Fawlty Towers is a British television sitcom broadcast on BBC2 in 1975 and 1979. Two series of six episodes each were made. The show was created and written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, who also starred in the show and were married at the time of the first series, but divorced before recording the second series. The show was ranked first on a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, and in 2019 it was named the "greatest ever British TV sitcom" by a panel of comedy experts compiled by the Radio Times.
The "Fawlty Towers" series title sign varied between episodes
|Theme music composer||Dennis Wilson|
|Opening theme||"Fawlty Towers"|
|Ending theme||"Fawlty Towers"|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of series||2|
|No. of episodes||12 (list of episodes)|
|Running time||30 minutes|
|Picture format||576i (4:3 SDTV)|
|Original release||19 September 1975 –|
25 October 1979
The series is set in Fawlty Towers, a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay on the "English Riviera". The plots centre on the tense, rude and put-upon owner Basil Fawlty (Cleese), his bossy wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), the sensible chambermaid Polly (Booth) who often is the peacemaker and voice of reason, and the hapless and English-challenged Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs), showing their attempts to run the hotel amidst farcical situations and an array of demanding and eccentric guests and tradespeople.
The idea of the show came from Cleese after he stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, Devon in 1970 (along with the rest of the Monty Python troupe) where he encountered the eccentric hotel owner Donald Sinclair. Stuffy and snobbish, Sinclair treated guests as though they were a hindrance to his running of the hotel (a waitress who worked for him stated "it was as if he didn't want the guests to be there"). Sinclair was the inspiration for Cleese's character Basil Fawlty.
In 1980, Cleese received the BAFTA for Best Entertainment Performance, and in a 2001 poll conducted by Channel 4 Basil Fawlty was ranked second on their list of the 100 Greatest TV Characters. The popularity of Fawlty Towers has endured, and it is often re-broadcast. The BBC profile for the series states, "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."
In May 1970, the Monty Python comedy group stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, Devon while filming on location in Paignton. John Cleese was fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, later describing him as "the rudest man I've ever come across in my life". Among such behaviour by Sinclair was his criticism of Terry Gilliam's "too American" table etiquette and tossing Eric Idle's briefcase out of a window "in case it contained a bomb". Asked why would anyone want to bomb the hotel, Sinclair replied, “We’ve had a lot of staff problems". Michael Palin states Sinclair "seemed to view us as a colossal inconvenience". Rosemary Harrison, a waitress at the Gleneagles under Sinclair, described him as "bonkers", lacking in hospitality, and deeming him wholly unsuitable for a hotel proprietor. "It was as if he didn't want the guests to be there." Cleese and Connie Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming, furthering their research of its owner.
At the time, Cleese was a writer on the 1970s British TV sitcom Doctor in the House for London Weekend Television. An early prototype of the character that became known as Basil Fawlty was developed in an episode ("No Ill Feeling") of the third Doctor series (titled Doctor at Large). In this edition, the main character checks into a small-town hotel, his very presence seemingly winding up the aggressive and incompetent manager (played by Timothy Bateson) with a domineering wife. The show was broadcast on 30 May 1971.
Cleese said in 2008 that the first Fawlty Towers script he and Booth wrote was rejected by the BBC. At a 30th anniversary event honouring the show, Cleese said,
Connie and I wrote that first episode and we sent it in to Jimmy Gilbert, [the executive] whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, and I can quote [his note to me] fairly accurately, "This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster." And Jimmy himself said, "You're going to have to get them out of the hotel, John. You can't do the whole thing in the hotel." Whereas, of course, it's in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.
Cleese was paid £6,000 for 43 weeks' work and supplemented his income by appearing in television advertisements. He states, "I have to thank the advertising industry for making this possible. Connie and I used to spend six weeks writing each episode and we didn't make a lot of money out of it. If it hadn't been for the commercials I wouldn't have been able to afford to spend so much time on the script."
Although the series is set in Torquay, no part of it was shot in Southwest England. For the exterior filming, the Wooburn Grange Country Club in Buckinghamshire was used instead of a hotel. In several episodes of the series (notably "The Kipper and the Corpse", "The Anniversary", and "Basil the Rat"), the entrance gate at the bottom of the drive states the real name of the location. This listed building later served for a short time as a nightclub named "Basil's" after the series ended, before being destroyed by a fire in March 1991. The remnants of the building were demolished and a housing estate was built on the site. Very little trace of the original site exists today.
Other location filming was done mostly around Harrow, notably the 'damn good thrashing' scene in "Gourmet Night" in which Basil loses his temper and attacks his broken-down car with a tree branch. It was filmed at the T-junction of Lapstone Gardens and Mentmore Close (51.581103°N 0.309072°W). In the episode "The Germans", the opening shot is of Northwick Park Hospital. In "Gourmet Night", the exterior of André's restaurant was filmed on Preston Road in the Harrow area (51.573393°N 0.294411°W). The launderette next door to the restaurant still exists, but André's now is a Chinese and Indian restaurant called Wings.
