Looking Back At FAWLTY TOWERS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony visits an era before TripAdvisor.
Here’s the thing. In the 2020s, it should be – and for many people, is – difficult to love Fawlty Towers.

Before we all get stoned for blasphemy (that’s a different John Cleese production), hear us out.

Basil Fawlty, owner of Fawlty Towers, the Torquay hotel where hospitality goes to die, is awful. He’s awful on a whole lot of levels, and that’s a lot of the point of him. Inspired by a real hotel owner encountered by the Monty Python team, he’s a hotel owner who’s fundamentally disinclined to the company – let alone the service – of the kind of people most likely to use his hotel.

That’s most of the joke of his character – that a man so fundamentally unsuited for the job finds himself owning and running a hotel. The fact that he’s a social snob and a prude, crippled by the dread of embarrassment is written in and intentional. And as far as that goes, it’s fair enough – we find it easy to laugh at snobbish people, as though it’s the price they pay for their own flaws of character. Even when it becomes clear that Basil is so frankly miserable he may well be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it can still be funny because the mayhem that engulfs his life and mortifies him is usually a result of his own positions.

Slightly creepy laughing at a man in the grip of despair? Sure – but because he’s so intent on making others as miserable as he is himself, it achieves a level of justifiability. It’s like when [Insert political figure that makes you seethe] gets hit by, to take an object entirely at random, a flung milkshake – you can deplore the downgrading of public discourse, but still laugh yourself sick at the spectacle of their dairy-drenched idiot face.

Basil is also – and this is where it’s less clear the comedy is aware of itself – casually racist in a most particularly British way, both in conversation with other white Britons like permanent Fawlty Towers resident, Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley), and for instance, when dealing with some German guests at the hotel, or an Irish builder, or of course, his Spanish waiter, Manuel.

Manuel was regularly the butt of jokes that equate his lack of perfect English with an ‘obvious’ stupidity. He’s frequently discounted, occasionally locked in burning rooms, and physically manhandled and slapped, both because of the class roles of Fawlty and his waiter, and because Fawlty, being British, feels free to physically reprimand non-Brits based on his assumption of their flawed (by virtue of being non-British) characters.

So there’s lots to question in Fawlty Towers, though most of it centres on the character of Basil Fawlty himself. Prunella Scales plays Sybil Fawlty, Basil’s wife, as the role was presumably intended, as something of a grotesque, with a knuckle-grating laugh and a tendency to monopolise the guests’ attention, but with a heart that – compared to her husband, at least – is reasonably kind, and is not averse to giving the guests an enjoyable holiday experience within the limits of what is possible.

Manuel (Andrew Sachs), who is never granted a surname in the show, is wrapped up in the boss-employee/national prejudice dynamic with Basil, but apart from a difficulty with the English language played for laughs, he’s otherwise mostly a cipher, only having additional things to do when either a Spanish or a stupid stereotype is needed – in The Anniversary, he becomes passionate and combative when Terry the shady chef (Brian Hall) puts mince in Manuel’s signature paella. In Gourmet Night, he serenades guests with some Spanish guitar stylings while Basil is running about the district getting food brought in from another restaurant. And in Basil The Rat, Manuel’s largest role, he is again extremely passionate in his love and care for his ‘Siberian Hamster’ (or ‘rat’ as it is otherwise known). So you could add racial – if not overtly racist – stereotyping to the list of reasons why Fawlty Towers makes some modern viewers queasy. While this stereotyping shows itself specifically in relation to other characters like Irish builder Mr O’Reilly (David Kelly) in The Builders, and the German guests in The Germans, it’s a constant thread running through Basil’s character, and a thread with which the audience of the time was likely to identify.

Polly Sherman (co-writer Connie Booth), never comes in for racial stereotyping as an American, interestingly, and exists to be a source of professionalism, and occasionally the outside viewer’s voice of sanity and rationalism in the otherwise closed ecosystem of Fawlty Towers. For all that, though, her fundamental helpfulness often leads her to get drawn into the increasingly desperate, uptight, coiled-spring machinations of Basil, especially as they go wrong and he needs to spin plates to avoid the horror that is social embarrassment.

On Gourmet Night, she is forced to burst into showtunes to entertain the guests while Basil is collecting food to serve them. In Communication Problems, she puts a bet on a horse for Fawlty, despite knowing that Sybil has expressly forbidden him to gamble. And in The Anniversary, much against her better judgment and expressly for some money she needs for a car, she even pretends to be Sybil, trying to fool the friends of the Fawltys, after the actual Sybil has stormed off in a huff.

You could certainly argue that these high-points don’t really add up to enough of a reason for Polly to exist – but then, you can make a similar case that without the need for a slappable foreign fall guy, Manuel too is more or less redundant in the writing.

All of this, then, is enough to make modern generations – and a few of us of a crustier vintage, too – uncomfortable when watching Fawlty Towers.

But here’s the thing.

