Sunday, January 6, 2013

British Comedy 101: Fawlty Towers

It might just be too easy to write about Fawlty Towers. If you are in the US, this is probably one of three series people think you are talking about when you mention British television.  It’s either Benny Hill, Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Fawlty Towers. I am surprised this series has not shown up on my blog sooner. As you may know, most of the stuff that I watch and write about is all randomly chosen and it has taken this long for this series to pop up in any form at all.

This series is one of my earliest memories of British television once I started to watch the hour of Britcoms on KTCA in my area. Now remember, I was probably younger than 10 years old so you will have to forgive me for certain mistakes made on my end at the time. When you dip your toe into a pool, it may take a while for anything to start sinking in before you are fully immersed. I remember turning on the TV one night and there was Fawlty Towers. I remember this very, very clearly. It was The Germans and the scene I vividly remember is when Fawlty is in the hospital. I guess I wasn’t tracking as to why nor do I think I actually watched the entire episode. What must have been a week or so later I tuned in again. The same guy with black hair and a mustache was still in hospital, apparently bedridden, and I was enjoying it. I thought that was Fawlty Towers. In fact it was Peter Bowles in Only When I Laugh. Where the confusion was that every night from 10-11pm KTCA would show 2 programs. One night I watched the earlier program and the other night I watched the later program. Fawlty Towers was on earlier and Only When I Laugh was on later. I guess I couldn’t tell the difference between 1970s John Cleese and 1970s Peter Bowles. Don’t laugh at me! It was a couple years after first watching The Five Doctors that I realized that the first Doctor in the story was not William Hartnell.
One of my least favourite parts of writing this blog is to go in detail about the plot of the episodes I watch. It seems tedious but hopefully no one else feels that way about it. I will not do a full synopsis for this article on Fawlty Towers. Why? Because if you don’t know the premise of Fawlty Towers then you don’t know British television. Fawlty Towers is British Television 101. You don’t have to like it but you do need to know what it’s about.  If by chance you have come to this blog and never seen it, just find it and watch it. It still is one of the funniest things I ever seen. I see people slag it off occasionally but I think they like to do because it seems fashionable and perhaps they feel they want to prove they are more sophisticated than they really are. I am not. I have picked 2 episodes from the second series of this classic program.

Waldorf Salad TX: 05/03/79
If you have ever followed this blog and read any of my articles, one thing I mention on a regular basis is how time does not impact some British television series. Series 1 of Fawlty Towers aired from September – October 1975. The show was not a massive hit right away but came back after 4 years. This is what I love about British television series is that there may be a multiple years of hiatus before a series goes back on air. It would be impossible for series like Cheers to end but then come back for another season 5 years later. That being said, many people cannot wait for the new season of Arrested Development so it can be done. Maybe American television is learning…..

If you live in the US and was fan of Fawlty Towers in the 1980s, I would love to know if you were misdirected by the following rumour too. I had a friend named Jon in the late 1980s who told me that there were 2 series of Fawlty Towers. This, of course, is true. There are 2 series of Fawlty Towers but Jon was under the impression that the 12 episodes we had were all part of 1 series. Now, at that point I was by no means an aficionado on anything and I had no idea that those 12 episodes were in fact 2 distinct series. He had convinced me that KTCA was not showing all the episodes of this series and there were still 12 more episodes that we had not seen. Being someone who was keen on tape trading, I set out to see if I could find those missing 12 episodes from someone who may have gotten them from friends in the UK. To say I felt dumb when they explained the reality of how the series was made of a total of 12 episodes was an understatement. Simple logic would confirm that seeing how Fawlty Towers was a monumental success over here in the US, we would have had all those episodes. PBS stations do a great job of getting us all the spin offs or episodes of the series we love….with the exception of the Australian Are You Being Served?
I had not seen Fawlty Towers in probably at least 5 years. I bought the most recent remastered PAL DVD set when that recently came out but didn’t really watch the episodes at the time. I was kind of Fawlty’d out. I had been watching it on a regular basis since 1983 or 1984. There are only 12 episodes plus I get in all sorts of other series that take up my time. That is also why when this came up to view I was excited. It was like seeing an old friend after such a long time.

Waldorf Salad is pretty straight forward. Regardless of how rude Fawlty can be, he actually works really hard at the hotel. He is running around waiting on tables while Sybil is just sitting there conversing with one of the guests. Of course the busier it gets the ruder Fawlty gets. Arriving from the US is the Hamiltons. Mr. Hamilton is from the US while Mrs. Hamilton is originally from the UK but now lives in the US. They get in late but want to have a nice dinner. Mr. Hamilton is unaware that there are certain British things that happen which is different from how it works in the US. For example, Fawlty Towers is a hotel but it is run by just a few people. Dinner service stops at a certain time. Mr. Hamilton slips Fawlty £20 to keep the kitchen open. Unfortunately for Fawlty, he can’t keep Terry the cook around and Fawlty needs to do the cooking himself as a charade to the Hamiltons.
Two things happen, Fawlty is ridiculously over the top to try and cover up the fact that he is doing the all cooking himself. Worse is the behavior of Mr. Hamilton. He is loud and demanding. Mr. Hamilton doesn’t realise that he is not in London; he’s in Torquay which is much smaller town.  Things are done on a smaller scale over here yet Mr. Hamilton doesn’t care. Even Mrs. Hamilton should have a better idea of some of the customs in her old country yet is just as unsatisfied as her husband. It’s actually uncomfortable for me to watch because as much as I hope that this is a caricature, I am sure there had been many Americans over there that have been just as demanding and rude. Mr. Hamilton doesn’t even look at the menu to decide what he wants to eat. Who cares if they can’t serve what he wants? He just barks out the orders that he wants a filet mignon but before that he wants a Waldorf salad.