Plot directions and examples
The series focuses on the exploits and misadventures of short-fused hotelier Basil Fawlty and his acerbic wife Sybil, as well as their employees: waiter Manuel, Polly Sherman, and, in the second series, chef Terry. The episodes typically revolve around Basil's efforts to "raise the tone" of his hotel and his increasing frustration at numerous complications and mistakes, both his own and those of others, which prevent him from doing so.
Much of the humour comes from Basil's overly aggressive manner, engaging in angry but witty arguments with guests, staff and, in particular, Sybil, whom he addresses (in a faux-romantic way) with insults such as "that golfing puff adder", "my little piranha fish" and "my little nest of vipers". Despite this, Basil frequently feels intimidated, Sybil being able to cow him at any time, usually with a short, sharp cry of "Basil!" At the end of some episodes, Basil succeeds in annoying (or at least bemusing) the guests and frequently gets his comeuppance.
The plots occasionally are intricate and always farcical, involving coincidences, misunderstandings, cross-purposes and meetings both missed and accidental. The innuendo of the bedroom farce is sometimes present (often to the disgust of the socially conservative Basil) but it is his eccentricity, not his lust, that drives the plots. The events test to the breaking point what little patience Basil has, sometimes causing him to have a near breakdown by the end of the episode.
The guests at the hotel typically are comic foils to Basil's anger and outbursts. Guest characters in each episode provide different characteristics (working class, promiscuous, foreign) that he cannot stand. Requests both reasonable and impossible test his temper. Even the afflicted annoy him, as for example in the episode "Communication Problems", revolving around the havoc caused by the frequent misunderstandings between the staff and the hard-of-hearing Mrs. Richards. Near the end, Basil pretends to faint just at the mention of her name. This episode is typical of the show's careful weaving of humorous situations through comedy cross-talk. The show also uses mild black humour at times, notably when Basil is forced to hide a dead body and in his comments about Sybil ("Did you ever see that film, How to Murder Your Wife? ... Awfully good. I saw it six times.") and to the guests ("May I suggest that you consider moving to a hotel closer to the sea? Or preferably in it.").
Basil's physical outbursts are primarily directed at Manuel, an emotional but largely innocent Spaniard whose confused English vocabulary causes him to make elementary mistakes. At times, Basil beats Manuel with a frying pan and smacks his forehead with a spoon. The violence towards Manuel caused rare negative criticism of the show. Sybil and Polly, on the other hand, are more patient and understanding toward Manuel; everyone's usual excuse for his behaviour to guests is, "He's from Barcelona"; Manuel even once used the excuse for himself.
Basil longs for a touch of class, sometimes playing recordings of classical music. In one episode he is playing music by Brahms when Sybil remarks, after pestering him asking to do different tasks: "You could have them both done by now if you hadn't spent the whole morning skulking in there listening to that racket." Basil replies, with exasperation, "Racket?? That's Brahms! Brahms' Third Racket!" Basil often displays blatant snobbishness as he attempts to climb the social ladder, frequently expressing disdain for the "riff-raff", "cretins" and "yobbos" that he believes regularly populate his hotel. His desperation is readily apparent as he makes increasingly hopeless manoeuvres and painful faux pas in trying to curry favour with those he perceives as having superior social status. Yet he finds himself forced to serve those individuals that are "beneath" him. As such, Basil's efforts tend to be counter-productive, with guests leaving the hotel in disgust and his marriage (and sanity) stretching to breaking point.
Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, is a cynical and snobbish misanthrope who is desperate to belong to a higher social class. He sees a successful hotel as a means of achieving this, yet his job forces him to be polite to people he despises.
He is intimidated by his wife Sybil Fawlty. He yearns to stand up to her, but his plans frequently conflict with her demands. She is often verbally abusive (describing him as "an ageing, brilliantined stick insect") but although he towers over her, he often finds himself on the receiving end of her temper, verbally and physically (as in "The Builders").
Basil usually turns to Manuel or Polly to help him with his schemes, while trying his best to keep Sybil from discovering them. However, Basil occasionally laments the time when there was passion in their relationship, now seemingly lost. Also, it appears he still does care for her, and actively resists the flirtations of a French guest in one episode. The penultimate episode, "The Anniversary", is about his efforts to put together a surprise anniversary party involving their closest friends. Things go wrong as Basil pretends the anniversary date doesn't remind him of anything though he pretends to have a stab at it by reeling off a list of random anniversaries, starting with the Battle of Agincourt, for which he receives a slap from Sybil, who becomes increasingly frustrated and angry. He continues guessing even after Sybil is out of earshot, and mentions other anniversaries (none of which happened on 17 April), including the Battle of Trafalgar and Yom Kippur, just to enhance the surprise. Sybil believes he really has forgotten, and leaves in a huff. In an interview in the DVD box set, Cleese claims this episode deliberately takes a slightly different tone from the others, fleshing out their otherwise inexplicable status as a couple.
