Kippers, Rats and Benzedrine Puff Adders - the story of Fawlty Towers

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Fawlty Towers had a very simple title sequence to accompany Dennis Wilson's theme tune - the letters on the sign post were occasionally rearranged to comic effect...

Is there such a thing as the perfect sitcom? For many people, Fawlty Towers fits the bill. Its success and influence on the national consciousness from only 12 episodes is such that it has become axiomatic for some that no comedy should run for more than two series.

Fawlty Towers was one example of the boom in hugely successful comedies that emerged in the early to mid-1970s. Some of these were revivals of old shows, like Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part and The Likely Lads, others were brand new. But Fawlty Towers came from unexpected roots for the genre of situation comedy, and brought a new perspective to the form.

Having become well-known in a succession of series from The Frost Report to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese decided not to take part in the fourth series of Python, but instead to collaborate with his wife, Connie Booth, on a situation comedy. It would be a departure from the sketch format of Python, but there would be a flavour to the series that was reminiscent of some of the behaviour on show in that series.

Two other main inspirations for what would become Fawlty Towers were Cleese’s love for farce, a form well-known in the UK from the Aldwych and Whitehall theatre farces, the latter produced and performed in by Brian Rix; and the older tradition of French farce such as the work of Feydeau, which the BBC had televised in the series Ooh La La! in 1968 and 1973.

The other more specific inspiration was an incident that had happened during location filming for the second series of Monty Python in 1970. Booked into a Torquay hotel called Gleneagles, the Python team were astonished to find that the proprietor almost seemed to resent the presence of guests in his hotel as an inconvenience. Cleese, whose work had often featured examples of less than perfect customer service (most famously the “Parrot sketch” in Monty Python’s first series) was fascinated by the man’s behaviour, although the other members of the cast soon decided to move to other hotels.

These events inspired part of the plot in an episode of ITV sitcom Doctor at Large that Cleese wrote soon afterwards, but the programme’s producer, Humphrey Barclay, suggested that there might be scope for a series from the idea.

Prunella Scales as Sybil, John Cleese as Basil, Connie Booth as Polly, Andrew Sachs as Manuel - Sachs's first television appearance was in the 1958 Brian Rix-produced farce On Monday Next

In 1974 Cleese and Connie Booth developed this into a proposal for a series of six half-hour shows, to be called Fawlty Towers. Cleese recalls that some of the criticisms of the first scripts were that the characters and situations were cliched, and the first actress approached to play the part of Sybil Fawlty turned the role down for that reason. If it had not been for Cleese’s reputation as a performer, it is possible that Fawlty Towers might never have happened.

Although Cleese had not necessarily intended to play Basil, it soon became clear only he could inhabit the role. While in Doctor at Large the hotelier had been a smallish man with a larger wife, in Fawlty Towers this was reversed. The relatively diminutive (compared to Cleese) Prunella Scales, well-known from 1960s comedy The Marriage Lines, was cast as Sybil. The other two regular main characters were Polly, the American waitress/chambermaid, and incompetent Spanish waiter, Manuel. Connie Booth took the role of Polly, while character actor Andrew Sachs was Manuel.

There were also three permanent residents of the hotel, Major Gowen, played by Ballard Berkeley, who was occasionally involved in the machinations of the plot, and two absent-minded spinsters, Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby, who were more peripheral.

Basil complains that Manuel has put too many donkeys on the guests' trays, in the opening scene of Fawlty Towers' first episode, broadcast 19 September 1975

It would take Cleese and Booth three times as long as normally allowed for the writing of an episode – six weeks as opposed to two – to create each intricately plotted episode. Despite this, the production of the episodes was only given the standard BBC allocation for a programme of its length, each show being rehearsed and recorded in a week.

The press reception of the first series was not overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and the ratings were low. There was little pre-publicity, and the series was hidden away on Friday evenings on BBC Two. Even in those three-channel days, it was hard for Fawlty Towers to make an impact. Nonetheless, there was sufficient belief in the show by the BBC for it to be repeated early in 1976 on BBC Two, and then on BBC One later that year, so a follow-up series was requested.

With one thing and another – Cleese and Booth divorced, and various other projects occupied people's time, including the next Python film, The Life of Brian – it was four years before a second series of Fawlty Towers came about. The sheer creative effort required of Booth and Cleese, who were still willing to collaborate on the scripts, meant that it would be a significant undertaking, and could not be rushed; it is a tribute to their efforts that series two, which emerged in 1979, is every bit as good as the first.

"The manager's faulty? What's wrong with him?" In the opening episode of the second series, Mrs Richards, played by the sublime Joan Sanderson, has communication problems with Manuel

Some things had changed – John Howard Davies, the producer/director of series 1, had been promoted to Head of Comedy at the BBC in 1977: so Douglas Argent took over production duties, with Bob Spiers directing the episodes.

There was also an additional cast member in the form of Brian Hall as Terry, the chef. In series 1, Fawlty Towers’ chef is only seen in one episode, Gourmet Night, in the form of Kurt (Steve Plytas). He is a new addition to the staff in that episode, and is presumably sacked after the disastrous events that ensue.

The guest characters are one of the real glories of the series, and there are a number of outstanding performances. Where some programmes might insist on occasional victories for the central character, Basil is constantly frustrated by his staff, his wife, the guests, and his own attempts to get the upper hand. Basil’s snobbery and obsequiousness to people he considers his social superiors contrasts with his contempt of anyone who rubs him up the wrong way.

Every episode of Fawlty Towers is strong, a tribute to the pains taken in the writing. Some episodes are particularly well-remembered, whether the final episode of series 1, The Germans, in which a concussed Basil loses his self-restraint in front of some German visitors; or the black comedy of The Kipper and the Corpse in series 2, where Basil tries to hide the dead body of a guest, fearing that the hotel’s poor hygiene standards are responsible.

The second series of Fawlty Towers came out to high expectations and a celebratory Radio Times cover, and those expectations were not disappointed. A BBC strike affected the recording, so that one episode (Basil the Rat) had to be recorded after the other five, and it was shown several months later as a special. The following week, Basil appeared one last time, in a cameo in one of the first episodes of a new comedy revue, Not the Nine O’Clock News...

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