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Series of the Week: Fawlty Towers

“You'll have to forgive him. He's from Barcelona.”
Fawlty Towers was inspired by the Monty Python team's stay in the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay in May 1970. Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming for the Python show had finished. The owner, Donald Sinclair, was very rude, throwing a bus timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive, and placing Eric Idle's suitcase behind a wall in the garden on the suspicion that it contained a bomb (it actually contained a ticking alarm clock). He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam's table manners for being too American (he had the fork in "the wrong hand" while eating), possibly inspiring Basil's treatment of an American visitor in the episode "Waldorf Salad."
Until the 1970s, the proprietors of English seaside boarding houses had a reputation for firmness and intransigence. Cleese had also parodied the contrast between organisational dogma and sensitive customer service in many personnel training videotapes issued with a serious purpose by his company, Video Arts.
Bill Cotton, the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment in the mid-1970s, said after the first series was produced that the show was a prime example of the BBC's relaxed attitude to trying out new entertainment formats and encouraging new ideas. He said that when he read the first scripts he could see nothing funny in them, but trusting that Cleese knew what he was doing, he gave the go-ahead for the series. He said that the commercial channels, with their emphasis on audience ratings, would never have let the show get to the production stage on the basis of the scripts.
The episodes typically revolve around Basil Fawlty's efforts to succeed and his frustration at mistakes, both his own and those of others, which prevent him from doing so. Much of the humour comes from Basil's insulting and sometimes aggressive manner, engaging in angry but witty arguments with guests, staff and in particular his frightful wife, whom he addresses with insults such as "that golfing puff adder", "my little piranha fish," and "my little nest of vipers". Despite this, he frequently feels intimidated as she is able to insult him with equal venom. At the end of some episodes, Basil succeeds in annoying the guests and sometimes gets this thrown back in his face.
The plots are intricate and farcical, involving coincidences, misunderstandings, cross-purposes, missed meetings, and accidental meetings. The sex of the bedroom farce is sometimes present, often to the disgust of conservative Basil, but it is Basil Fawlty's eccentricity, not his lust, that drives the plots.
The guests at the hotel are typically comic foils to Basil's anger and outbursts, with requests both reasonable and impossible testing Basil's temper. The show also uses mild black humour at times, notably when Basil is forced to hide a dead body, and some of the comments made by Basil both about Sybil ("Did you ever see that film, How to Murder Your Wife? ...Awfully good") and about the guests ("May I suggest that you consider moving to a hotel closer to the sea? Or preferably in it.") border on the psychopathic.
Basil behaves violently towards Manuel (an emotional and largely inept Spanish waiter who cannot understand English) for innocent mistakes, exacting on some occasions physical violence, including beating Manuel with a frying pan and hitting him over the head, despite Manuel's piteous pleading. The violence directed at Manuel has been one of the very few reasons for negative criticisms leveled at Fawlty Towers over the years. In this, and in other exaggerated physical mannerisms of Basil, Fawlty Towers employs physical comedy.
Basil displays blatant snobbishness, expressing disdain for the "riff-raff" that he believes currently stay at the hotel, in order to climb the social ladder. His desperation is apparent, as he makes increasingly hopeless manoeuvres and painful faux pas in trying to gain favour with the wealthy, yet finds himself forced to serve and help people he sees as beneath him. As such, Basil's efforts tend to be counter-productive, with guests leaving the hotel in disgust and his marriage stretching further and further towards breaking point.
This series is hysterical. Cleese is the master of his trade while proving that he can manage any task thrown in front of him. The comedy that they provide cannot be found on television today. Still funny after all these years… 9/10


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