In keeping with the lack of explanation about the marriage, not much is revealed of the characters' back-stories. It is known that Basil served in the British Army and saw action in the Korean War, possibly as part of his National Service. (John Cleese himself was only 13 when the Korean War ended, making the character of Basil at least five or six years older than he.) Basil exaggerates this period of his life, proclaiming to strangers, "I killed four men." To this Sybil jokes that "He was in the Catering Corps. He used to poison them." Basil often is seen wearing regimental and old boy-style ties, perhaps spuriously, one of which in the colours of the Army Catering Corps. He also claims to have sustained a shrapnel injury to his leg; it tends to flare up at suspiciously convenient times. The only person towards whom Basil consistently exhibits tolerance and good manners is the old and senile Major Gowen, a veteran of one of the world wars (which one is never specified, though he once mentions to Mrs Peignoir that he was in France in 1918) who permanently resides at the hotel. When interacting with Manuel, Basil displays a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish (Basil states that he "learned classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he [Manuel] seems to have picked up"); this knowledge is also ridiculed, as in the first episode in which a guest, whom Basil has immediately dismissed as working-class, communicates fluently with Manuel in Spanish after Basil is unable to do so.
Cleese described Basil as thinking that "he could run a first-rate hotel if he didn't have all the guests getting in the way" and as being "an absolutely awful human being" but says that in comedy if an awful person makes people laugh they unaccountably feel affectionate towards him. Indeed, he is not entirely unsympathetic. The "Hotel Inspectors" and "Gourmet Night" episodes feature guests who are shown to be deeply annoying, with constant and unreasonable demands. In "Gourmet Night" the chef gets drunk and is unable to cook dinner, leaving Basil to scramble in an attempt to salvage the evening. Much of the time, Basil is an unfortunate victim of circumstance.
Sybil Fawlty, played by Prunella Scales, is Basil's wife. Energetic and petite, she prefers a working wardrobe of tight skirt-suits in shiny fabrics and sports a tower of permed hair augmented with hairpieces and wigs and necessitating the use of overnight curlers. She often is a more effective manager of the hotel, making sure Basil gets certain jobs done or stays out of the way when she is handling difficult guests. Typically when Basil is on the verge of meltdown due to a crisis (usually of his own making), it is Sybil who steps in to clear up the mess and bring some sense to the situation. Despite this, she rarely participates directly in the running of the hotel. During busy check-in sessions or meal times, while everyone else is busy working, Sybil is frequently talking on the phone to one of her friends with her phrase "Oohhh, I knoooooooow" or chatting to customers. She has a distinctive conversational tone and braying laugh, which Basil compares to "someone machine-gunning a seal". Being his wife, she is the only regular character who refers to Basil by his first name. When she barks his name at him, he flinchingly freezes in his tracks.
Basil refers to her by a number of epithets, occasionally to her face, including "that golfing puff-adder", "the dragon", "toxic midget", "the sabre-toothed tart", "my little kommandant", "my little piranha fish", "my little nest of vipers" and "you rancorous, coiffured old sow". Despite these nasty nicknames, Basil is terrified of her. There is only one time he loses patience and snaps at her (Basil: "Shut up, I'm fed up." Sybil: "Oh, you've done it now.").
Prunella Scales speculated in an interview for The Complete Fawlty Towers DVD box set that Sybil married Basil because his origins were of a higher social class than hers.
Polly Sherman, played by Connie Booth, is a waitress and general assistant at the hotel with artistic aspirations. She is the most competent of the staff and the voice of sanity during chaotic moments, but is frequently embroiled in ridiculous masquerades as she loyally attempts to aid Basil in trying to cover a mistake or keep something from Sybil.
In "The Anniversary" she snaps and refuses to help Basil out when he wants her to impersonate Sybil in the semi-darkness of her bedroom in front of the Fawltys' friends, Basil having dug himself into a hole by claiming Sybil was ill instead of admitting she had stormed out earlier in annoyance with him. Polly finally agrees, but only on condition that Basil lends her money to purchase a car, which he has previously refused to do.
Polly generally is good-natured but sometimes shows her frustration, and has odd moments of malice. In "The Kipper and the Corpse", the pampered shih-tzu dog of an elderly guest bites Polly and Manuel. As revenge, Polly laces the dog's sausages with black pepper and Tabasco sauce ("bangers à la bang"), making it ill.
