April 16th, 1999

Fawlty Towers

It’s not the most-loved British sitcom. That’d either be Dad’s Army or Only Fools And Horses . It may not be the best sitcom ever made – Seinfeld, Simpsons and Sanders have recently pressed strong challenges. But it’s undoubtedly the greatest British sitcom of all time.

Fawlty Towers is actually closer to farce than sitcom. John Cleese was always a stickler for form and structure. Each FT episode took four months to write and went through 10 drafts to achieve their byzantine, choroeographed riot of opening and shutting doors and leaping in and out of wardrobes. But Fawlty Towers takes farce beyond the usual realms of Lesley Phillips as philandering junior foreign minister in search of lost trousers. Underpinning the verbal and physical comedy of desperate exasperation are strong themes – death, xenophobia, the class system, psychology, the transatlantic cultural divide.

And, of course, sex. Only, the masterstroke of Fawlty Towers is that it steadfastly keeps lechery and innuendo to a minimum. Take “The Psychiatrist”. There’s much mirth involving an Australian blonde whose boobs Basil keeps inadvertently handling but the real comedy arises from the fact that, though Basil may timidly fancy the girl, he’s far too deeply sexually repressed even to entertain consciously the idea of fooling around with her. His marriage to Sybil is the most loveless, sexless, affection-less any sitcom has ever dared to depict. Yet this sexlessness is probably a truer indictment of the English psyche than the more staple sitcom fiction of roving bird-fanciers. Thinking that the psychiatrist is talking about sex when he’s actually talking about how often he and Sybil holiday, Basil replies with unconvincing stiffness, “About two or three times a week, actually,” but the psychiatrist probably is inadvertently correct when he remarks “My wife didn’t see how you could manage it at all.”

Mostly, Fawlty Towers is about a certain kind of little Englishness under siege, as signified by Basil’s furious little Enoch Powell-ite pencil moustache. In between slapping Manuel and running up and down stairs, he’s constantly muttering about Wilson, British Leyland and the disgusting excesses of the permissive era. The series was based on the experiences of the Monty Python team when they visited a Torbay Hotel in 1971 managed by one astoundingly rude Donald Sinclair. But while most people’s stock mental recall of Fawlty Towers is of Basil’s rudeness to the guests, that’s only part of the story. Fawlty Towers is about the indignity of a man with pretensions to be Lord of his own manor, King in his own castle but who doesn’t have the wherewithal to maintain it and must invite in paying punters to keep the place solvent. It gives him much pleasure to be able to stipulate “No Riff-Raff” on the invite to the Gourmet Night but like all Basil’s pleasures, it’s a short-lived and doomed one.

Basil’s rudeness is his assertion of his place in the class system. As Sybil points out to him, “Either you’re crawling all over them licking their boots or you’re spitting poison at them like some Benzendrine puff-adder.” Top of the pile are doctors, leading rotarians and the aristocracy, bottom of the pile are the open-shirted younger generation, such as the Romeo in “The Psychiatrist” (“Have we got enough bananas this week, dear?”), the regular guests (“just leave them a trough of baked beans and garnish it with a couple of dead dogs”) and unmarried couples attempting to room together (“Sorry, it’s against the law.” “What law?” “The law of England.”).

Basil sees himself as somewhere around the upper-middle, though he’s probably more like lower middle. Fawlty Towers has barely dated. Often, it’s only the ghastly attire of the younger, “trendier” characters which reminds it was made in the Seventies. It doesn’t entirely escape its era however, occasionally dealing in stereotypes which wouldn’t do today. The weakest episode is probably “The Builders”, which relies too much on Sybil as battleaxe wife, thick Irish builders and Manuel as “dago twit”. Generally, Manuel’s foreign-ness is dangerously associated with dim-wittedness. John Cleese, however, always denied that the object of Manuel was to make fun of Spaniards. He insisted Manuel’s inability to get the point was a device to add to Basil’s intense frustration, to provide yet one more obstacle for him to have to clamber over in his mountingly frantic efforts to extricate himself from the predicaments he’s plunged himself into, like that little red car that splutters to a halt in “Gourmet Night”, in spite of the thrashing Basil administers, or that moose’s head which won’t stay up.

Basil always ends up victim of the thing he struggles hardest against and precisely because he struggles so hard – fear of embarrassment, mortification. Fawlty Towers is the house of all his pains but worst of all, it’s a public house, with those doors always popping open with witnesses to his follies and breakdowns, whether it’s parading around with a mop, quacking like a duck or bouncing around in a froglike, foetal position. It’s because of this, because he is always doomed to lose that in spite of his obnoxious far-right leanings we feel so intensely for him, identify so strongly with him.

That, and the fact that he is the inventor of contemporary sarcasm, of ground-breakingly cruel phrases such as “Nothing trivial, I hope?” The best ones came in threes. To the man who has the temerity to insist on breakfast in bed; “Rosewood, mahogany, teak? Sorry, I was wondering what you wanted your breakfast tray made out of.” To the little boy who complains that his chips are the “wrong shape”. “Really, and which shape would you prefer them? Mickey Mouse shape, amphibious landing craft shape, poke in the eye shape?” And, to the deaf Mrs Richards, who complains about the view. “Well, may I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay window? The Sydney Opera House? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wilderbeest sweeping majestically . . .?”

John Cleese never subsequently approached the ridiculously sublime standards of Fawlty Towers, except fleetingly in the Michael Frayn-scripted movie Clockwise. Perhaps the collaboration of Connie Booth has been underrated. And it’s only with Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge that British comedy has come close to matching his encapsulation of the small, embittered, frustrated spirit of This England.

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