It’s a shame the Internet was not around in the 1970s because Basil Fawlty could have looked up the recipe to Waldorf Salad such as this one:  but it was not meant to be. Even though Fawlty is a huge ass in this, nothing could please the Hamiltons. They both get upset with the Screwdriver they are drinking because it was not freshly squeezed orange juice. I wouldn’t have thought you needed to be Einstein to realize that fresh oranges are easier to come by in California than they are in Torquay.
There was a scary moment for me watching this episode. As I mentioned above, it had been a few years since watching this series. Once I started to see Fawlty squirm to Mr. Hamilton and create excuses for why they couldn’t make their Waldorf salad, I started to really dislike Fawlty. I started to have almost a slight panic attack wondering if I moved on from Fawlty Towers. Maybe this show wasn’t funny to me anymore. Luckily, the episode that follows is one of the funniest things I have seen in a long time. In fact, thinking about it now, I might just put Waldorf Salad down as my least favourite episode of the series. For what it’s worth, Mr. Hamilton was played by Bruce Boa who I recently watched in an episode of As Times Goes By which you can read about here. Another actor from that series Geoffrey Palmer appears in the next episode and it doesn’t get any better than that.

Mr. Hamilton: What I'm suggesting is that this place is the... the crummiest, shoddiest, worst-run hotel in the whole of Western Europe.
Major Gowen: No! No, I won't have that! There's a place in Eastbourne.
The Kipper and the Corpse TX: 12/03/79

Let me start off by saying that to me Geoffrey Palmer is the look of 1970s male in British comedies. This is all based on watching PBS when I was younger.  I have come to this astute reality from years of watching The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Butterflies and this guest appearance in Fawlty Towers. The way he looks and acts personified my own enjoyment of those series. For him to turn up in this episode as a doctor is fitting and wonderful. Of course The Kipper and the Corpse could be a great Agatha Christie title too.
In this very classic episode, things for some reason are still busy at Fawlty Towers. Why people keep staying there is beyond my understanding. Once again, Basil should be pleased there wasn’t an Internet back then. One of the guests, Mr. Leeman, has come back to the hotel and will be picked up by his business associates the next morning. The problem is that Mr. Leeman isn’t feeling very well at all. Before retiring for the night, he requests for breakfast to be served in bed which Fawlty is cannot believe. As Fawlty puts it, “Most of our guests manage to struggle down to breakfast in the morning.” As Basil passes Leeman in the lobby, Basil says goodnight to Leeman who is ill and does not respond. Basil gets his attention again so Leeman is forced to say goodnight. Sybil takes Basil to task for this with which he replies, “He only needs to say goodnight; not recite the Gettysburg address.” Love that line!

The next morning while preparing breakfast, Fawlty realises that the Kippers are past their expiration date. Apparently Fawlty is the only one in the kitchen who is concerned about this. Fawlty delivers the breakfast to the lifeless body of Mr. Leeman and drops it off. Realizing that he forgot to bring up the milk, he asks Polly to do so. Polly comes back down to alert everyone that Mr. Leeman is dead. Of course Basil thinks immediately it is the Kippers but everyone else can see that Mr. Leeman has been dead for some time. They bring up Dr. Price (whose only goal is to have some sausages for breakfast) and he confirms that the body has been dead for some time. Dr. Price is puzzled by the ability Basil has to serve breakfast to this man but not realise he is dead! They are given permission to move the body until someone can come by and pick him up. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
This becomes a tour de force in comedy that had me literally crying with laughter. Tears were rolling down my cheeks. This episode never illicit that kind of reaction before but this time it was too funny. I can’t even do it justice here. You can read what I am writing about but you need to seek this out to watch it. Basil and Manuel cover Leeman’s body so they can quietly move him to somewhere else. That is until old Miss Tibbs finds them. She tries to help them until she realizes they are carrying a dead body. She becomes hysterical. She is absolutely hysterical to the point of screaming “Murder!” To calm her down, Polly slaps her. She slaps her so hard Miss Tibbs just falls to the ground. The funny part about this scene isn’t so much that Polly struck Miss Tibbs but more of gasps of the audience when she does it. The next shot is two bodies lying on the floor: Mr. Leeman and Miss Tibbs. They now need to hide both bodies but Mr. & Mrs. White are coming up the stairs. “Oh, spiffing. Absolutely spiffing. Well done. Two dead, twenty-five to go.”