Despite her part-time employment (during meal times), Polly frequently is saddled with many other duties, including as manager in "The Germans" when Sybil and Basil are incapacitated. In the first series, Polly is said to be an art student who, according to Basil, has spent three years at college. In "Gourmet Night", she is seen to draw a sketch (presumably of Manuel, which everyone but Basil immediately recognises and she sells to the chef for 50p. Polly is not referred to as a student in the second series, although in both series she is shown to have a flair for languages, displaying ability in both Spanish and German. In "The Germans", Basil alludes to Polly's polyglot inclination by saying that she does her work "while learning two Oriental languages". Like Manuel, she has a room of her own at the hotel.
Manuel, a waiter played by Andrew Sachs, is a well-meaning but disorganised and confused Spaniard from Barcelona with a poor grasp of the English language and customs. He is verbally and physically abused by his boss. When told what to do, he often responds, "¿Qué?" ("What?"). Manuel's character is used to demonstrate Basil's instinctive lack of sensitivity and tolerance. Every episode involves Basil becoming enraged at Manuel's confusion at his boss's bizarre demands and even basic requests. Manuel is afraid of Fawlty's quick temper and violent assaults, yet often expresses his appreciation for being given employment. He is relentlessly enthusiastic and is proud of what little English he knows.
During the series, Sachs was seriously injured twice. Cleese describes using a real metal pan to knock Manuel unconscious in "The Wedding Party", although he would have preferred to use a rubber one. The original producer and director, John Howard Davies, said that he made Basil use a metal one and that he was responsible for most of the violence on the show, which he felt was essential to the type of comical farce they were creating. Later, when Sachs's clothes were treated to give off smoke after he escapes the burning kitchen in "The Germans", the corrosive chemicals ate through them and gave Sachs severe burns.
Other regular characters and themes
- Terry Hughes, played by Brian Hall, appears in only the second series of episodes. He is the sly, somewhat shifty Cockney chef at Fawlty Towers. Though apparently a competent chef ("I 'ave been to catering school!"), Terry's cooking methods are somewhat casual, which frustrates and worries the neurotic Basil. He used to work in Dorchester (not at the Dorchester, as believed by a guest). In "The Anniversary" Terry and Manuel come to blows since Terry doesn't like anyone else cooking in his kitchen, so he proceeds to sabotage the paella Manuel is making for Sybil, leading to fisticuffs at the end of the episode. Cleese himself told Hall to portray Terry as if he were on the run from the police.
- Major Gowen, played by Ballard Berkeley, is a slightly senile, amiable old soldier who is a permanent resident of the hotel. He is one of the few guests whom Basil seems to like. This is because he has the establishment status that Basil craves. He usually wears the Royal Artillery jagged-striped tie, and once mentions to Mrs. Peignoir being in France in 1918. He often is introduced as their "oldest resident" and in the episode "Waldorf Salad" Basil reveals that the Major has lived there for seven years. He enjoys talking about the world outside, especially the cricket scores and workers' strikes (the frequent strikes at British Leyland during the time of the series' original transmission were often mentioned), and is always on the lookout for the newspaper. In the episode "The Germans" he shows he has trouble forgiving the Germans because of the wars. The best he can say is that German women make good card players. In the same episode, he also demonstrates his outdated racial attitudes when he comments about the ethnic difference between "wogs" and "niggers"—but in a manner innocent of malice or bigotry. Despite his good intentions, the Major can cause Basil's plans to go awry, notably in the episode "Communication Problems" in which Basil tries his best to keep the money he won in a bet a secret from Sybil.
- Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby, played by Gilly Flower and Renee Roberts, are the other two permanent residents. Seemingly inseparable, these sweet-natured, dotty spinsters appear to have taken a fancy to Basil, feeling that they need to take care of him. In response, Basil vacillates between superficial charm and blunt rudeness during his conversations with them.
- Audrey is Sybil's lifelong best friend, and is mostly acknowledged during gossipy telephone calls. Talking with her is a refuge for Sybil. When times get tough for Audrey, who has a dysfunctional relationship with her husband George, Sybil will offer solutions and guidance, often resulting in the catchphrase "Ohhh, I knowwww..." when she tries to commiserate with Audrey's problems. In Audrey's one on-screen appearance, in "The Anniversary", she is played by actress Christine Shaw. Basil tells Major Gowan that he thinks she is a "dreadful woman".
- A running gag throughout the two series is the rearranged letters of the "Fawlty Towers" hotel sign which is shown at the beginning of every episode except "The Germans", when a hospital exterior is used as an establishing shot. The paperboy, though rarely seen, is revealed at the beginning of "The Psychiatrist" in the second series to be the prankster who rearranges the letters on the sign to sometimes crude phrases.
