12 December 2005 | kurt_messick
Come visit the worst-run hotel in the whole of western Europe (well, except for that place in Eastbourne...) In a field with many top contenders, 'Fawlty Towers' remains my favourite of all 'Britcoms' - situation comedies originating on British television. Fawlty Towers has a cult following decades after the originals aired; it is sometimes hard to believe that there are but 12 episodes, six hours total. The regular cast is led by John Cleese, veteran of the famous Monty Python comedy troupe, as the irrepressible Basil Fawlty, titular head of the hotel with dreams of class and glory; Prunella Scales is his long-suffering and hardworking wife, Sybil, who recognises that while Basil may think 'the sky's the limit!', in fact, '22 rooms is the limit'. Connie Booth (Cleese's real-life wife) played the level-headed and sensible, overworked maid Polly, and in a role matched only by Fawlty's own bizarre manner, Andrew Sachs plays the lovable and ever-incompetent Spanish waiter, Manuel (he's from Barcelona...). Ballard Berkeley makes Ballard Berkeley makes a regular appearance as the Major, a retired long-term resident at the hotel. Brian Hall joined the cast for the second season as the not-quite-gourmet chef, Terry.
From the very first episode (first aired in 1975) featured a social-climbing Fawlty as perhaps the most rude and insufferable hotel manager in existence, in the resort town of Torquay, on the Channel coast of Britain. Sybil tries to maintain a reasonable level of service, but Fawlty's snobbishness permits him to be gracious (indeed, excessively fawning) toward those he considers 'worthy', which in this episode turns out to be Lord Melbury, who ends up not being Lord Melbury, but rather a confidence trickster, and Fawlty's revenge scares away the real 'posh' guests, whom Fawlty sends off with the hilarious shout, 'Snobs!' In each of the episodes, there is a crisis - one gets the sense that the life of Fawlty is non-stop crisis, with his wife and Polly forever picking up the pieces, Manuel always complicating things, and the others wandering around in a state of disbelief (or, in the case of the Major, perpetual daze). The twelve episodes highlight all the things that could wrong at hotel in classic comedic fashion - the institution of a Gourmet Night falls flat when the not-quite-recovering alcoholic chef starts drinking the night of the main event; a guest dies in the middle of the night, and Fawlty tries to slip him out unnoticed; remodelers install and remove the wrong doors; the health inspector unexpected shows up and gets served a bit of rat with his cheese.
However, nothing quite matches the kinds of situations Basil can get himself into. When trying to plan a surprise anniversary dinner for his wife, she leaves the hotel thinking that Basil has forgotten again, and Basil dresses Polly up as a sick-bed-bound Sybil to fool the guests. When Polly's friends check in for a wedding over the weekend, Basil suspects the group of free sexual expression (highlighting his own repression); this theme is carried over to a glorious extreme in the episode about the visiting Psychiatrist.
'How does he make his living?' Basil protests. 'He makes his money by sticking his nose into others' private parts, er, details...' This is also the episode where Sybil finally confronts Basil about his double-sided hotel manner toward guests: 'You're either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrine puff adder,' she declares. He replies in perfect form, 'Just trying to enjoy myself, dear.' As the psychiatrist will comment near the end, there's enough material for an entire psychiatrist conference. Indeed there is, as this is slapstick humour with a difference. Intelligent and witty while utterly chaotic and beyond the pale, one is treated to the moose-head incident and the ingrowing toenail as well as Fawlty's unique form of automobile motivation (how many of us have ever been tempted to whack away at a stalled car with a stick!) and a nice performance of Brahms (his 'third racket', to be precise). One must not overlook the little details, either, including the ever-changing sign in front (the actual hotel used for the exteriors unfortunately burned down many years after the show), and the fact that the interior and exterior layouts of the building cannot correspond (shades of 'The Simpsons' whose furniture layout changes from scene to scene).
It is almost inconceivable that the two series, each of six episodes, were four years apart (1975 and 1979), as they flow rather seamlessly together. Popular on television networks worldwide, it can be seen variously on BBC America and local public television channels, often during the fund drives, when the most popular pieces are shown.