Fawlty Towers Remastered
by Del Harvey
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In May 1970 the Monty Python team booked a stay in the Gleneagles Hotel (a reference was made to the Gleneagles in “The Builders” episode) in Torquay whilst filming on location. John Cleese became fascinated with the behavior of the owner Donald Sinclair whom Cleese later described as ‘the most marvellously rude man I’ve ever met’. This behavior included Sinclair throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive; and placing Eric Idle’s suitcase behind a wall in the garden on the suspicion that it contained a bomb (it actually contained a ticking alarm clock). He also criticised the US-born Terry Gilliam’s table manners for not being ‘British’ (switching hands with his fork whilst eating). Cleese and Booth stayed on at the hotel after filming, furthering their research of the hotel owner.
At the time, Cleese was also a writer on the 1970s British TV sitcom Doctor in the House for London Weekend Television. An early prototype of the character that would become known as Basil Fawlty was developed in an episode (“No Ill Feeling”) of the third Doctor series (titled Doctor at Large). In this edition, the main character checks into a small town hotel, his very presence seemingly winding up the aggressive and incompetent manager (played by Timothy Bateson) with a domineering wife. The show was broadcast on 30 May 1971. Cleese 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.
Bill Cotton, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment in the mid-1970s, said after the first series was produced that the show was a prime example of the BBC’s relaxed attitude to trying new entertainment formats and encouraging new ideas. He said that when he read the first scripts he could see nothing funny in them, but trusting that Cleese knew what he was doing (having come into this fresh from helping rip up the TV comedy form book with his fellow Pythons), he gave the go-ahead. He said that the commercial channels, with their emphasis on audience ratings, would never have let the show get to the production stage on the basis of the scripts.
Hot off the runaway success of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese embarked on his now-legendary sitcom, Fawlty Towers. One of the most memorable and best-loved characters in British comedy, Basil Fawlty is a much put-upon, hardworking hotel manager whose life is plagued by dead guests, hotel inspectors and other assorted riff-raff. Of course his biggest headache is his “little nest of vipers,” his nagging wife Sibyl, the unflappable Polly and the trainee waiter from Barcelona, Manuel, who has marginally more intelligence than a monkey.
Fawlty Towers Remastered includes these bonus features:
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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