The first episode of Fawlty Towers was recorded as a pilot on 24 December 1974, the rest of the series being recorded later in 1975. It was then originally broadcast on 19 September. The 12th and final episode was first shown on 25 October 1979. The first series was directed by John Howard Davies, the second by Bob Spiers. Both had their premieres on BBC2.
When originally transmitted, the individual episodes had no on-screen titles. The ones in common currency were first used for the VHS release of the series in the 1980s. There were working titles, such as "USA" for "Waldorf Salad", "Death" for "The Kipper and the Corpse" and "Rat" for "Basil the Rat", which have been printed in some programme guides. In addition, some of the early BBC audio releases of episodes on vinyl and cassette included other variations, such as "Mrs. Richards" and "The Rat" for "Communication Problems" and "Basil the Rat" respectively.
It has long been rumoured that a 13th episode of the series was written and filmed, but never progressed further than a rough cut. Lars Holger Holm, author of the book Fawlty Towers: A Worshipper's Companion, has made detailed claims about the episode's content, but he provides no concrete evidence of its existence.
On the subject of whether more episodes would be produced, Cleese revealed (in an interview for the complete DVD box set, which was republished in the book Fawlty Towers Fully Booked) that he once had the genesis of a feature-length special – possibly sometime during the mid-1990s. The plot, never fleshed out beyond his initial idea, would have revolved around the chaos that a now-retired Basil typically caused as he and Sybil flew to Barcelona to visit their former employee Manuel and his family. Of the idea, Cleese said:
We had an idea for a plot which I loved. Basil was finally invited to Spain to meet Manuel's family. He gets to Heathrow and then spends about 14 frustrating hours waiting for the flight. Finally, on the plane, a terrorist pulls a gun and tries to hijack the thing. Basil is so angry he overcomes the terrorist, and when the pilot says, 'We have to fly back to Heathrow' Basil says, 'No, fly us to Spain or I'll shoot you.' He arrives in Spain, is immediately arrested, and spends the entire holiday in a Spanish jail. He is released just in time to go back on the plane with Sybil. It was very funny, but I couldn't do it at the time. Making 'Fawlty Towers' work at 90 minutes was a very difficult proposition. You can build up the comedy for 30 minutes, but at that length there has to be a trough and another peak. It doesn't interest me. I don't want to do it.
Cleese also may have relented because of the lack of Connie Booth's involvement. She had practically retreated from public life after the show finished (and had been initially unwilling to collaborate on a second series, which explains the four-year gap between productions).
The decision by Cleese and Booth to quit before a third series often has been lauded as it ensured the show's successful status would not be weakened with later, lower-quality work. Subsequently, it has inspired the makers of other shows to do likewise. Most notably, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant refused to make a third series of either The Office or Extras, citing Fawlty Towers' short lifespan. Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and Lise Mayer, the writers behind The Young Ones, which also ran for only two series (each with six episodes), used this explanation as well. Victoria Wood also indicated this influenced her decision to limit Dinnerladies to 16 episodes over two series.
The origins, background and eventual cancellation of the series would later be humorously referenced in 1987's The Secret Policeman's Third Ball in a sketch in which Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry present Cleese — whom they comically misname "Jim Cleese" — with a Dick Emery Lifetime Achievement Award ("Silver Dick") for his contributions to comedy, then launch into a comical series of questions regarding the show, including Cleese's marriage and divorce from Booth, innocently ridiculing Cleese and reducing him to tears, to a point at which he gets on his knees and crawls off the stage while crying.
Series 1 (1975)
|No.||Title||Sign reads||Original air date|
|1||"A Touch of Class"||FAWLTY TOWERS (Crooked S)||19 September 1975|
As Basil tries to raise the tone of the hotel, the aristocratic Lord Melbury comes to stay at the hotel. Basil fawns over him at every opportunity, causing himself to neglect or annoy other guests, until Polly discovers Melbury is actually a confidence trickster. Meanwhile, Sybil orders Basil to hang a picture.
Featuring: Michael Gwynn as Lord Melbury and Robin Ellis as Danny Brown.
|2||"The Builders"||FAWLTY TOWER (Crooked L and missing S)||26 September 1975|
Maintenance is made on the lobby while the Fawltys are out, but when a misreading causes the incompetent builders to mess it up spectacularly, Basil must try to remedy the situation before Sybil finds out.
Featuring: David Kelly as O'Reilly and Michael Cronin as Murphy.
|3||"The Wedding Party"||FAW TY TOWER (Crooked W, missing L and missing S)||3 October 1975|
Basil gets annoyed when a young, flirtatious couple start "hanky-pankying" under his nose and tries to avoid the advances of a wealthy French antique dealer. Meanwhile, misfortune conspires to put him in compromising situations whenever the couple are around.
