When I was in junior high school, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was very, very big with my classmates. I watched a few episodes but didn’t care for it. It just wasn’t my cup of tea–at least, at the time. (I love it now.)
So I wasn’t that interested in seeing Fawlty Towers, starring and co-written by Monty Python alum John Cleese, when it was first broadcast on my local public television station.
The only reason I checked it out at all is because the first Masterpiece Theater showing of Poldark, starring Robin Ellis, had just finished. After the credits rolled, an announcer bade the audience to stick around to see Ellis guest star in the first episode of Fawlty Towers.
I wasn’t ready to let go of Poldark quite yet (yes, I had a crush on Robin Ellis) so I watched the pilot episode of Fawlty Towers, A Touch of Class.
Need I say more? Of course, I was immediately hooked.
Connie Booth (Cleese’s wife at the time, though they were divorced by the time the second series came about) co-wrote the show along with Cleese. They insisted on only making six episodes per season and ended the show after two seasons. (There were some tentative plans for a third season, but it never came about.)
The BBC initially rejected Cleese and Booth’s pilot script. It eventually broadcast on BBC2 and is today considered one of the finest sitcoms of all time.
Cleese and Booth were almost fanatical about making each script perfect, writing many drafts over a period of several months for each episode. And it shows. Each one is a comic gem, and it was very difficult to pick one episode above the others to write about. While other episodes usually rank higher with critics and viewers (The Germans and Basil the Rat in particular) I picked Gourmet Night mainly because I remember watching it the first time with my dad. We laughed so hard during one scene (which I will discuss later) we both could barely catch our breath. It still makes me laugh every time I watch it.
The character of Basil Fawlty was based on a real-life hotel owner Cleese encountered with the rest of the Monty Python troupe in 1970. (The hotel, Gleneagles in Devon, is referenced in A Touch of Class.)
Fawlty (Cleese), owner and manager of a small hotel in Torquay, England, is, according to one of his guests, “the rudest man I’ve ever met.” (To which he replies, “I haven’t started yet.”) He is constantly in conflict with his wife strong-minded wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), waitress Polly (Booth), and Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) who hasn’t quite mastered the English language yet, but is “cheap and keen to learn.” Most of all, he is in conflict with the various guests who make their way through his hotel.
Basil is a bit of a–well–snob. Even though the hotel is badly run, it does seem to make money, but Basil has grand ambitions and is always seeking to raise its “tone.”
Gourmet Night was the fifth episode broadcast during the first season. It’s slightly different from most of the other episodes in that Basil and Sybil actually work together to solve a disaster (usually, he’s doing his damnedest to hide them from her). The hotel is even doing well as the episode opens, with new chef Kurt (Steve Plytas), who is a really fine cook. Polly, an art student as well as a waitress, is celebrating selling a sketch of Manuel to Kurt.
As usual, Basil is ignoring one of Sybil’s directives–this time to take their car to the shop to get fixed. Basil, too cheap to pay a mechanic, is convinced he can repair it himself.
Kurt is a friend of Andre’s (Andre Marrane), who owns Basil and Sybil’s favorite restaurant in town. With Andre’s approval, the Fawltys decide to institute a “Gourmet Night” every Thursday with a fine dining menu, hoping to attract some high-class customers to the hotel’s restaurant.
As they plan the Gourmet Night, Basil is forced to deal with regular guests, including a couple and their spoiled young son, who complains about the “continental” style food. The chips are the “wrong shape” and he calls the fresh-made mayonnaise “puke.” Basil, disgusted with the “ignorant rabble” in his hotel declares that Thursday nights will be Gourmet Night and every other night they’ll put out “a big trough of baked beans and garnish it with a couple of dead dogs.”
Sybil tells Basil to put the advertisement in the paper and warns him not to make it too “toffee-nosed.” On the appointed night, one party of four cancels at the last minute due to illness, leaving only four people for their opening night. “Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial,” says Basil. Sybil berates him for putting “no riff-raff” in the advertisement.
Still, Basil is pleased that the remaining four are Colonel and Mrs. Hall (Allan Cuthbertson and Ann Way), both JPs (justices of the peace) and Mr. Lionel Twitchen (Richard Caldicot, a “leading rotarian,” and his wife (Betty Huntley-White).
As the Halls arrive, Kurt and Manuel go down to the cellar to get the wine. Basil presents himself as someone who has already met the Halls, but Colonel Hall doesn’t remember him. Basil inquires after their daughter. Sybil pokes him and whispers to him, “She’s dead.” Mortified by his mistake, he starts babbling about Colonel Hall’s suit.
“What’s your name? I don’t know your name!” Basil freezes and can’t remember his own name.
Colonel Hall also has a prominent head twitch, which throws Basil off even more. When the Twitchens arrive, Polly interrupts them and tries to tell Basil of something occurring in the kitchen.
“It’s Kurt. He’s . . . potted the shrimps. He’s . . . soused the herrings. He’s smashed . . . his eggs, in his cups, under the TA-BLE!”
Basil does not get what Polly is trying to tell him and almost hits her to stop her from interrupting his attentions to the Twitchens.
