If one theme could be said to rule television comedy more than any other during the past couple of decades, it would have to be awkwardness. From the mammoth success of Seinfeld to current hits like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Eastbound and Down, the small-screen has been dominated of late by sitcoms that feature people whose actions tend to create uncomfortable situations for themselves and everybody around them.
But after re-watching the entirety of the ’70s BBC comedy Fawlty Towers on the new Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection Remastered DVD box set, it becomes clear that iconic characters like George Castanza, Leslie Knope and David Brent (or Michael Scott) would never have existed if it were not for another abrasive, hopelessly un-self-aware oddball: Basil Fawlty.
Basil, as played by Monty Python’s Flying Circus alumni John Cleese, is one of the most awkward characters in the history of television. And one of the funniest. Fawlty Towers — a show that still finds itself habitually on ‘Best of’ lists 30 years later — is set in the small hotel Basil and his wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales), own and operate in Torquay, the “English Riviera” resort town in Southern England which the patriotic Basil is inordinately proud of. Despite the fact that middle-class vacationers and fun-loving young folk are the guests who bring Basil’s hotel the most business, the hotelier considers them riff-raff whose rational expectations of him as paying customers constitute an unreasonable burden upon his time and sanity.
Anyone with a whiff of respectability (or authority), however, has the ability to turn Basil into the most obsequious of sycophants, as the small-business owner longs for the company of the professionals and aristocrats he believes to be his true peers. This attitude is his major undoing throughout the series (in the very first episode he bullies several customers and extends an exorbitant line of credit for the sake of a man who happens to call himself a Lord. Too bad he turns out to be a con-man), along with his unceasing ability to misunderstand whatever happens to be going on around him.
Poor Basil has no real allies at the hotel, save for his loyal but English-deficient waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) and the charming, but demented (and racist) old Major Gowen (Ballard Berkeley). Sybil is his number one enemy, and she annoys him as much through her superior competence as a hotel manager and her willingness to treat customers from ordinary backgrounds with respect, as through her incessant nagging and nerve-twistingly irritating laugh.
Basil may know more about Brahms or Gladstone than his “little nest of vipers,” but that doesn’t help him win any arguments with her, as she can cut short any debate with a sharp, menacing cry of “BASIIIIIIIIIL…” Basil may believe he could run Fawlty Towers perfectly if it weren’t for all the guests, but Sybil knows Basil is by far the biggest obstacle to the hotel’s success.
And so, over the course of 12 episodes from the two different seasons (originally broadcast in 1975 and 1979, respectively), Basil manages to scare away dozens of customers and irritate his wife on a daily-basis. He does everything from trying to hide the body of a vacationer Basil thinks he killed by feeding un-fresh fish (he didn’t), to trying to entertain a group of German guests by imitating Hitler, and then being shocked when they take offense (“You started it” he exclaims, to which one German replies “We did not!” “Yes you did!” Basil ripostes “You invaded Poland!”).
His efforts to subvert his wife’s authority (like his plan to skimp on costs by hiring a cheap, lazy contractor against Sybil’s wishes) almost always end in failure (Basil’s builder knocks out a load-bearing wall and replaces it with a swing-door), as do his attempts to bring “a bit of class” to his establishment (a “Gourmet Night” he puts together falls-through when his chef gets drunk and falls in love with a terrified Manuel).
It all holds up surprisingly well several decades later. While jokes about Manuel’s foreignness may seem a bit crude and Basil’s class obsessions may not be as familiar to modern audiences, the humor created by Basil’s stubbornly old-fashioned views hasn’t lost any of its bite because, after all, he’s even more old-fashioned now than he was then. At the same time, the show’s format — absurdism and awkward situational humor wrapped around a traditional sitcom framework — has only become more popular since the show originally aired, and is perhaps less confusing to viewers today than it was when the program first premiered (Python fans didn’t understand why one of their ground-breaking comedy heroes was producing what, at first, seemed to be a reversion to a staler form of humor).
Cleese and his co-writer and former wife, Connie Booth, have created a set of (what Cleese calls) “30-minute-farces” that endure because they took the best elements of earlier forms of comedy and combined them with new ideas that went on to become mainstays of humorous television.
There are a few aspects of Fawlty Towers, however, that do show their age upon the release of the DVD collection. There is, for one, the look of the film itself, which may have been re-mastered but still has the gloomy tones of every other ’70s sitcom. That’s not a big deal though, as BBC fans have never really demanded gorgeous cinematography to enhance their comedies, anyway.
The part of the show that is most truly dated is its ‘center of normalcy,’ embodied by the hotel maid, Polly (played by Booth). A free-spirit and part-time artist, she’s the character that represents all the modern ideals that Basil stands against, revealing how old-fashioned he really is through comparison. But Polly herself seems pretty behind-the-times these days. There are the superficial elements, like the way she and her friends dress (as Cleese points out in the commentary for one episode, Basil was supposed to seem overly stuffy for looking down on the way the younger characters dressed, but in retrospect a lot of the ’70s fashions they embrace really were kind of silly). But there are also the ideas and attitudes that they have, which can seem as rife with bigotry as Basil’s to viewers in 2009 (like one of Polly’s friend’s disgust with Basil when she mistakenly believes him to be homosexual).
But it’s still a landmark television series, and just as worth owning as any important book or movie from the same period. Having all the episodes collected together may remind the buyer that it was probably a good idea to end the show when it did, (a marathon-viewing-session pretty quickly reveals that the show’s formula only allows it to go in so many directions before it starts repeating itself) but the ability to watch classic episodes like “The Germans” or “Basil the Rat” whenever one feels like it is a prize well-worth the cost of purchase.
The DVD collection also comes with a long list of bonus features, ranging from interviews with the surviving cast and crew to a documentary about the Gleneagles Hotel and it’s manager, Donald Sinclair, who inspired the character of Basil. Even better, every single episode comes with newly recorded commentary tracks from both the directors and Cleese himself.
Cleese’s narration is especially interesting, as he is not afraid to point out the aspects he is particularly proud of (his and Sach’s prowess as physical comedians; the complex personality developed for Basil) while relentlessly nit-picking the parts he wishes he could change (items as minute as the number of times Basil knocks on a window or how forcefully Sybil hits the Irish contractor with an umbrella).
He also waxes rhapsodic about the cast and crew, praising Booth for what he feels are her unrecognized contributions to the show as a writer and vocally admiring the physical attributes of the many female guest stars. Overall, he’s pretty pleased with what he and Fawlty Towers accomplished, as well he should be.