John Cleese, master of physical and theoretical comedy, said it best when he described Monty Python as a comedy of ideas and Fawlty Towers as a comedy of emotions. It's true that the humour in Fawlty Towers is much more conventional than anything the Pythons ever did, which led to many fans of the ensemble claiming he'd sold out, but this territory was nothing new for Cleese, who had been writing for more traditional TV comedies long before Fawlty Towers debuted in September 1975.
Five years earlier, whilst still with the Pythons, Cleese was working as a writer on the ITV sitcom Doctor In The House/Doctor At Large. It was during this period that, whilst filming on location, he stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, and became fascinated with the behaviour of the owner, Donald Sinclair, whom Cleese later described as "the rudest man I've ever come across in my life."
The Pythons were apparently greeted by the sight of Sinclair throwing a timetable at another guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive. The hotelier would go on to criticise Terry Gilliam's table manners as not being "British", he locked a guest out of the hotel because the paying customer returned 5 minutes later than he'd stated, and he destroyed Eric Idle's briefcase on the suspicion that it contained a bomb (it was Idle's alarm clock).
Eventually the Python troupe moved to another hotel, all except Cleese who stayed. Apparently he thought there was an idea for a TV show here somewhere.
Cleese wrote an early prototype of his Basil Fawlty character for the Doctor At Large episode No Ill Feeling. Broadcast in 1971 the show saw the main character checking in to a small town hotel, his very presence seemingly winding up the aggressive and incompetent manager (played not by Cleese, but by Timothy Bateson), who was complete with a domineering wife. Shortly after this Cleese, with then-wife Connie Booth, set out to create an entire sit-com based around the rude hotel manager. Approaching the BBC with their idea, the response they received was not the one expected, as Cleese revealed:
"Connie and I wrote that first episode and we sent it in to Jimmy Gilbert [then BBC Head of Comedy], whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing. [Gilbert] said, and I can quote [his note to me] fairly accurately, 'This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster.' And Jimmy himself said, 'You're going to have to get them out of the hotel, John, you can't do the whole thing in the hotel.' Whereas, of course, it's in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up."Unperturbed by the initial rejection, Cleese and Booth continued work on scripts for what would be the first season of Fawlty Towers, eventually receiving an initial series order from the BBC's Head of Light Entertainment, Bill Cotton. Cotton was also unimpressed with the initial scripts, stating he saw "nothing funny in them", but had enough faith in John Cleese and could see his enthusiasm for the series.
Debuting on BBC2 September 19th 1975 with the episode A Touch Of Class, Fawlty Towers was situation comedy perfection from the off. Basil (Cleese), disillusioned with the hotel business, takes out an expensive ad in Country Life magazine in the hope of attracting a better class of customer. His nagging wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) berates him for having wasted forty pounds, and for failing to put up a painting in the foyer.
Basil's snobbery is firmly established here, as is his terror of wife Sybil. She only has to snap "Basil!" and he leaps ten feet into the air. Much of the comedy comes from Basil's inability to communicate with Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs), although nowhere near as much as some of the later episodes.
Basil is unimpressed with common Cockney guest Danny Brown (Robin Ellis), but can't do enough for the upper-class Lord Melbury (Michael Gwynn). His Lordship starts asking Basil to cash cheques and offers to get his coin collection valued, meanwhile Polly Sherman (Booth), an American art student working as a waitress at the hotel, learns from Brown that Melbury is a con man.
Basil's revenge - physically assaulting the shyster and screaming "You bastard!" at him - scares away the real posh guests he was hoping to attract. It's this comedy of errors that would be the backbone for all future scripts, Basil's manic attempts to contain a crisis while Sybil tries to maintain a level of professionalism.
From Basil entertaining the German guests, to the recovering-alcoholic chef drinking on Gourmet Night, to guests dying from suspected poisoned food, to the health inspector showing up and getting served a bit of rat with his cheese, there was not a duff moment amongst the twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers.
Stopping at twelve has only helped to maintain the legacy of the series, had they gone on then there is always the threat of becoming stale. As it was there was a four year gap between seasons one and two, which was largely down to Cleese and Booth's 1978 divorce, although they remain, to this day, close friends. But Booth was initially uninterested in collaborating on more scripts, holding up that second season. Eventually it arrived in February 1979, but a gap of eight months separated the fifth and sixth episodes, with Basil The Rat closing out the series on October 25th of that year.
For many years there were rumours that new episodes were being worked on, and Cleese revealed that at one time in the early 1990s a revival did nearly happen. The plot (which was never fleshed out beyond the initial idea) would have revolved around the chaos that a now-retired Basil typically caused as he and Sybil flew to Barcelona to visit their former employee Manuel and his family. Cleese said:
"We had an idea for a plot which I loved. Basil was finally invited to Spain to meet Manuel's family. He gets to Heathrow and then spends about 14 frustrating hours waiting for the flight. Finally, on the plane, a terrorist pulls a gun and tries to hijack the thing. Basil is so angry he overcomes the terrorist and when the pilot says, "We have to fly back to Heathrow", Basil says, "No, fly us to Spain or I'll shoot you". He arrives in Spain, immediately arrested and spends the entire holiday in a Spanish jail. He is released just in time to go back on the plane with Sybil. It was very funny, but I couldn't do it at the time. Making Fawlty Towers work at 90 minutes was a very difficult proposition. You can build up the comedy for 30 minutes, but at that length there has to be a trough and another peak."Fawtly Towers has been voted the best television comedy of all time, and although all comedy is subjective it's hard for anyone not to be impressed with this series. It's a rare creature, in that it is equally as funny on subsequent viewings, possibly even more so. It's hard to believe it is now more than forty years since the series debuted as the comedy itself has hardly aged, apart from the occasional fashion decision Fawlty Towers could've been made yesterday.
Timeless comedy from a genius mind.