Basil is afraid to say the name “Twitchen” in front of Colonel Hall while he twitches. Basil goes through various verbal contortions to keep from saying the name, even fainting at one point. (Mr. Twitchen later reveals his name is pronounced “Twychen.”)
Polly enters the bar as Basil is holding a bottle. She begs him to put the bottle down, which he refuses to do. She finally comes out with the news–Kurt is drunk. Basil drops the bottle with a crash, then cries out in agony.
Polly tells him Kurt got drunk because he was rebuffed by Manuel. “He has a crush on him–you know, in love.” Basil declares he should never have hired a Frenchman, to which Polly responds, “He’s Greek.” “That’s even worse, they invented it.”
As Basil tries to reason with the drunken Kurt, the man passes out. As he attempts to revive him, Polly shows him how much alcohol he has consumed and Basil tries to strangle him instead.
Basil starts yelling at Manuel that he could have been “nice” to Kurt, but Manuel says “It’s not enough, he want to kiss me.” In the midst of this argument, Polly suggests Basil call Andre and have him do the cooking.
Sybil comes upon Basil talking to Andre on the phone. He yells at her to stall the Halls and Twitchens. He tells her Kurt is drunk and Andre has to do the cooking.
“I don’t believe it.”
“Neither do I. Perhaps it’s a dream.” He bangs his head on the desk. “No, it’s not a dream, we’re stuck with it.”
All Andre can cook for them is duck. Basil explains to the guests that the chef is temperamental and has chucked everything into the bin.
They seat the diners and take their orders for appetizers and wine. Mrs. Hall orders mullet, which they unwittingly serve to her raw. Basil brings the mullet to the semi-conscious Kurt and asks him how to cook it. Kurt throws up on it.
Basil drives into town to get the duck from Andre and returns without mishap. Congratulating everyone for a job well done, the kitchen doors swing into Basil and knock the duck out of his hands. They think it might be all right to serve it until Manuel comes through the doors and steps on the duck. Basil throws the duck at the once-again unconscious Kurt and runs out to get another one from Andre.
When Basil arrives at Andre’s he picks up another covered tray and runs out. As he drives back to the hotel, the car stalls on him.
At the point of utter hysteria, he gets out of the car and starts yelling at it.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough! You stalled just once too often! Right! Well, don’t say I haven’t warned you! I’ve laid it on the line to you time and time again! Right! Well, this is it! I’m gonna give you a damn good thrashing!”
Brandishing a tree branch, Basil proceeds to give the car its thrashing.
Now on foot, Basil runs up the hill to the hotel and finally makes it. At this point Sybil is regaling the guests with tales of her working class uncle.
They put the covered tray on a trolley and bring it out to the famished guests. Basil starts sharpening the carving knife.
He raises the cover.
It’s not a duck. It’s a trifle.
Basil slams the cover down.
Then he raises it again and paws through the trifle as if he can find the duck that way.
“Well, who’s for trifle?”
“What about the duck?” asks Colonel Hall.
Of course, the most iconic scene of the episode is when Basil thrashes his car (and that is the scene that made me and my dad laugh so hard). It’s so iconic a toy company even made a mechanical model of Basil beating up the car. The scene has also topped more than one poll of most memorable motoring moments.
Not only is the idea of a man yelling at and beating up his car inherently funny, but it’s a classic Basil moment because it’s one of his own making. He never listens to Sybil, and time and again that leads to disaster for him.
There is the expression that “all men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Basil leads a life of very loud desperation. His snobbery and his fear of looking like a fool make him look like an even bigger fool. (The “dead daughter” bit is something Cleese used again in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, where his character Archie declares being told the daughter he has just inquired about is dead is one of the deepest fears of Englishmen.)
I think Sybil is not so much his enemy as his nemesis. A British friend of my dad’s once watched the show with me and explained expressions and subtleties Americans usually miss (i.e. a “bogie” is hunk of snot). One thing he explained was that the tension between Basil and Sybil was likely due to class differences, and you could tell this from their accents. They could be a modern-day interpretation of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett from Pride & Prejudice–brought together by a physical attraction that waned over the years as they discovered they had almost nothing else in common.
In this episode, Polly sings “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,” which is a perfect assessment of her relationship with Basil. No matter how hairbrained the situation, Polly finds it impossible to say no to Basil’s efforts to put them right. (She did profit from one once, getting money out of him for a car.)
Manuel, poor Manuel. Even when he’s being sexually harassed by another employee, everything is seen as his fault and he pays for it with a slap on the head. Manuel is almost the inverse of Basil–genuinely put-upon, but still optimistic and good natured.
In spite of his horrible snobbery and how mean he is to poor Manuel, there’s something about Basil that evokes empathy. He just wants it so much, and never, ever gets it. Cleese and Booth were absolutely merciless with this character. Even if he’s well-intentioned, he loses. I suspect that’s why the several attempts by American television to remake the series have never worked. While loser supporting characters are permissible, loser lead characters are not. Even Archie Bunker got what he wanted now and then.