It’s 40 years since Basil and Sybil first checked us in at Fawlty Towers. Pippa Evans has loved it since childhood and has no intention of stopping. Why would she? It’s the best.
I love Fawlty Towers and I am not alone.
The BFI named it Best British Television Series of All Time; Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant cite it as influential on their making of The Office; and the BBC itself states it to be “The British Sitcom by which all British Sitcoms must be judged.” Quite the turnaround from the broadcasting corporation that initially expressed doubts to its potential. But to their credit, the comedy bosses trusted Cleese (and his co-writer, the oft overlooked Connie Booth) and lucky they did, because television history was made.
First aired in September 1975, Fawlty Towers has just been added to the cannon of Netflix, suggesting 40 years hasn’t aged this show. I would agree: it’s a perfect snapshot of Middle England. The characters are still recognisable – the rude hotelier, the hapless waiter, the disapproving wife – the script is hilarious and Basil’s wild rages leap through the screen like a crazed, flapping pigeon. Cravats may be out, but Fawlty is definitely still in.
My love affair with Fawlty Towers began as a young child, watching episodes with my family. Laughing at the rat in the cheese biscuits, giggling as Manuel got hit yet again for his innocent incompetence and guffawing as Basil spoke to the Major from behind a moose head. A show the family could watch together and then continue to quote at the dinner table
“Yes, my little Piranha fish?”
“Did you ever see that film How to Murder Your Wife? Very good. I saw it six times.”
Several attempts have been made to remake Fawlty Towers with minimal success, the most notable being Amanda’s, starring Bea Arthur. It’s much closer to the original than Payne, which swaps Basil’s wish for loftier circumstances despite being distinctly average, for a good-looking older chap (Payne), running a quite successful mid-range hotel in America.
They have bathrobes in the rooms, for goodness sake! Bathrobes! Fawlty Towers would never have robes! And if they did they would have got them from Del Boy and there would be something wrong with them.
“Basil is often the victim of his circumstance, despite still being a terrible person. John Cleese said of him: ‘He’d be able to run a perfectly good hotel if all these guests wouldn’t keep getting in the way.’”
The remakes are painful to watch but they make you appreciate the brilliance of the original even more. American remakes never quite capture the joy of British incompetence and the traditional self-loathing that comes with it.
The USA have the American Dream; we have Make Do And Mend. Why do we love Basil, despite his miserable attitude, the abuse of his staff and hatred of his wife? Because we know that deep down he is not a bad man. Just a disappointed, frustrated one.
He is kind to the Major, he is (generally) good to Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby, and he does attempt to celebrate his and Sybil’s 15th wedding anniversary (leading to a wonderful guest role for Ken Campbell, probably my favourite episode).
Not a word is wasted and the stories wrap up beautifully. Each a perfect farce that Labiche himself would be proud of. A precursor to Larry David, Basil is often the victim of his circumstance, despite still being a terrible person. John Cleese said of him: “He’d be able to run a perfectly good hotel if all these guests wouldn’t keep getting in the way.”
I think we’ve all met that guy. And I know when I check into a dodgy hotel, a bit of me is hoping for a Basil. If I’m going to have a lumpy bed, I want a good story to go with it.
Fawlty Towers is in my blood. I am unable to ask for a Waldorf Salad without listing the ingredients, I call rats Siberian Hamsters and I never mention the war. All because of a fabulous sitcom written 40 years ago.5324 Views
Pippa Evans is a comedian, improviser and the co-founder of Sunday Assembly. She lives in London.