The Genius of Fawlty Towers

Cast of Fawlty Towers.
The main Cast of Fawlty Towers.

I have recently become infatuated with Fawlty Towers the British sitcom made in the 70’s, written by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth and performed by them as well. The show was ranked number one on a list of the Greatest British Television Programs ever in 2000 and, in 2019, it was named the greatest ever British TV sitcom by a panel of British comedy experts. And yes it is that good.


The show is about a bickering couple Basil and Sybil Fawlty, played by Cleese and Prunella Scales, who own a modest bed and breakfast somewhere in the English country side.

Actors John Cleese (left) and Andrew Sachs in a scene from episode ‘Theft’, or ‘Communication Problems’, of the BBC television series ‘Fawlty Towers’, January 28th 1979. (Photo by Don Smith/Radio Times via Getty Images)

Basil is by turns fawning and seething, as he wants desperately to show his importance, but he loathes the guests and his service team and even his wife.

Sybil is sharp tongued and self-serving, but often a voice of reason, and plays the perfect straight man to Cleese as he slowly goes mental.

Their hapless service team also contributes mightily to the comedy: the barely English speaking Manuel (played by Andrew Sachs), and the housekeeper Polly (played by Connie Booth)

Actors John Cleese and Prunella Scales in a scene from episode ‘A Touch of Class’ of the BBC television sitcom ‘Fawlty Towers’, December 23rd 1974. (Photo by Don Smith/Radio Times via Getty Images)

Between language mixups, misunderstandings, and Basil’s flaws driving the plots, every episode is full of comic energy. Although it is scripted, it is a lot like a commedia dell’arte play. The characters are stock, the situations standard, and what makes it amusing is the genius of the acting (and the writing). Like commedia dell’arte, at the end of every episode, nothing has changed, and all of the stock characters are back to their normal state.


Fawlty Towers to become west end playI of course had seen the show before (there are only 2 seasons, a total of 12 episodes) but it came to my attention recently because Cleese has taken three of the episodes he wrote in the 70’s and is turning it into a West End play. Which makes a lot of sense, because it has all of the perfect settings for a French farce, except of course that it is English. And the TV show is so perfectly tuned, and now a classic of British sitcoms. That article says that it actually started performing in Australia in 2016, so my spidey sense for comedy might not be as strong as it used to be.

The show was based on an actual hotelier that Cleese met when the Pythons were filming something, and a version of the character slowly made it into Cleese’s writings, which eventually turned into a screenplay. Originally rejected by the BBC for being too stock and cliched,  eventually the quality of the writing won out, and the show was produced. According to Cleese, each script was approximately 135 pages long (and a typical half an hour script is 65 pages long). They jammed it full of miniature scenes, and as a result it is delightfully complex and engaging.

There had been attempts to remake the show for American television, including two pilots in the 1970’s that never got picked up, one with Harvey Korman and Betty White and another attempt with Bea Arthur playing Cleese’s role in a gender reversal. In the late 1990’s another remake starred John Larroquette which ran for 8 episodes before being cancelled.

Here’s the pilot of Snavely- with Harvey Norman and Betty White.  It was never picked up.  It definitely has the feeling of Fawlty Towers, but the performance aren’t quite up to the British version.





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