As a longtime Monty Python fanatic, I’ve often heard of the legendary Fawlty Towers, the British sitcom John Cleese co-created and starred in after Flying Circus had gone off the air. The show ranks high in the annals of sitcom lore, with Cleese singled out for his performance as Basil Fawlty, the co-owner of a small, English seaside hotel. For reasons I can’t come up with, I had never seen this revered show before it arrived on my doorstep in the form of a new BBC 30th Anniversary collector’s edition that contains every episode from its two seasons (1975 and 1979) painstakingly remastered. I was thrilled for the opportunity to finally see the show I’d heard so much about since I first began watching Python in my college dorm room, 20 years ago.
Cleese created the show with his then-wife, actress Connie Booth (who also co-stars). The show follows the exploits of Basil, one of the most cantankerous, put-upon, non-people persons you’d ever meet. If ever there was a man who shouldn’t be interacting with hotel guests, it’s Basil Fawlty. The character was based on a real hotel owner named Donald Sinclair. As the story goes, while the Pythons were on a film shoot in the early ’70s, they stayed at Sinclair’s hotel, only to check out after just one night’s stay. Sinclair was so rude that the actors couldn’t stand him. However, Cleese opted to stay behind and study the man, fascinated by his behavior. When the time came to pitch a series to the BBC, Booth suggested to her husband “What about that hotel owner?” The rest is history.
Rounding out the cast of Fawlty Towers are Prunella Scales, who plays Basil’s wife, Sybil. Sybil is a modern woman, which irks the hell out of Basil, whose values seem rooted in the ’50s. Although he bitches about his wife, Sybil is the boss of this duo. I imagine Cleese could be an intimidating actor to work with because of his height and comedic stature, but Scales is the perfect foil. Booth portrays Polly, the cute waitress of the hotel, although she is often asked to do more than be a waitress. She gets sucked into the shenanigans of Basil and the hotel guests. The remaining main character is Manuel, a waiter played by Andrew Sachs. Manuel is from Barcelona and speaks little to no English. He is generally confused and often bears the brunt of Basil’s frustrations. Not an episode goes by in which Basil isn’t smacking Manuel in the head or about to club him with a heavy object. Guests come and go throughout each episode and there are recurring characters who act as the permanent residents at the Fawlty Towers.
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Watching the first season, I was a little disappointed. It felt very rigid and much more like a theater production than a television show. I didn’t laugh nearly as much as I’d anticipated. I found Basil so damn rude and Cleese so immersed in the character that the charm and wit I’ve come to associate with the actor was missing. Not until the first season finale, “The Germans,” in which Basil suffers a blow to the head and deliriously leaves his hospital bed to return to the hotel did I find myself laughing out loud. Going into season two, I expected much of the same. I’m pleased to say that the second season is looser and more fun. I don’t know if it was the years between seasons or just that the actors felt more comfortable in the skins of their characters, but season 2 is much more enjoyable and the actors appear to be having a good time. At least Cleese is, that’s for sure. By the end of season 2, I was left wanting more and disappointed that after just 12 episodes, Fawlty Towers was no more.
Technically speaking, these remastered episodes look marvelous. The ’70s video is clean and crisp and the film stock used for exterior shots not too grainy. In addition to the vibrant picture quality, every single episode contains commentary by the revered Cleese, who speaks quite fondly of his old show and each of his co-stars. It’s a joy to hear him laughing at jokes that are 30 years old, and to listen to him point out some of the wonderful comic timing of Sachs and Scales. His reflections alone make it worth checking out the show. Additionally, the third DVD in this collection contains a new interview with Cleese and an exclusive interview with Booth, as well as profiles of the cast and outtakes. There is also a short documentary about the original hotel and the people who knew Donald Sinclair. Fans of the show should be ecstatic about this new collection.
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