As quintessentially British as the location for its deceptively simple, but brilliantly effective premise, Fawlty Towers ranks as one of the most consistently hilarious thirty-minutes of comedy to have ever graced the television screen.
Created by John Cleese and his then wife, Connie Booth, the idea occurred to Cleese during a location shoot in Torquay for Monty Python's Flying Circus, where he met the owner of a hotel, Donald Sinclair, that he later described as "the most marvellously rude man I've ever met". Sinclair's antics included him throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive and throwing Eric Idle's briefcase into the street because he believed it contained a bomb. In a suitably surreal way - given the people involved, the briefcase itself did indeed contain a bomb - a creative one, which, when it eventually exploded resulted it the birth of a genuinely monumental comic creation - namely, one Basil Fawlty, esq.
At the time, Cleese was also a writer on the sitcom Doctor at Large for London Weekend Television. An early prototype of the Basil Fawlty character (played by Timothy Bateson) was developed in the episode 'No Ill Feeling.' As embodied by Cleese, Basil Fawlty was repulsively oily. A near psychopathically hyper-active, middle-aged, stick insect caricature of a genuine human being with pretensions beyond both his social and moral status. He was also breath-takingly painfully funny, whether charmlessly fawning over his upper class guests or frustratedly heaping abuse on the- 'riff-raff we get around here' - Fawlty was a figure myopically unaware of his own pathetically obvious ineptness. With the finely balanced interplay between Cleese's creation and a supporting cast spearheaded by Basil's shrewish wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), waitress Polly (Booth), stereotypical Spanish waiter; the chronically browbeaten Manuel (Andrew Sachs), and a number of 'resident hotel guests', the series was a huge and richly deserved success.
Bill Cotton, the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment in the mid-1970s, however, said that when he read the first scripts he could see nothing funny in them, but trusting that Cleese knew what he was doing (having come into this fresh from helping rip up the TV comedy form book with his fellow Pythons), he gave the go-ahead. The series on first broadcast received mixed critical reaction. The critic from Television Today, in an article on 14 September 1976, wrote: "devoid of everything that makes good modern comedy. The programme is reminiscent of the post-war university drama society production...writing that has no vestige of wit or skill about it and set pieces that are protracted and neither funny nor slapstick; the whole is pervaded by ill-humour." And while Clive James writing in The Observer said the second episode had him "retching with laughter" Richard Ingrams, then television reviewer for The Spectator, was as equally unimpressed as the Television Today critic. (Cleese got his revenge by naming one of the guests in the second series 'Mr Ingrams', who is caught in his room with a blow up doll).
The critics may not have liked the series but viewers gave it a resounding 'Yes!' The series also picked up three BAFTAs. Each of the two series were awarded the BAFTA in the category for "Best Situation Comedy" while John Cleese won the BAFTA for "Best Light Entertainment Performance" in 1976. More recently, in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the BBC's Britain's Best Sitcom poll in 2004 and second only to Frasier in The Ultimate Sitcom poll of comedy writers in January 2006. Basil Fawlty came top of the Britain's Funniest Comedy Character poll, held by Five on 14 May 2006. In a 2008 online poll from Television Heaven to find the Greatest TV Shows Of All Time, Fawlty Towers was placed 11th.
Cleese did not want to take the show beyond the two all too brief series that the BBC produced between 1975-1979. The anarchic humour of Fawlty Towers sliced through class and social structures like a hot knife through butter, tickling the nation's collective funny bone by sheer dint of pure quality and the fact that Basil (whether through deed or word) is so fundamentally British.
Published on December 11th, 2018. Written by Laurence Marcus & SRH for Television Heaven.