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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What if ‘Fawlty Towers’ didn’t exist?

John Cleese has revealed that the BBC thought that the script for the first episode of Fawlty Towers — written by Cleese and his then-wife, Connie Booth (who played Polly on the show) was so “dire” that the show would be a disaster. Quoted in the Times of London, Cleese says:

What happened was, Connie and I wrote that first episode and we sent it in to Jimmy Gilbert.

The fellow whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, and I can quote it fairly accurately, ’This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster’.

And Jimmy himself said ’You’re going to have to get them out of the hotel, John, you can’t do the whole thing in the hotel’.

Whereas, of course, it’s in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.

What if Fawlty Towers didn’t exist? It seems to me that the series has been so influential, particularly by raising the bar on what sitcoms can do, that without it, we’d never have seen shows like Cheers or The Office. Would workplace comedies have developed on their own anyway? What else might we have lost if Fawlty Towers had never been produced?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • bitchen frizzy

    Workplace comedies, and half-home/half-workplace comedies, already existed; so I’m sure more would have developed anyway.

    I’d have missed one of my favorite sitcoms ever. It’s too bad so few episodes were made.

  • misterb

    If “Fawlty Towers” didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it. And that someone would have to be John Cleese, no one else would do.

    If BBC had passed, and Cleese had gone on to make it for PBS – what might that have been like?

  • Ken

    It’s too bad so few episodes were made.

    But that’s the beauty of British comedy (what we get in America, anyway.) They do as many episodes as they have decent material for, then move on to something else. Whereas here in the U.S., a series will go on and on until it’s run into the ground. Or even until after it’s been run into the ground, if it’s retaining viewers.

    If “Fawlty Towers” didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it. And that someone would have to be John Cleese, no one else would do.

    How dare you! Amanda’s by the Beach was every bit the classic that Fawlty Towers was. Tragically, we’ll never get an Amanda’s by the Beach movie with the original cast.

  • misterb

    @Ken – are you putting us on?

    How dare you! Amanda’s by the Beach was every bit the classic that Fawlty Towers was. Tragically, we’ll never get an Amanda’s by the Beach movie with the original cast.

    Wasn’t it Amanda’s by the Sea? and wasn’t it classically horrible?

  • Althea

    Indeed it was classically horrible. An object lesson for would-be “American versions” of British series. There’s only been one since that was such a disaster (“Coupling”) and even though many have been sad and lame, none could live up to Amanda’s.

    In any case, what “Fawlty Towers” did that no workplace sitcom had ever done was let everybody’s subconscious run rampant. It came from the fantastical depths of the characters’ imaginations – as well as the viewers’. Your own psyche recognizes that this is how the world REALLY is, instead of the polite, mildly amusing, let’s-all-have-a-laugh-at-ourselves view that we’d seen up to “Flowery Twats.”

  • Jan Willem

    In many ways Fawlty Towers is a continuation of the century-old theatre tradition of high farce, cunningly reformatted to fit within 30-minute TV episodes. The hotel is almost a theatre set. Basil Fawlty is comparable to some of Molière’s or Shakespeare’s greatest comic characters (Malvolio, anyone?). FT works so well because conflicts are not watered down but pursued to their extreme conclusion, usually a painful defeat for the emotionally constipated, bourgeois protagonist. And of course it succeeds largely because Cleese is a great comic actor with astounding energy levels. In recent times he has mellowed considerably: much pleasanter for him, I suppose, but we viewers sure miss his maniacal onslaughts.

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