Fawlty Towers

The Best of Fawlty Towers

Article by Brian Slade

I recently saw a tweet (or whatever the X equivalent term is) asking for people to recall their favourite show that only lasted a series or two. To the American market, a programme ending after 12 episodes is a certifiable disaster. The Marshall Chronicles for example was a pleasant show with a Woody Allen style of lead stumbling through his later days of high school. Producers were told they wouldn’t be going much further after only the second episode had aired. They made seven, only six making it to screen.

In the UK, quantity does not always reflect quality. Fawlty Towers is the classic example. Two series, 12 episodes spanning five years and yet each episode, so painstakingly created by John Cleese and Connie Booth, was a gem. And so, to pick out a favourite would seem an impossible task, akin to naming your favourite child. My attempt will doubtless have plenty of people saying, ‘yes, but episode x was better.’ Certainly, lines such as, ‘would you care for a rat?’ the concussed exchanges of Basil with Germans in the dining room and the hysterical performance of Joan Sanderson as the deaf and demanding Mrs Richards are hard to ignore. But for me, the episode that covered all the main characters to perfection was The Builders.

Fawlty Towers

The Builders was just the second episode of the classic sitcom, but we already know how the dynamic of Basil and Cybil Fawlty (Cleese and Prunella Scales) works. His world is run, and ruined, by her and any attempt he makes at improving his lot is pretty much doomed to failure. So it turns out to be when he decides to go against Cybil’s wishes regarding building work in the hotel. With the pair headed off for the weekend for a golf break, Polly (Booth) has been left in charge. It should be a simple weekend for her. With the resident guests, Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley) and Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs (Renee Roberts and Gilly Flower), farmed off into town for their meals, Polly’s only responsibility will be to ensure the work around the hotel is completed without a hitch.

Fawlty Towers

What Polly hadn’t anticipated and doesn’t discover until Cybil has left and Basil is heading out the door issuing final instructions is that the builders Polly should expect to arrive are from Mr O’Reilly, not Mr Stubbs, Cybil’s preferred choice. And this is where everything collapses. O’Reilly has been Basil’s builder of choice before, not because of his work but because he was cheap. Stubbs is Cybil’s preferred option because he’s not cheap but is professional.

Fawlty Towers

When O’Reilly’s men eventually arrive (including Michael Cronin, who would become better known as PE teacher Mr Baxter in Grange Hill) they find that Manuel (Andrew Sachs) is in charge. Polly is sleeping, and rather than wake her as she had requested, Manuel decides he can handle the builders – even though there is an initial breakdown in communication as he urges them to answer if they are ‘Orelly men.’

The work of course is a disaster. With nobody to correct them, the builders have blocked access to the dining room from the lobby and added a doorway to the bottom of the stairs. It’s a mess, and Basil, when back early to check on the situation is livid. He blames Polly, and then when he discovers that Manuel was the one present when the builders arrived, blames him. Once Polly suggests that he is the one at fault for his cost-cutting choice of workmen, he proceeds to slap himself on the backside in a classic piece of physical Cleese comedy as he chastises himself with, ‘You’re a naughty boy Fawlty, don’t do it again!’

As ever, Basil chooses to make a bad situation worse. He calls O’Reilly and threatens him with physical violence (inserting a large garden gnome in him) if he doesn’t come round immediately and fix things. With his men not prepared to work on a Sunday, it’s left to Mr O’Reilly himself to try and repair the damage. O’Reilly (David Kelly) is a god-fearing Irishman with many a life lesson to despatch beginning with, ‘If the Good Lord meant…’ but the Good Lord seems to have deserted Basil on this particular Sunday…Cybil is back early.

Basil’s web of deceit continues as he tries to convince Cybil that O’Reilly is merely there to fix what Stubbs has actually done wrong. After only a brief moment of doubt, Cybil’s fears are confirmed when she takes a call allegedly from Stubbs apologising for the mess but finds it to be Polly calling from the other room attempting to back Basil up.

Fawlty Towers

What follows is a verbal and physical onslaught as Cybil confronts O’Reilly, reminding him of his failings as both a builder and a human being before assaulting him with an umbrella after O’Reilly foolishly observes that he likes a woman with spirit.

Fawlty Towers

Despite every move Basil makes going wrong, he still won’t learn his lesson. After Cybil leaves, he persuades O’Reilly to remain and finish the work with him, and on Cybil’s return the next day, with Mr Stubbs in tow, she is shocked and embarrassed to find that the work has all been completed. Basil has finally claimed a victory – until he reveals to Stubbs that he has used a wooden lintel in the supporting wall, leaving the floors above open to collapse at any moment. Basil beats a hasty retreat, heading off to find Mr O’Reilly before potentially emigrating to Canada!

Fawlty Towers

The Builders is classic Fawlty Towers. Basil has made a rash decision and kept it from Cybil and proceeds to get further and further into trouble with deeper lies. Cybil is at her most domineering, while Polly as always tries to keep the peace between the pair. Manuel is given some wonderful lines, welcoming a delivery man dropping off the large garden gnome that Basil is determined to place somewhere upon or within O’Reilly’s person. The bemused Spaniard believing that the delivery driver wants to book a room for the gnome has a glorious exchange of confusion, just as is the exchange when he tries to establish if the builders are with ‘Orelly.’ His telephone conversation with Basil is hysterical.

Fawlty Towers

All actors are at their peak here. Cleese and Sachs exchange verbal and physical laughs, seeing Cleese pick up Sachs first to show him how to clean windows, and then secondly to try and bash him into the unexpected wall that blocks access to the dining room. Scales is gloriously domineering and her attack on O’Reilly contains brilliant insults and fearful violence. And in amongst it all is the wonderful David Kelly. His comparatively minor effort is a scene stealer. Kelly would later accept that despite a glowing acting CV on stage and screen, and of course spending years on primetime television as one-armed waiter Albert in Robin’s Nest, Mr O’Reilly would earn him the most lasting fame, despite the brevity of his appearance.

The Builders is comedy genius. The combination of clever scenarios, wonderful scripts, physical comedy and actors at the top of their game makes it a classic that really is British sitcom at its finest. In interviews years later with Robert Ross and Morris Bright for their book, Fawlty Towers Fully Booked, Cleese amazingly placed it bottom of his list of episodes. Unhappy with a quiet studio reaction, albeit attributed to a party of very polite Icelandic visitors placed at the front of the audience, Cleese would say that it was saved only by vast amounts of editing. ‘I still think it’s the least good of the 12 shows we did,’ said Cleese. Well, if that was the worst, it shows the level of quality the entire two series offered.

Published on March 15th, 2024. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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