Generally speaking, I can’t stand Farce… all those wacky coincidences and misunderstandings tend to irritate me far more than they amuse me… but the one major exception to this rule is Fawlty Towers. I have fond memories of watching the show as a youngster, while staying at a caravan park where they projected episodes onto a big screen in the bar every day before dinner… and last week I picked up both series on DVD, when I saw them going cheap in a charity shop (possibly donated by someone who’d upgraded to the remastered boxset, with all its fancy new extras).
For those who don’t know (seriously?), Fawlty Towers is a BBC sitcom from the late 70’s, based around a hotel in the seaside town of Torquay, and focussing mainly on the slightly unstable proprietor, ‘Basil Fawlty’ (played by co-creator John Cleese). Whereas I normally clench and cringe when farcical circumstances conspire against a helpless or well-meaning character, I laugh when it happens to Basil because of the way he maniacally overreacts to every setback and success. He can flip-flop between effusive joy and glowering rage in the blink of an eye, and Cleese is such a fantastic comic actor that he plays every mood swing to the hilt. And Fawlty is rarely an innocent victim of fate… more often than not it’s his own greed, pride and anger that drives him to see every ridiculous ruse through to the bitter end, and keep lying long after everyone else has realised what he’s up to, or stopped caring. If he would only take a moment to centre himself, he could easily come out ahead of the game in several episodes… but then, where’s the fun in that? Of course, it isn’t always Fawlty’s fault… to be fair, he does have to deal with some genuinely unreliable staff members (such as a chef who gets falling down drunk when one of the waiters spurns his advances), and some very difficult customers (such as a deaf old woman who refuses to turn her hearing aid on (because it wastes the batteries), or a shouty American who randomly demands a Waldorf Salad, without any regard for the printed menu that’s been handed to him). Tch! And in-between all the running around and gratuitous slapstick, Fawlty does treat us to some great verbal gags, as he unleashes his barely suppressed ire on his staff, guests and spouse, or sadly laments his lot in life during a moment of quiet despair.
Cleese co-created the series with his then-wife, an American actress named Connie Booth… although they were already divorced by the time they wrote the second series together, four years later. Apparently the two of them seriously slaved over their scripts, spending anywhere up to four months and ten drafts on a single episode. Nevertheless, the first time they submitted their pilot to the BBC, it was rejected for being “full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters”! Sigh… I can relate! Of course, it’s now hailed as a stone-cold classic, and even topped the British Film Institute’s “BFI TV 100” list of bestest programmes ever in 2000. I’ve no idea how the collaboration between Cleese and Booth actually worked, so I can only speculate on what she brought to the process… although I think it’s telling that Cleese never attempted to write the show alone, even after the two of them had split up. Whatever the case, I thought her own character, ‘Polly’, was a very warm and charming addition to the cast, doing her best to stay grounded as the chaos swirled around her. She also got a few funny lines to herself here and there, as her patience was tested by her employers, and the hotel patrons. Sadly Booth retired from the biz in 1995, to become a psychotherapist, and declined to talk about the show until 2009, when she participated in a documentary for the digital channel G.O.L.D. (which was included on one of the discs in the fancy new DVD boxset, as far as I can tell).
Meanwhile, Prunella Scales played Fawlty’s “long-suffering” wife, ‘Sybil’… although, I think it’s fair to say that the suffering was a two-way street at times. Although Sybil demonstrates a fair amount of finesse in the field of customer service, she spends far more time gossiping on the telephone, or ducking out to pamper herself, than she does actually helping to manage the hotel. She also seems blind to the rolling eyes and cold-shoulders that several male guests direct her way, as she cheerfully blathers away at them. When I was younger, I just thought of Sybil as a shrill old nag… but I’ve now reached the age where she’s started to look quite foxy to me (even in the awfully dated outfits she wears). Apparently Scales only landed the role after an actress named Bridget Turner turned it down. “Bridget who?”, I hear you ask. Exactly. Of course, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part now that her neighing laugh, snappish “Basil!”, and oft-repeated “Ohhh, I knooow…” have been burned into our brains… and Scales really brings a lot of humanity to a character that could have become a mean-spirited caricature in the hands of a less skilled actress. You can’t help but feel sorry for the woman when Basil sadistically tortures her by pretending to have forgotten their 15th wedding anniversary… then treats her like a total stranger and locks her in a kitchen cupboard, in a desperate attempt to shore up the ridiculous story he’s told all their friends to explain her absence from the surprise party he’d organised. Poor thing.
[Note: As a “right-on” lefty type, I feel I should comment on the occasional racial/ethnic epithets, and the use of a “stupid foreigner” character as a (literal) punching bag. To be honest, those elements do mar my enjoyment a bit, but it’s such a smart and seminal series overall that I just have to grit my teeth and soldier through those scenes. “Forgive and forget, eh?”]