The craft. The craft is the thing that, after a ropey start with critics, has made Fawlty Towers into an absolutely untouchable legend of British comedy. There is of course a grand tradition of farce in the UK, evolved all the way from court jesters, through Shakespeare, through PG Wodehouse, through Noel Coward, to the likes of Brian Rix, whose farces lit up stages all across Britain.

Fawlty Towers took the traditional farce – which was usually at least a little bawdy and involved at least semi-nudity and the crushing social embarrassment that came with it – and more or less turned it inside-out. There’s rarely any actual bawdiness in Fawlty Towers, but what there is is that powerfully English engine of mortification – the fear of getting things wrong. Basil Fawlty is a man who knows in his soul that his life has taken the wrong path, and to mitigate that knowledge, on a daily basis, he tries to meticulously be ‘right.’ That entails looking up to the aristocracy, and down on anyone lower than this middle-class rung of the ladder, as seen in A Touch Of Class, where he fawns over ‘Lord Melbury’ (Michael Gwynn) and is snippy and snooty with ‘Mr Brown’ (Robin Ellis). When the lord turns out to be a con man and Mr Brown the detective on his trail, Fawlty’s purple-faced cry of “YOU BAAAAASTARD!” at the fleeing Melbury comes from a place of being fooled into fawning over the wrong people.

The same essential insecurity is shown in The Hotel Inspectors, when demanding guest Mr Hutchinson (the sublime Bernard Cribbins) is shown nothing but Basil’s utter contempt until Fawlty suspects he is a wandering hotel inspector - at which point, he becomes the soul of oleaginous servitude. When he is disabused of this notion, Fawlty becomes determined to ‘get him’ for ‘passing himself off as a hotel inspector,’ while the innocent, albeit intensely irritating, seller of spoons is clueless of the offence he’s committed in the mind of the hotel owner.

The lack of outright titillation in Fawlty Towers made it both suitable for a mainstream TV audience and a little more clever than traditional farce, because the hanky-panky in Fawlty Towers takes place in Basil’s head – and he can’t stand it, either as a tightly-wound ‘proper’ Englishman, or as a human being so divorced from both his erotic nature and the concept of fun that he can’t stand the thought of anyone else embracing those sides of themselves. Hence his hyper-vigilance in The Wedding Party when he thinks a young couple might possibly be having sex under his roof.

But the craft of Fawlty Towers’ writing is frequently faultless, and when it works, it’s like a well-oiled laughter machine, custom-built to fold you up in hysterics and make you fall off your chair. Witness the simple placing of a line early in Gourmet Night about the car becoming unreliable – it’s so delicately done that when you first hear it, it seems almost like filler, just another example of Sybil berating Basil for not doing the things he’s told to do.

When the car subsequently breaks down as the climax to a host of building events – the new chef at Fawlty Towers being lovelorn and drunk on the night when Fawlty has high society coming round to a special food-based evening, the menu being limited to duck brought in from a local restaurant, the duck being trodden on, meaning Fawlty has to go BACK to the restaurant for more, etc – it’s the pinnacle of British rage and impotence at the seeming cussedness of the inanimate world, and while it's objectively absurd, we’re absolutely with Fawlty when he goes to find a branch with which to give the car, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the ‘damn good thrashing’ it deserves.

The fact that even this scene is topped in the farce by the final reveal, not of the advertised duck, but of a mystery trifle – the result of a switched cloche, to which we the audience have been privy earlier on in the episode – just adds to the spiralling chaos that’s really intensely, carefully plotted. And the audience loses its collective mind.

The evidence of this quality of construction is everywhere in Fawlty Towers, from A Touch Of Class, where the pretend toff leaves a case of valuables in the Towers’ safe, only to have them revealed as nothing but bricks, to Fawlty’s utter bafflement, through to second series episodes like The Kipper and the Corpse, where a case of potential poisoning kickstarts a (wildly criminal) plan to remove the corpse of a dead guest from his room, and The Anniversary, where Basil’s plans to fake-out Sybil on their anniversary lead to chaos, impersonation, and the invention of a ‘doppelganger Sybil’ when the mistress of the hotel returns unexpectedly.

That’s ultimately what makes Fawlty Towers an untouchable, unparalleled comic joy. Yes, the cultural elements are dated and unfortunate, appealing to a casual white British racism that is thankfully becoming less and less acceptable in the 2020s, some fifty years after Fawlty Towers was first broadcast. But it’s worth remembering that most of the consequences of action in Fawlty Towers come back on Basil, so it’s possible to see it as a revenge comedy against people like him, who broadcast their tightly-wound intolerance of the ‘not-right’ into the world and judge people on arbitrary factors like their place of birth (as with Manuel) or the history of their country, for which they are not responsible (as with the German guests).

But the central character of Basil Fawlty remains a vivid portrait of English social anxiety both turned in upon itself and broadcast out to the world, and the pin-point comic construction of a light set-up and an absolute tidal wave of consequences is what makes Fawlty Towers – still – one of the best and most unforgettable British sit-coms in history.

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Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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