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28 October 2014

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Fawlty Towers

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty

The British sitcom by which all other British sitcoms must be judged, Fawlty Towers withstands multiple viewings, is eminently quotable ("don’t mention the war"), and stands up to this day as a jewel in the BBC's comedy crown.

Fawlty Towers was famously inspired by a seethingly rude hotel proprietor John Cleese encountered whilst away filming with the Monty Python team. Unwittingly, Donald Sinclair became the blueprint for Basil Fawlty, the epitome of frustrated, social climbing middle-Englanders.

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty

Cleese had experimented with the character in an episode of Doctor At Large (with Timothy Bateson playing the petty hotel manager Mr Clifford) and out of this, a car-thrashing comedy legend was born.

The setting was a pretty ordinary 'hotel', with Fawlty constantly struggling to inject a touch of class into his tawdry surroundings.

Prunella Scales as Sybil Fawlty

His escapades included trying to hide a rat from a hygiene inspector, keeping a dead customer hidden and pretending to a party of his friends that his wife Sybil was ill during their anniversary party (when in fact she's walked out on him).

Basil was the perfect vehicle for Cleese's comic talents: mixing the biting verbal tirades against his wife and guests with the physical dexterity utilised to charge about between self-induced disasters.

Prunella Scales, as Sybil, was also magnificent: nonchalantly gorging on chocolates in bed, gossiping into the phone to her friend Audrey and spitting the word "Basil" out as if it were venom.

Basil Fawlty and Manuel in Fawlty Towers

The most loveable character has to be Manuel, whom Andrew Sachs imbued with both sincerity and vulnerability: much more than the stock foreign idiot, he nevertheless ended up being pummelled by Basil on a regular basis.

Co-writer Connie Booth's contribution to this show is often overlooked partially because whilst her character (Polly) was important in terms of providing sanity, it's the least comic role in the central quartet.

Semi-regular characters included the down-to-earth chef Terry; charming elderly ladies Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs and best of all, eccentric old colonial Major Gowen (a stupendous turn from Ballard Berkely).

Credit must also be given to the one-off characters when the actors involved seized the top drawer material they were presented with and gave performances above and beyond the call of duty.

Joan Sanderson as Miss Richards and Basil Fawlty

Notable among these were Bernard Cribbins as a fastidiously irritating guest whose comeuppance had us cheering for Basil; Bruce Boa’s overbearing, arrogant American demanding a Waldorf salad and Joan Sanderson's deaf but imperious Miss Richards: justifiably becoming a TV legend despite just half an hour’s screen time.

Part of the success of the show can be attributable to the fact that it ran for a mere twelve episodes, so never ran out of steam.

Overseas companies have sought to remake the show countless times, but frankly, such imitations have only looked pale in comparison to the original.

The 1970's production values don't detract one bit from the consistently farcical, funny scripts and the excellent performances.

It was justifiably voted number one in the BFI's 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000.

Cast

Connie Booth
Polly
John Cleese
Basil Fawlty
Prunella Scales
Sybil Fawlty
Andrew Sachs
Manuel
Ballard Berkeley
Major Gowen
Brian Hall
Terry
Gilly Flower
Miss Tibbs
Renée Roberts
Miss Gatsby

Crew

Connie Booth
writer
John Cleese
writer
John Howard Davies
director
Bob Spiers
director
John Howard Davies
producer
Douglas Argent
producer

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