawlty would never have rented a room to an unmarried couple for just a few hours, no matter how much money he could have gotten for it! Yet, it works for Larroquette’s Payne and for television in the ’90s. The gag with the belly button rings, in which the underwear clad unmarried duo who are supposed to be out two hours before the regular occupants arrive (who, surprise surprise, come early) get stuck together by their piercings, is the most unique, and helps ramp up the conflict. This is the series’ funniest installment and the only one I would recommend (should you decide to brave the averageness).

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules!

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