Featuring: Trevor Adams as Alan and Yvonne Gilan as Mrs. Peignoir.
|4||"The Hotel Inspectors"||FAW TY TO ER (Missing L, missing W and missing S)||10 October 1975|
When Basil hears of hotel inspectors roaming Torquay incognito, he realises with horror that guests he has been abusing could easily be among them. Basil becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to determine which guests are hotel inspectors, but his suspects turn out not to be, to his frustration.
Featuring: Bernard Cribbins and James Cossins play men who turn out not to be hotel inspectors.
|5||"Gourmet Night"||WARTY TOWELS||17 October 1975|
In an effort to climb another rung in the social ladder, Basil arranges a gourmet night. Unfortunately, thanks to the chef's alcoholism, Basil must try to get hold of a duck from his friend, André. This, combined with the Fawlty's faulty car and his social awkwardness leads Basil ever closer to a nervous breakdown.
Featuring: André Maranne as André, Allan Cuthbertson as Colonel Hall and Ann Way as Mrs. Hall.
|6||"The Germans"||None||24 October 1975|
With Sybil in the hospital with an ingrowing toenail, a moose's head to hang up and some German guests arriving the next day, Basil has his work cut out for him. After an attempted fire drill goes wrong and Basil lands up in the hospital with concussion, he succeeds causing much offence to the German guests after finally escaping back to the hotel. This episode is the origin of the quote "Don't mention the war."
Featuring: Brenda Cowling as Sister.
Series 2 (1979)
The second series was transmitted three-and-a-half years later, with the first episode being broadcast on 19 February 1979. Due to an industrial dispute at the BBC, which resulted in a strike, the final episode was not completed until well after the others, being finally shown as a one-off instalment on 25 October 1979. The cancelled episode on 19 March was replaced with a repeat of "Gourmet Night" from series 1. In the second series the anagrams were created by Ian McClane, Bob Spier's assistant floor manager.
|No.||Title||Sign reads||Original air date|
|7||"Communication Problems"||FAWLTY TOWER (Crooked L)||19 February 1979|
The arrival of the "guest from hell" — Mrs. Richards, a rather deaf, dotty and bad-tempered woman — interferes with Basil's attempts to prevent the money he won on a racehorse from being discovered by Sybil, who disapproves of gambling.
Featuring: Joan Sanderson as Mrs Richards.
|8||"The Psychiatrist"||WATERY FOWLS||26 February 1979|
A psychiatrist and his wife—also a doctor—come to the hotel for a weekend break, and cannot help but notice the eccentricities of their host, who is perturbed when he discovers their professions. An attractive Australian girl (Luan Peters) also visits, who goes on to have certain awkward interactions with Fawlty as he seeks to catch a non-paying guest Mr Johnson (Nicky Henson) has in his bedroom.
Featuring: Basil Henson and Elspet Gray as Mr and Mrs Abbott, Nicky Henson as Mr Johnson and Luan Peters as Raylene Miles.
|9||"Waldorf Salad"||FLAY OTTERS||5 March 1979|
Basil is not altogether keen on a loud and demanding American guest who demands a higher class of service—and food—than Fawlty Towers is accustomed to providing. Basil soon learns that the American guest will not tolerate any shenanigans.
Featuring: Bruce Boa and Claire Nielson as Mr and Mrs Hamilton and Norman Bird as Mr Arrad.
|10||"The Kipper and the Corpse"||FATTY OWLS||12 March 1979|
With no regard to Basil's blood pressure, a guest dies at the hotel and Basil and the staff are left with the unpleasant task of removing the body discreetly while the doctor staying at the hotel, Dr. Price, waits for his sausages. Also, Polly and Manuel feed an elderly woman's pampered pet dog some extra spicy sausages after it bites them both.
Featuring: Geoffrey Palmer as Dr Price, Derek Royle as Mr Leeman and Richard Davies as Mr White.
|11||"The Anniversary"||FLOWERY TWATS||26 March 1979|
Basil invites some friends for a surprise wedding anniversary party, but Sybil assumes he has forgotten their anniversary and storms off, leaving her husband and Polly, in disguise, desperately telling the others she is 'ill'...
Featuring: Ken Campbell as Roger and Una Stubbs as Alice.
|12||"Basil the Rat"||FARTY TOWELS||25 October 1979|
The local health inspector issues a long list of hygienic aberrations which the staff must immediately sort out, or else face closure. After Manuel's pet rat escapes from his cage and runs loose in the hotel, the staff must catch it before the inspector finds it first. At the same time, they must try and discern which veal cutlets are safe to eat after one covered in rat poison gets mixed up with the others.
Featuring: John Quarmby as the Health Inspector.
At first the series was not held in particularly high esteem. The Daily Mirror review of the show in 1975 had the headline "Long John Short On Jokes". Eventually though, as the series began to gain popularity, critical acclaim followed. Clive James writing in The Observer said the second episode had him "retching with laughter."
