The writing team of John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth probably put more sweat and brain power into constructing each sublime, chaotic, farcical half hour of Fawlty Towers than many writers expend on a full-length feature film. The manic design of the now-legendary 12 episode British series remains awe-inspiring, and is still one of a handful of gold standards against which to measure other television comedy. Read the full review after the jump.
A newly-remastered 3 disc boxed set of Fawlty from BBC Video is happily more than just another excuse to coax die-hard fans into shelling out for a glorified reissue. The new transfers of the programs look and sound great, and the set is jam-packed with extras and commentary which, at their best, really do enhance the experience of revisiting this classic post-Python solo offering. Of the individual shows, very little can be said, other than that they are models of comedic construction, timing and character development. It is safe to assume that most everybody who would want to own this collection has already seen each episode a dozen times and has signature moments engraved onto their brain stems. However, perhaps a momentary word is in order for those who may be new to the series or will be getting the chance to experience it for the first time-most likely through a Fawlty Towers geek friend or relative who will not let you leave the room until you grok the show’s utter genius.
John Cleese, he of the Monty Python troupe, plays Basil Fawlty, the high-strung, vindictive and emotionally repressed owner of a small hotel in the British seaside town of Torquay. Henpecked to within an inch of his life by his passive-aggressive wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), Basil takes most of his frustrations out on either the guests or his hapless Spanish bellboy Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Meanwhile, a few long-term eccentric guests putter about while the hotel maid Polly (Booth) attempts to be a calming force amidst a variety of ingenious comedic premises-often involving mistaken identity and miscommunication–that keep threatening to upend everything. Devotees of the show– which slowly built a huge following in reruns after its 1975 premiere and waited four more years to deliver a second six-episode season–will no doubt point to any number of favorite programs. Each one depicts Fawlty being pushed toward ever more embarrassing actions or revelations, most of which involve a build in his frustration that often culminates in half-mad tirades and Cleese’s signature physicality, his gangly body twisting and stiffening with rage. Two tried and true fan favorites happen to be the season-enders of both runs of the show. “The Germans,” which closes season one, involves Basil getting a bump on the head and making horrifyingly inappropriate remarks about World War II to some visiting Germans, complete with Nazi goose stepping. “Basil The Rat,” which concluded the series, finds Manuel’s pet rat (which he insists is a hamster) getting loose in the hotel during a health inspection. This episode was Cleese’s favorite because, as he puts it in the commentary track, the confusion and frenzy was at an all-time high.
This brings us to the extras in this boxed set. The first and most significant is the John Cleese commentary on every one of the episodes. His narration is delightful for many reasons, not the least of which is his analytical mind dissecting nearly every comedic beat and performance choice (a real education for the aspiring comedians among you), and his willingness to say how many times he would have done things differently. Notable, too, is a tone of real reverence and respect for all the comedic actors who shared the stage with him-not only his co-stars, but nearly every single one of the guest actors, too. Even those with no lines are singled out by Cleese for their acting prowess. He addresses the political incorrectness of the show (aside from the Germans, Sachs’ Manuel character is a bumbling foreigner who is repeatedly belted by a pent-up Basil) by saying, “I don’t think that you can edit humor because it may be misunderstood by idiots.” Finally, Cleese is prone to busting out into one of his wheezy guffaws at any given time, in remembrance of what made him laugh thirty years ago. His commentary tracks are a tonic. Less inspiring but certainly informative are the commentaries on all twelve episodes by their directors, the early Python director John Howard-Davies (season one) and Bob Spiers (season two). From them we learn such tidbits as the fact that the shows averaged four hundred shots per episode, and that a pre-adolescent boy who has a walk-on role in the pilot delivering a newspaper was the never-seen prankster who rearranges the letters on the Fawlty Towers sign outside the hotel. (The letters are rearranged into increasingly obscene anagrams over the course of the series.)
A bonus disc includes three good-sized interviews with Cleese, Sachs and Scales (who spends several engaging minutes musing on the background and interior life of the fictional character she created), some smaller interviews with some of the show’s many guest stars (who will be familiar to Anglophiles) and a rare conversation with Connie Booth herself. Each of these interviews is done green screen with an artist’s rendering of an area of the Fawlty hotel put in as a backdrop. It’s a small touch, but one that reveals the care that was put into this new presentation. There is also a very entertaining mini-documentary about the Gleneagles, the actual Torquay hotel that inspired Cleese and Booth to create Fawlty Towers. It seems the Pythons were staying there while filming back in the early 1970’s and experienced first hand the surliness of its owner, one Donald Sinclair. Here, several current Gleneagles staff and former guests recall Sinclair’s irritable behavior in an unexpectedly hilarious little film. A few forgettable outtakes and a thin and superfluous booklet round out the bonus materials.
All in all, though, this terrific boxed set provides ample reason to revisit Fawlty Towers, a hotel made so memorable by this meticulously crafted comedy series that one almost wishes one could go there-if only to have the pleasure of seeing what it might be like to endure a signature verbal assault by Basil himself.
James Napoli is an author, filmmaker and teacher whose third book Violation! The Ultimate Ticket Book is now available.