by Allan Fish
(UK 1975/1979 380m) DVD1/2
Or, watery fowls…or, flay otters…or, farty towels…or, flowery twa…never mind
p John Howard Davies, Douglas Argent d Bob Spiers w Connie Booth, John Cleese m Dennis Wilson art Peter Kindred, Nigel Curzon
John Cleese (Basil Fawlty), Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty), Andrew Sachs (Manuel), Connie Booth (Polly Sherman), Gilly Flower (Miss Tibbs), Renée Roberts (Miss Gatsby), Ballard Berkeley (Maj.Gowen), Brian Hall (Terry the Cook), Joan Sanderson (Mrs Richards), David Kelly (O’Reilly), Robin Ellis, Bernard Cribbins, Geoffrey Palmer,
Sometime in 1970, at the height of their fame following the shooting of their first series, the Monty Python team stayed en masse at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. There they encountered one Donald Sinclair, the proprietor of said establishment. Here was a hotelier who threw timetables to guests when asked when the next bus to town would arrive, placed Eric Idle’s suitcase behind a garden wall believing it contained a bomb (rather than a clock), and also had the temerity to criticise American Terry Gilliam’s table manners, more precisely for holding the fork in the wrong hand (an episode that perhaps lead to an infamous sequence with a Waldorf Salad).
Five years later, after finishing their film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Python team had gone their separate ways; Terry Jones and Michael Palin to making Ripping Yarns, Terry Gilliam to directing, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman to other projects, while John Cleese and wife Connie Booth prepared their series, Fawlty Towers. It followed an irascible, short-tempered, sarcastic but henpecked hotelier who dreams of escaping his drudgery but is tied to his fearsome wife’s apron strings. Unable to take it out on her, he takes it out on the guests and his two underlings; Catelan waiter Manuel, who can barely speak a word of English, and nubile but quick-thinking waitress Polly.
Apparently Mr Sinclair was not well enamoured of how he’d been portrayed, though guests and even his own daughters confirmed it was an accurate depiction. Either way, the fact must remain, who cares whether it was accurate or not? Basil Fawlty is one of the great screen creations, almost a microcosm of the fall of the British Empire. He was hardly the first immortal character of British situation comedy – Alf Garnett, Harold Steptoe, Norman Stanley Fletcher, Captain George Mainwaring, to name but a few – yet Basil tops the lot, and it’s no coincidence why. Basil was only ever seen for just over six hours in total, he never had chance to go stale; and though I have massive affection for Ralph Kramden, Ernie Bilko, Edmund Blackadder and David Brent, he’s probably the greatest creation in television comedy history. There are too many moments to consider that one shall just have to content oneself with a few gems; Basil taking a tree branch to his car to give it a thrashing for refusing to start, Basil insulting German guests by trying not to mention the war and ending up saying they started it because they “invaded Poland” and goose-stepping across the lobby in remembrance of the Ministry of Silly Walks, his namesake the rat in the biscuit tin (the final moment in the entire series), the unforgettable ‘Kipper and the Corpse’ episode where a guest ups and dies on them and, of course, that aforementioned Waldorf Salad. Personal favourite, though, is deaf battleaxe Joan Sanderson as the guest from hell, complaining about the view and Basil retorting “well, might I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The hanging gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically…Don’t be ridiculous, I expect to see the sea…You can see the sea. It’s over there between the land and the sky…I’d need a telescope to be able to see that…Well, might I suggest you move to a hotel closer to the sea – or preferably in it.” Twelve perfect scripts (some running beyond half an hour to reach a natural conclusion) from Cleese and Booth backed up by Sachs’ immortal idiot, Scales’ harridan with a laugh “like someone machine-gunning a seal” and, of course, Cleese’s unparalleled genius for stressful lunacy as a school-master type caught in a nightmare, too stressed out and combustible even to notice the welcome distraction of Polly in the wreckage. It gets no better than this.