One critic of the show was Richard Ingrams, then television reviewer for The Spectator, who wrote a caustic condemning piece on the programme. 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.
In an interview for the "TV Characters" edition of Channel 4's 'talking heads' strand 100 Greatest (in which Basil placed second, between Homer Simpson and Edmund Blackadder), TV critic A. A. Gill theorised that the initially muted response may have been caused by Cleese seemingly ditching his label as a comic revolutionary – earned through his years with Monty Python – to do something more traditional.
In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, Fawlty Towers was placed first. It was also voted fifth in the "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 1997, "The Germans" was ranked No. 12 on TV Guide's 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. Named in Empire magazine's 2016 list of the greatest TV shows of all time, the entry states,
One of British TV's greatest ever sitcoms, the central question of Fawlty Towers – why Basil Fawlty, the world's least hospitable man would go into hospitality in the first place – remains tantalisingly unanswered across 12 kipper-serving, Siberian hamster-hunting, German-baiting episodes. A straight zero on TripAdvisor, the very layout of Fawlty Towers itself offers comedy gold as Basil (John Cleese), his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), waitress Polly (Connie Booth) and poor, benighted Manuel (Andrew Sachs) manoeuvre themselves (and the odd corpse) around its dowdy interior without ruining anyone's stay. Basil, needless to say, fails. Often and hilariously.
Awards and accolades
Three British Academy Television Awards (BAFTAs) were awarded to people for their involvement with the series. Both of the series were awarded the BAFTA in the category Best Scripted Comedy, the first being won by John Howard Davies in 1976, and the second by Douglas Argent and Bob Spiers in 1980. In 1980, Cleese received the BAFTA for Best Entertainment Performance.
John Lennon was a fan of the show. He said in 1980: "I love Fawlty Towers. I'd like to be in that. [It's] the greatest show I've seen in years... what a masterpiece, a beautiful thing." Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has remarked he is a great fan of Fawlty Towers and named "The Germans" as his favourite episode. He described the scene with Basil impersonating Hitler as "so tasteless, it's hilarious".
Remakes, adaptations and reunions
Four attempted remakes of Fawlty Towers were started for the American market, with three making it into production. The first, Chateau Snavely starring Harvey Korman and Betty White, was produced by ABC for a pilot in 1978, but the transfer from coastal hotel to highway motel proved too much and the series never was produced. The second, also by ABC, was Amanda's, starring Bea Arthur, notable for switching the sexes of its Basil and Sybil equivalents. It also failed to pick up a major audience and was dropped after eight episodes had been aired, although 13 episodes were shot. A third remake, called Payne (produced by and starring John Larroquette), was produced in 1999, but was cancelled shortly after. Nine episodes were produced of which eight aired on American television (though the complete run was broadcast overseas). A German pilot based on the sitcom was made in 2001, named Zum letzten Kliff, but further episodes were not made.
The popular sitcoms 3rd Rock from the Sun and Cheers (in both of which Cleese made guest appearances) have cited Fawlty Towers as an inspiration, especially regarding its depiction of a dysfunctional workplace "family". Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan have cited Fawlty Towers as a major influence on their sitcom Father Ted. Guest House on Pakistan's PTV also resembled the series.
Several of the characters have made other appearances, as spinoffs or in small cameo roles. In 1981, in character as Manuel, Andrew Sachs recorded his own version of the Joe Dolce cod-Italian song "Shaddap You Face" (with the B-side "Waiter, There's a Spanish Flea in My Soup") but the record was not released because Joe Dolce took out an injunction: he was about to issue his version in Britain. Sachs also portrayed a Manuel-like character in a series of British TV advertisements for life insurance. Gilly Flower and Renee Roberts, who played the elderly ladies Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby in the series, reprised their roles in a 1983 episode of Only Fools and Horses. In 2006, Cleese played Basil Fawlty for the first time in 27 years, for an unofficial England 2006 World Cup song, "Don't Mention the World Cup", taking its name from the phrase, "Don't mention the war," which Basil used in the episode "The Germans". In 2007, Cleese and Sachs reprised their roles for a six-episode corporate business video for the Norwegian oil company Statoil. In the video, Fawlty is running a restaurant called "Basil's Brasserie" while Manuel owns a Michelin-starred restaurant in London. In the 2008 gala performance We Are Most Amused, Cleese breaks into character as Basil for a cameo appearance by Sachs as an elderly Manuel.
In November 2007, Prunella Scales returned to the role of Sybil Fawlty in a series of sketches for the BBC's annual Children in Need charity telethon. The character was seen taking over the management of the eponymous hotel from the BBC drama series Hotel Babylon, interacting with characters from that programme as well as other 1970s sitcom characters. The character of Sybil was used by permission of John Cleese.
In 2016, Cleese reprised his role as Basil in a series of TV adverts for High Street optician chain Specsavers. The same year, Cleese and Booth reunited to create and co-write the official theatrical adaptation of Fawlty Towers, which premiered in Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre. It was critically well received, subsequently embarking on a successful tour of Australia. Cleese was intimately involved in the creation of the stage version from the beginning, including in the casting. He visited Australia to promote the adaptation, as well as oversee its success. Melbourne was chosen to premiere the adaptation due to Fawlty Towers' enduring popularity in Australia, and also because it has become a popular international test market for large-scale theatrical productions in recent years, having recently been the city where the revised Love Never Dies and the new King Kong were also premiered. Cleese also noted he did not believe the London press would give the adaptation fair, unbiased reviews, so he deliberately chose to premiere it elsewhere.
Fawlty Towers: Re-Opened
In 2009, Tiger Aspect Productions produced a two-part documentary for the digital comedy channel Gold, called Fawlty Towers: Re-Opened. The documentary features interviews with all four main cast members, including Connie Booth, who had refused to talk about the series for 30 years. John Cleese confirmed at the 30-year reunion in May 2009 that they will never make another episode of the comedy because they are "too old and tired" and expectations would be too high. In a television interview (shown in Australia on Seven Network and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) on 7 May 2009, Cleese also commented that he and Booth took six weeks to write each episode.
In 1977 and 1978 alone, the original TV show was sold to 45 stations in 17 countries and was the BBC's best-selling overseas programme for that year. Fawlty Towers became a huge success in almost all countries in which it aired. Although it initially was a flop in Spain, largely because of the portrayal of the Spanish waiter Manuel, it was successfully resold with the Manuel character's nationality changed to Italian except in Spain's Catalan region where Manuel was Mexican. To show how badly it translated, Clive James picked up a clip containing Manuel's "¿Qué?" phrase to show on Clive James on Television in 1982. The series also briefly was broadcast in Italy in the 1990s on the satellite channel Canal Jimmy, in the original English with Italian subtitles.
In Australia, the show originally was broadcast on ABC Television, the first series in 1976 and the second series in 1980. The show then was sold to the Seven Network where it has been repeated numerous times.
Home video releases and merchandise
Two record albums were released by BBC Records. The first album, simply titled Fawlty Towers, was released in 1979 and contained the audio from "Communication Problems" (as "Mrs Richards") and "Hotel Inspectors". The second album, titled Second Sitting, was released in 1981 and contained audio from "Basil the Rat" (as "The Rat") and "The Builders".
Fawlty Towers originally was released by BBC Video in 1984, with three episodes on each of four tapes. Each tape was edited with the credits from all three episodes put at the end of the tape. A Laserdisc containing all episodes spliced together as a continuous episode was released in the U.S. on 23 June 1993. It was re-released in 1994, unedited but digitally remastered. It also was re-released in 1998 with a special interview with John Cleese. Fawlty Towers – The Complete Series was released on DVD on 16 October 2001, available in regions 1, 2 and 4. A "Collector's Edition" is available in region 2.
Series one of the show was released on UMD Video for PSP. In July 2009, BBC America announced a DVD re-release of the Fawlty Towers series. The DVD set was released on 20 October 2009. The reissue, titled Fawlty Towers Remastered: Special Edition, contains commentary by John Cleese on every episode as well as remastered video and audio. All episodes are occasionally available as streamed video-on-demand via Netflix and Amazon Instant Videos as well. Both series are available for download on iTunes.
Home video releases
- Fawlty Towers: The Complete First Series VHS
- Fawlty Towers: The Complete Second Series VHS
- The Complete Fawlty Towers VHS Box Set
- The Complete Fawlty Towers – 19 November 2001 – DVD boxset
- Fawlty Towers Volume 1: Basil The Rat (3 episodes, 94 minutes) – 31 July 2007
- Fawlty Towers Volume 2: The Psychiatrist (3 Episodes, 94 minutes) – 6 September 2007
- Fawlty Towers Volume 3: The Kipper And The Corpse (3 Episodes, 93 minutes) – 2 October 2007
- Fawlty Towers Volume 4: The Germans (3 Episodes, 93 minutes) – 7 November 2007
- Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection – Remastered (3 DVD set, all 12 episodes, 374 minutes) – 3 November 2009
- Fawlty Towers – Series 1: Episodes 1–3 (Comedy Bites) (3 Episodes, 94 minutes) – 4 March 2010
- Fawlty Towers: The Complete First Series VHS – New Zealand Translation by Denzil
- Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection Blu Ray Box Set (3 discs, all 12 episodes, 374 minutes) – 18 November 2019
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Number 1 in the TV 100
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And at number one is, of course, Fawlty Towers.
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