Fawlty Towers turns 40: Adam Zwar celebrates the greatest sitcom ever made
It's 40 years since the first episode of Fawlty Towers crept into the public consciousness with minimal publicity and a series of lukewarm reviews.
The Evening Standard complained that the plot was "thin and obvious" while the Daily Mirror thundered - "LONG JOHN SHORT ON JOKES".
There was a faction of staffers inside the BBC who weren't surprised by the subdued response. They'd read the Fawlty Towers scripts, didn't think they were much chop, and one executive wrote a memo saying: "I'm afraid I thought this one as dire as its title. A collection of cliches and stock characters which I can't see being anything but a disaster."
So it was an inauspicious start for the greatest sitcom ever made. Apologies if the proclamation offends, but when I first watched Towers as a five-year-old, I rolled off the couch in hysterics, and a little bit of urine escaped my bladder. I'm not proud of it. But it's as good a litmus test as any.
When it comes to deciding "the greatest" sitcom ever, many are in the Seinfeld camp because it was consistently brilliant television for 180 episodes while Towers was only 12 episodes of gold. Others say The Larry Sanders Show (89 episodes) was the best because of its relentless pursuit of realism while Towers was more about farce. And because David Brent was potentially more monstrous than Basil Fawlty, some say The Office was better.
But for me, it's all about Towers. It's the laughs that unfold like rolling thunder until the viewer is left hyperventilating on the couch, it's the staccato-like precision of Cleese's physical comedy, it's cricket fan Ballard Berkely's ability to play a straight bat to the madness in the role of the Major, it's Andrew Sachs' capacity to take a punch as Manuel and it's the cutting sweetness of Prunella Scales' Sybil.
Basil: Hello, dear. (kisses Sybil on the cheek)
Sybil: What are you doing?
Basil: I'm kissing you, dear.
Sybil: Well, don't.
The Fawlty Towers journey started in Torquay, 1970, when Monty Python checked into the 4-star Gleneagles Hotel while filming sketches for Flying Circus. It didn't take long for them to learn that the hotel's proprietor, Donald Sinclair, was "the rudest man on Earth" and while his cast mates switched hotels, Cleese stayed on, hypnotised by Sinclair's brazen misanthropy.
Cleese: Could you possibly call me a taxi, please?
Sinclair: I beg your pardon?
Cleese: Could you call me a taxi please?
Sinclair: Call you a taxi?
Sinclair: Oh, I suppose so.
It was Sinclair who was in Cleese's mind, a few years later, when the BBC's head of light entertainment asked him to come up with a show. By that stage, Cleese had started collaborating with his wife, Connie Booth. The two had been having marriage difficulties and found that when they wrote together that they got on much better.
In his book, Fawlty Towers, author Graham McCann, describes them writing the show, side by side at a desk, Booth scribbling in a notepad and Cleese at a manual typewriter. The scripts would explain the characters' "moves and looks" in forensic detail and come in at 135 pages. A normal half-hour script sits at around 30 pages.
The exterior scenes were filmed first and it was the director's assistant – a fan of crosswords and anagrams, who came up with the constantly changing hotel sign: "Warty Towel", "Watery Flows", "Flay Otters", "Fatty Owls", "Flowery Twats" and "Farty Towels". The rest of the show was recorded in front of an audience of 250 who laughed like drains at such beautifully delivered lines as - "Listen, don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it."
The humour could be construed as big – certainly larger than would normally appeal to me. But it was big and grounded. The joy of Fawlty Towers is that no matter how huge the characters or how ludicrous the situation, it's anchored in an emotional truth - the truth of misanthropist hotelier who has deal with the incompetent "idiots" that are his staff, wife and customers.
Basil: "A satisfied customer. We should have him stuffed."
When Fawlty Towers premiered on September 19, 1975, it rated nearly 2 million – solid enough for 9pm on a Friday night on BBC2. Awards trickled in and by the time the series screened on BBC1 early in 1976 –ratings grew to 12 million and the Daily Mirror critic, who wrote the "LONG JOHN SHORT ON JOKES" review, was now telling his readers not to miss "the funniest comedy series of last year".
The first season was sold to 45 different channels in 17 counties, but it would take another three years for the second season to emerge, thanks, at least in part, to Cleese and Booth getting a divorce. Certainly the vitriol between Basil and Sybil in series 2 stepped up a notch with Basil calling Sybil a "rancorous coffered old sow" while she called him an "ageing Brilliantined stick insect" with a "sledgehammer wit".
By 1984, Fawlty Towers was one of the BBC's top five worldwide TV exports. There were four attempts at formatting the show in the US, the most famous being the one in which the Fawlty character was played by Bee Arthur. And the creators of Cheers, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and The Office often cite it as their major inspiration.
But weirdly, the words "Fawlty Towers" don't resonate as deeply with everyone. I was recently in a room with two of the biggest names in world comedy when the conversation turned to Towers - and one of the two admitted he'd never seen it. The other stared at the ground for a few moments, confused, startled and maybe a little bit angry. He eventually looked up and said: "Well you probably should. It still holds up. And also, it's part of your f***ing education."
As Basil would say: "The odd moment like that, it's almost worth staying alive for."