Fawlty Towers

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The cast of Fawlty Towers, clockwise from top: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), Sybil Fawlty (Prunella Scales), Manuel (Andrew Sachs) and Polly Sherman (Connie Booth)
Fawlty Towers was a British sitcom made by the BBC and first broadcast in 1975. It is set in a fictional hotel named Fawlty Towers in the Devon town of Torquay on "the English Riviera". The hotel is owned and run by the eccentric Basil Fawlty and his censorious wife Sybil, helped by the maid Polly, the Spanish porter Manuel who could barely speak English and (in the second series) the chef Terry. Permanent guests were the half-senile Major Gowen and the bewildered old ladies Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby. Very few other guests ever stayed long.

The plots are as intricate and farcical as those of Feydeau, involving coincidences, misunderstandings, cross-purposes, accidental meetings and missed meetings. The sex of the bedroom farce is sometimes present, but it is Basil Fawlty's eccentricity, not his lust, that drives the plots.

Only twelve episodes were ever broadcast, but the series has had a lasting and powerful influence. 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 a BBC poll in 2004 of the general public to find "Britain's Best Sitcom". Many commentators considered this surprisingly low.



The cast:

The scripts were written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, who were married at the time of the first series, 1975. By 1979 (second series), Cleese and Booth had divorced after ten years of marriage, 196878.

The programmes were produced and directed by John Howard Davies, Douglas Argent and/or Bob Spiers.


Basil Fawlty

Basil is desperate to belong to a higher social class, and sees the successful running of the hotel as his means to this end ("turn it into an establishment of class..."), yet he is trapped in a job where he has to be pleasant to people he either despises or yearns to be above socially; people he would much rather snub. He is terrified of his wife's sharp tongue, yet fiercely wishes to stand up to her. Always trying to cover his mistakes and always the penny pincher, Basil usually turns to Manuel or Polly to help him execute whatever scheme he has planned. It is, of course, imperative that his wife Sybil does not find out. It's bound to go horribly wrong, with all the blame firmly on Basil.

Basil has served in the Catering Corps of the British Army, possibly as part of his National Service and it is assumed that, on leaving, he utilised his gratuity to purchase a hotel where he can utilise his experience. He is frequently seen wearing a military tie and a military-type moustache. He also claims to have sustained an injury to his leg in the Korean War caused by shrapnel.

Sybil Fawlty

As Basil's wife, she's the only one that refers to him by his first name. She can be taken to be the true manager of the hotel, often attempting to keep Basil in check and on task. She is characterized by an annoying conversational tone and laugh. Sybil may have worked as a barmaid and Basil may have met her after leaving the army.

Polly Sherman

Polly, hired as a waitress, is often stuck doing many of the necessary tasks around the hotel. She is also the voice of sanity, although she loyally attempts to aid Mr. Fawlty when he is trying to cover for a mistake he's made.

Polly is, in theory, only employed part-time at the hotel, and is supposedly an art student. Which art college she studies at, or indeed if she actually does, is not explained in the scripts. She does find time to sketch, and has managed to sell some occasionally to supplement her meagre waitressing income, even to the hotel guests. Another maid is occasionally mentioned in the script, but never appears.


Manuel, the waiter, is a well-meaning Spaniard (from Barcelona) with a limited grasp of the English language and customs. He is scared of Mr. Fawlty's quick temper, yet continually expresses his appreciation for being given the position.

Background and inspiration

Even before this programme existed, English seaside boarding houses and their proprietors had something of a reputation for firmness and intransigence, possibly stemming from the days when soldiers were billeted in small hotels during wartime or national service. Cleese had also parodied the contrast between organisational dogma and sensitive customer service in many personnel training videotapes issued with a serious purpose by his company Video Arts. Basil Fawlty's behaviour can often be taken to represent macho management at its worst.

Fawlty Towers was inspired by the Monty Python team's stay in the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. John and Connie stayed on at the hotel after filming for the Python show had finished. The owner, Mr. Donald Sinclair, was very rude, throwing a bus timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive and throwing Eric Idle's suitcase out of the window in case it contained a bomb. He also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam's table manners for being too American, and it is reasonable to assume that his treatment of Gilliam partially inspired Basil's treatment of an American visitor in the episode "Waldorf Salad".

Sinclair died in 1981, having emigrated to Canada in the 1970s where he was once tracked down by a British newspaper after Cleese named him in an interview. Mr Sinclair and his relatives have never been too happy about the way he has been portrayed, and his widow is now campaigning to remove what she sees as a slur on her husband's reputation, but former staff and visitors have remembered actual events there that were allegedly as ludicrous as those depicted in the programmes. Also the children of Donald Sinclair confirm that it is an accurate rendition of their father.

At the beginning of each episode, the name of the hotel appears on a sign outside. As by naughty children, the name is changed each episode: Fatty Owls, Farty Towels, Flowery Twats, Watery Fowls.

Episode list

It was first broadcast on BBC 2 on September 19, 1975. The episodes of the first series were:

  • "A Touch of Class"
Basil is delighted when a member of the aristocracy chooses to stay at the hotel.
  • "The Builders"
When some work is required on the hotel lobby, Basil goes for the cheapest quote, the moment his wife is out of the way.
  • "The Wedding Party"
Wherever he turns, Basil sees guests fraternising in an immoral way. Yet he's the one who ends up with his pants down in public.
  • "The Hotel Inspectors"
When Basil hears of hotel inspectors anonymously roaming around Torquay, he realises with horror that the man he has been monstering could easily be one of them.
Basil is thrilled when local VIPs accept an invitation to a gourmet evening, but doesn't bank on the new chef's refuelling habits.
A fire drill leaves Basil concussed in hospital, but somehow he still manages to nip back to the hotel in time to treat his German visitors to some of his unique welcoming methods.

All six episodes were directed by John Howard Davies.

The second series was transmitted three and a half years later, with the first episode being broadcast on February 19, 1979. The episodes of the second series were:

  • "Communication Problems"
The guest from hell arrives — Mrs. Richards, a deaf and hotly-tempered widow.
  • "The Psychiatrist"
A shrink and his wife come to the hotel for a break but can't help but notice the eccentricities of their perturbed host.
Basil's not altogether keen on the American man and his wife who demand a higher class of service — and food — than Fawlty Towers is used to providing.
A guest dies naturally in bed, another faints at the sight of the body, and Basil frantically tries to hide the out-of-date breakfast kipper which he is convinced killed the man.
  • "The Anniversary"
Basil organises some friends for a surprise wedding anniversary party, but Sybil assumes he's forgotten and storms off, leaving her husband and Polly, in disguise, desperately telling the others she's 'ill'...
  • "Basil the Rat"
The local Health Inspector issues a huge list of hygienic aberrations which the staff immediately sort out. Sadly, they hadn't reckoned with Manuel's pet — a 'Siberian hamster' — escaping on the same day.

All six episodes were directed by Bob Spiers.

The last episode, "Basil the Rat", wasn't aired until a few months after the other episodes because of a BBC industrial strike.

There have been persistent rumours about a "lost" 13th episode which involved a blackout at the hotel. However, no such episode was ever filmed.

Fawlty Towers influence

Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan have cited Fawlty Towers as a major influence on their sitcom Father Ted.

Two US remakes were made called Amanda's and Payne.

A few hotels and guesthouses have called themselves "Fawlty Towers", including one in Sidmouth which was painted like a Union Jack

External links

fr:L'Hôtel en folie nl:Fawlty Towers no:Hotell i særklasse simple:Fawlty Towers sv:Pang i bygget


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