Of course they hide both bodies in the cabinet of the Whites who need to get in their room as they are doing some sightseeing. While everyone is in the White’s room, Miss Tibbs regains consciousness and begins to moan from within the cabinet. In fact, that is one of the highlights of the episode is that every time Miss Tibbs would see Mr. Leeman’s lifeless body she would have this distinctive unholy scream. I am laughing even just thinking about it now. The whole episode culminates into Basil and Manuel carrying this body around the hotel trying to avoid people seeing it. The White’s while driving their car see Basil and Manuel carrying the body outside; the Whites pay so much attention to those two carrying the body, they get in a car accident. Later they are interrupted as Mrs. White is trying to nap in her room Basil & Manuel try to bring the body in there. It prompts Polly to pull the covers over Mrs. White which leads her to fall out of her bed. They try moving him into the kitchen but Dr. Price is making sausages in himself since no one will make them for him. The sausages were burned twice and when Dr. Price finally does get his sausages made, they are off as in no good.
One of my favourite lines in the episode as Fawlty is talking in the kitchen to Sybil, Manuel, Polly and Terry about how Mr. Leeman did not acknowledge him in his room at all when Basil dropped off the breakfast:

Basil Fawlty: Are you listening to me? Hello, can... Hello, can anybody hear me? Have I ceased to exist? Have I suddenly become invisible? Sybil, Sybil, Sybil, can you see me?
Sybil Fawlty: No.

Basil Fawlty: Oh, good. Well, I'll go and lie down then. No, I won't; I'll go and hit some guests.
I have something to admit. It will sound very odd but I find Sybil strangely sexy. Especially in the Series 2 episodes. Am I odd? Of course this episode takes part as the final series for Fawlty Towers. As I mentioned above, I watched this from the newly remastered DVD set released a couple of years ago. I have spent a long time tracking down a nice PAL copy of this series. For some reason for me, Fawlty Towers needed to be a PAL copy. What is really, really nice about this set is not the remastered picture or the extended interviews. It’s the fact that there are no on-screen titles for the episodes. I seem to remember many of the other releases had on-screen titles. They were not there on original broadcast and they do not need to be added after the fact. One thing I do wish they would have included on the set is some of the quick Basil Fawlty openings that were done for Not the Nine O’Clock News. It’s a nice piece that is for the completest. Did you say you never seen them before? Alright, here is one for your enjoyment!

I mention how Basil is lucky or unlucky that he never had the Internet around while running his modest hotel. I am not quite so sure. Here is a place in Cocoa Beach Florida called Fawlty Towers: It is interesting to read the rules page. Maybe Basil Fawlty is real as here are some rules you need to follow:
  • This is a relaxed environment and must remain non-threatening and non-sexual at all times.
  • Swingers and talk of swinging is prohibited on this property and will not be tolerated.
  • Singles may not make internet bookings (they must call ahead to be pre-approved).
  • Sexual and provocative clothing is not acceptable.
  • All rooms are non-smoking (there is a $100.00 fine for breaking this rule). Smoking is allowed outside your room and in designated areas, please ask at reception for information and ash trays.
  • Unregistered guests and or visitors will be charged $50.00 per person.
  • All alcohol consumed in recreation areas during bar hours must be purchased from the bar.
  • Cameras and video recorders are not acceptable. Cell phone use should be kept to a minimum and not used for the above reasons.

Apparently it is a Clothing Optional Resort which also sounds to me very much like Basil!
Happy 100!
This article marks post #100 for me. It almost seems fitting that it would be about something I love as much a Fawlty Towers. I greatly enjoy doing this blog; thank you for coming back and reading it. It means everything to me.

Next Week: From Thunderbirds to UFO and Four Feathers Fall to B, Gerry Anderson gave millions of children access to action and danger through the art of Supermarionation. With Gerry’s passing I wanted to watch some of my favourite series and explain why Thunderbirds will always have such a special place in my heart. Next week is my Gerry Anderson Tribute.
Happy New Year and have a great week!

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Dave G said...

Happy 100 to you, and may there be many more.

Now - as for Farty Towels, this is one of the best, one of the few I think of when I think classic British comedy.

I would have to agree that Waldorf Salad is perhaps the weakest episode, although I would be tempted by a Ritz salad as suggested by Basil. After all, apples, grapefruit and potatoes in mayonnaise sounds delightful!

If Waldorf Salad is a low point, I also agree that The Kipper and the Corpse is one of the many high points. A great cast, great writing, just plain funny stuff.

Now one question - what is the music you use on your video snippets? It seems familiar but I can't place it.

Greg said...

The music is a piece entitled Calling All Workers by Eric Coates. I have heard this in multiple productions but the ones that spring to mind immediately it played on the radio at the dig site in the first episode of Quatermass and the Pit and in the Series 7 episode of Are You Being Served?, Anything You Can Do

You can read about it more here: