ARTS: TO HELL WITH BASIL

Is 'Fawlty Towers' the best British television comedy ever written? To mark its return to BBC1 tonight, John Cleese tells Andrew Davidson in a rare interview how Basil and Manuel were created and why he will never write about them again
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT IS THE comedy that nearly cooked a comedian's goose, that launched well over a million video sales and lodged itself in a nation's consciousness as the most cherished creation of one of its best-loved sons. Yet the really funny thing, says John Cleese today, is that he didn't expect Fawlty Towers to be a success at all. The series opened in 1975 to limp reviews and a feeling at the BBC, who commissioned it, that Cleese should never have left Monty Python's Flying Circus. Its return tonight - the re-run starts on BBC1 at 7.30pm - will allow others to judge just how wrong initial reaction was. Many now believe Fawlty Towers to be the finest situation comedy ever written for British television.

That, of course, is a pretty weighty accolade for any series to bear. Time plays strange tricks with the memory, eliding the dull and magnifying the remarkable. Cleese himself, its star and co-writer, who has taken years to exorcise the ghost of Basil Fawlty from his psyche, worries that people will inevitably be disappointed when they see it again, as they tend just to remember "the six funniest bits". Others disagree. More likely, the re-run will confirm what many have suspected for years: that Fawlty Towers really was a quite exceptional and original piece of television, one of the few comedies to have remained funny over decades. Esteem for it grows year after year. No one will be very surprised if tonight's showing beats its last record-breaking outing in 1985, when it opened with 12.7 million viewers - at the time, the biggest single audience ever for BBC2.

It will be pretty remarkable if it does, as it has already sold one-and- a-half million copies on video (currently at £10.99 each, which shows what a valuable property it has been for the BBC). Written by Cleese and his then wife, Connie Booth, in two series of six episodes, shown first in 1975 and 1979, it cost a pittance to make by today's standards. There are no exact figures for just how much, as many of the costs were built into the BBC's overheads, but Cleese's fees, like the series' wobbly sets, are indicative of the budget. He received £1,000 per episode for the first series: £500 for writing it, which he split with Booth, and £500 for starring in it. For the second series he got a total of £9,000, having doubled the writing fee because of the time it was taking to put together. Andrew Sachs, who played the hapless waiter Manuel, received just £150 per episode for the first series and £350 for the second.

Yet money is not the point. What Cleese and Booth managed to do - a fact general- ly obscured by the often tediously fanatical adoration of Cleese fans - was to write a comedy that was more than just a series of jokes and funny situations, or just an original stab at a familiar format. It was a fairly painful assessment of the character of the nation too. We laugh at Basil because we see ourselves in him, and if Cleese is Basil then we don't have to admit any of the typically British uptightness is ours too. That is Cleese's own analysis of why so many people, especially journalists, are always disappointed that he isn't Basil. It is called projection, he says.

Like many in the arts, Cleese is not over-fond of journalists. He told Melvyn Bragg in Esquire three years ago: "There are more twisted, envious and irresponsible people in the London newspaper world than in any comparable area I can think of." So when all and sundry connected with Fawlty Towers told me that neither Cleese nor Booth would ever speak to me about the series, about how it was made and the impact it had, I was inclined to believe them. Then the publicist for his new film, the as-yet-unshot and untitled follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda, suggested I send Cleese a fax, stating at length what I wanted to do and which themes I wanted to talk about. The answer came back that he would ring me, if I sat by my phone from 5-7pm on Friday night, and 8-9.30am on Monday.

He rang on Friday night, his voice chummily reasonable, instantly recognisable over the hiss of his car phone. He was halfway between Pinewood Studios and home in Holland Park, west London, gearing himself up for the start of shooting of the new film. He has not only co-written it (with his old friend Iain Johnstone, a journalist he likes), he is also producing and starring in it, so you could say he has rather a lot on his plate at the moment, yet he talked for an hour, and with clearly some love, about Fawlty Towers and its subsequent effect both on him and others. In interview he is as open, honest and precise as you could expect anyone to be, doubtless the result of his adherence to years of group therapy and therapeutic analysis. Whether you agree with him or not, this does mean he has a more thought-out approach to his art than many comic writers and performers.

The background to the series is well-known. In the early Seventies, Cleese had left Monty Python, complaining it was getting repetitive, and announced that he wanted to work with his wife Connie Booth, an American actress he had met in New York (where ironically, she had been working as a waitress). Both had stayed at the small hotel in Torquay, the Gleneagles, which provided the inspiration for Fawlty Towers. It was owned by a Mr Donald Sinclair, a small man of such brusqueness that all who met him were amazed that he would be so miscast as to run a hotel. Cleese had tried out a version of him in a script for Doctor in the House in 1971. Wanting to distance himself from Monty Python, and find a vehicle he could write with Booth, a comedy about a fictionalised Mr and Mrs Sinclair seemed ideal. He offered it to London Weekend Television. But it was turned down. The BBC said "yes" even if was, initially, uneasy.

The problem was that Cleese and Booth didn't want to write sitcom. "I always describe them as little farces," says Cleese, who was only 34 when he wrote the first episodes. "I don't think sitcoms bore much influence on them. So far as structuring it and the kind of stories we wrote, I was much more influenced by the farce I had seen, particularly French farces as they have been done at the National Theatre. I love French farce when it is done by expert actors who are over-the-top, but somehow make it believable too." Others were not so sure that mainstream British television audiences, even though honed on excellent character comedies such as Dad's Army and Till Death Us Do Part, would really understand.

Working on the basis of a central cast of two men - Basil, the splenetic hotelier, and Manuel, a Chaplin-esque Spanish waiter - and two women - Sybil, Basil's wife, and Polly, the waitress - Booth and Cleese put together six scripts for the first series ("A Touch of Class'', "The Builders'', "The Wedding Party'', ''The Hotel Inspectors'', ''Gourmet Night'' and ''The Germans''). Each episode took about six weeks to write, an unusually long time for sitcom scripts. Ideas came from friends who knew the hotel and catering trade. According to Cleese, he and Booth sat side by side, working first through themes, then narrative structure and plot twists, and finally dialogue.

"At the beginning I wrote Basil and Manuel," says Cleese, "and Connie wrote Sybil and Polly, but it is interesting, when you are working with someone like that, you start learning. And although for the first two or three episodes I would suggest something and Connie would say, 'No, a woman would never say that', she started writing more and more of Basil, and I started writing more and more of Sybil. In the end the Basil that everyone thought of as me was very much a joint concoction between the two of us."

Cleese is dismissive of those who have contended over the years that he simply tagged Booth's name onto the credits to boost her career. Cleese states flatly that the series could not have been written without her, simply because she was good on jokes and character, and he was so bad at writing women.

At that time, the average half-hour sitcom script was about 65 pages long. Each Fawlty Towers script got close to double that, with detail on camera cuts, facial expressions and the heavy slapstick element. And each episode often ran well over the allotted 29-and-a-half-minutes airtime. No one at the BBC had seen anything like it - hence, perhaps, the very real sense of misgiving that dogged the initial productions. John Howard Davies, who had produced Monty Python, was assigned to it. "We had done a pilot, 'The Builders'," he remembers, "which was a little insecure. We didn't really know how people were going to react to it as the element of farce made it quite fast." But the corporation took the plunge and six episodes were made, even though many inside Light Entertainment thought it was a disaster.

Right from the start, Cleese acknowledges that he was lucky to get the right cast. His height alone disguised the normal clich of the hen-pecked husband. The role of Sybil was initially offered to Bridget Turner, who rejected it. Cleese says: "I guess we have to thank her now, because Prunella Scales came in and she played it differently to how Connie and I had imagined it. I can't quite remember how it was different but I do remember that at the first read-through we were quite surprised. Then we realised it was actually better.

"And Manuel, well, the key to Manuel, like the stuttering scene in Wanda, is that the guy is trying to get the information across. He is always eager, desperate to help, never difficult and stroppy, and then he screws up. I have always found people failing to communicate terribly funny. The joke is not that Manuel speaks bad English but that anyone would inflict him on the general public without training him properly. So what happened there was Andrew Sachs came along and did a wonderful thing with it. If you meet Andrew you would call him almost retiring, very quiet, almost academic, studiously polite. Then suddenly he clips on his moustache and something else in his personality just slips in."

More angst has been expended on Cleese and Booth's depiction of the bumbling Spanish waiter than on just about any other comedy character aside from Alf Garnett. Many feel Manuel was an overtly racist stereotype - the gormless foreigner - which simply would not be tolerated in a comedy script today. Yet Manuel has always been the most popular character with audiences, not because he is being derided, but because people feel empathy with him. Cleese says: "The terrifying thing is how much children identify with him. Here he is desperately trying to communicate with a parent figure and getting clipped round the ear for it. It makes you wonder a little bit." The second most popular character, Cleese adds, was always the Major - the Colonel Blimp bit-player who he and Booth thought the funniest in the whole show.

Others associated with the series have always been nonplussed by the criticism of Manuel. "If it's insulting to the Spanish what is Basil to the British?" says Andrew Sachs. "It is just a brilliant characterisation," says Bob Spiers, who directed the second series and now directs Absolutely Fabulous. He believes that the supposed "offensiveness" of Manuel was simply trumped up by journalists looking for a story. It is well known that far from being outraged by the series, Spanish television bought it, and simply re-cast Manuel as an Italian.

Yet, initially, any reaction was welcome, as the first episodes were in danger of disappearing from lack of viewer interest. Cleese remembers the Daily Mirror review as being fairly typical: "LONG JOHN THIN ON JOKES", said the headline. He was disappointed. The shows had been a grind to make: a week's rehearsing, followed by dress rehearsals on Sunday and the shoot in front of a studio audience in the evening. It was tiring and complicated, with an abnormally large number of camera-shots and hours and hours of editing.

"When people ask me if I enjoyed it," says Cleese, "I answer that there simply wasn't the time. Learning it - I don't mean the words but the moves and how we were going to do the business - in just five days was a real strain." The five days were dictated by the BBC's budget constraints. Traditionally the Corpora-tion always cut corners on light entertainment, says Cleese, even though it brought in the audiences, and saved its big money for drama. Of course, it would be interesting to know if any drama has ever made as much money for the BBC as Fawlty Towers.

Despite its quiet dbut - it averaged 2.6 million viewers - it was repeated again on BBC2 in January 1976, by which time word-of-mouth had built audiences to nearly seven million. Just eight months later, it was repeated again on BBC1, attracting 12 million. By this time Cleese and Booth had been persuaded to write and film another six episodes - "Communication Problems", "The Psychiatrist", "Waldorf Salad", "The Kipper and the Corpse", "The Anniversary" and "Basil the Rat" - even though, in the intervening years, they had split up. The first the cast knew of this was when Cleese and Booth arrived separately for the rehearsals of the second series. Most were amazed that, despite the split, they had managed to sit down together, 10 hours a day, and write another six episodes.

Cleese says flatly that the writing of Fawlty Towers did not, as some suppose, put even more stress on their relationship. "We bust up for personal reasons, but there was a lot in that relationship that was very positive, and we used the positive pasts when we were working together." Others have suggested, though, that Booth never really enjoyed playing the "unfunny" waitress opposite her husband's comic genius. The second series went out in February 1979, right after Britain's strike-torn "winter of discontent", and audience anticipation was at its peak. The new episodes pulled in 11 million viewers on their first showing, and 14.6 million when repeated on BBC1 at the end of the same year. Cleese believes that certain of them (the last three are his favourite) are among the best work he has ever done. Most would be hard pushed to disagree.

That the comedy has lasted - drawing in a whole new generation of fans over the last 15 years - and bears repeated viewing, is tribute enough to the subtlety of its construction and the ensemble playing of its actors. Those watching tonight's first episode, "The Wedding Party", will notice a few anachronisms of dress (Seventies flares and wide lapels) and gesture, but the action zips along with a prurient gusto that still puts most modern comedies to shame. Basil is endlessly jumping to the wrong conclusions about everything, walking into the wrong rooms at the wrong time, and getting himself desperately entangled in his own malice-driven fantasy world.

Why is it still funny? Cleese ticks off the obvious reasons: the stories are well-structured, well-paced - "think of 20 hours in the edit suite for each episode and you can see why they have such a good pace to them" - and well-played. Caricatures (Basil, Sybil and Manuel) play off more realistic depictions such as Polly - who, says Cleese, is simply Horatio to his Hamlet, constantly providing him with an ear so that he can explain what he is trying to achieve, and so that the audience laughs when he fails to do it.

"By and large," he explains, "a lot of characters, especially Basil, are operating at a much higher level than they normally do in sitcoms, because we took the trouble to build up situations which made them anxious or angry or defensive or nervous. You don't see that much in sitcoms." Indeed the problem with most sitcoms, he says, is that they often involve people who are in situations which are not intrinsically funny, exchanging variations of oldish jokes.

Yet mostly, he concedes, Fawlty Towers retains its grip because audiences remain fascinated with Basil Fawlty, a comic monster who outstrips even Alf Garnett and Victor Meldrew. This has proved a double-edged sword for Cleese, who chiselled the character out as a jibe at his own middle-class upbringing in Weston-super-Mare, but has found it typecasting him for life, dogging him like the Monty Python "Silly Walk" routine that he also came to loathe. "One of the problems with England," he moans, "is that 50 per cent of the viewing population and 95 per cent of the journalists always wanted to believe that I actually was Basil, because in a way Basil is tremendously English. He has all those characteristics."

Which are? "Well, a fair amount of snobbery, an emotional uptightness. He's very embarrassed about talking about his emotions so he does not have any relationships with any real affection. So I think a lot of the time when not feeling puffed up with his own importance, he is feeling slightly depressed. That is why irritation and anger start to surface. The descriptions would apply to a very large part of lower-middle-class England, probably wider than that, but that is the class I know best."

Ironically, those who remember Cleese shooting the first series say he compared Basil to Hitler, rather than any English archetype. "He said he was a failed Hitler, no power but with all the characteristics," says John Howard Davies. "Basil is a kind of madman, unwilling to accept the facts. I think there is a bit of Basil in all of us, especially if male. It's that impotent rage against the world and females."

Others have made the link between the turmoil in Cleese's private life and what was coming out on screen. Jonathan Margolis's recent unauthorised biography of Cleese, Cleese Encounters (Orion), points out that not only did Cleese and Booth write the second series after they had split, but wrote the first while under counselling for the breakdown in their relationship. Fellow Python Terry Jones says that Cleese was using Fawlty as a way of coming to terms with himself, and once he had achieved that, he could drop the monster. "It was as though, the more psychiatric help John sought, the less he needed to express himself with things like Fawlty Towers - if you like, the less he felt he needed to be funny." But of course, the monster kept chasing him, as his fans insisted that he must be Basil, a reaction that seemed just as readily to drive him away from comedy. Later Cleese was to realise that his portrayal of Basil was simply a depiction of a man on the verge of a catastrophic nervous breakdown. And so we laugh. But what does that say about us?

Or about anyone else, for intriguingly the series has never been too "British" to sell elsewhere. For 11 years Fawlty Towers was the BBC's best-selling programme overseas - its legion of fans includes the directors Martin Scorsese (favourite episode: ''The Germans") and Bernard Tavernier (''Waldorf Salad'') and former American President George Bush. Innumerable attempts have been made to reshoot the format for American television, which always found the paucity of original episodes and variability of their running length difficult to chew on. One remake, Amanda's by the Sea, dropped the Basil character altogether, replacing it with Amanda, played by Bea Arthur of Golden Girls fame. It was not a success.

This failure to get Fawlty Towers on to the main American networks in primetime has doubtless cost Cleese and Booth a lot of money (he probably doesn't need it, it should be added, as he pocketed £7 million from selling his training-film company Video Arts in 1989) but it has further enhanced the reputation of the original episodes. No one doubts that Cleese and Booth's decision to quit while they were ahead was absolutely the right one.

Now, as Fawlty Towers starts its re-run, there is talk of a British spin- off, without Basil, based around Manuel, starring Andrew Sachs and produced by his son John. Cleese has given his blessing but is uneasy at the prospect.

"The only thing that worries me is people will think I am involved. I don't feel proprietorial about the character so that doesn't bother me and I feel if they can make it work, good luck to them. I just hope they spend six weeks writing each episode. Nobody else does, you know. It was quite mad. Quite, quite mad."

No one doubts, though, that the series had a profound influence on the next generation of writers. According to Bob Spiers, "There is no sitcom writer in the world that hasn't got a set of Fawlty Towers videos on his or her shelf."

And a lot of them, he added, go through them again and again, because they know they are the best of their kind. And so the Basil-Manuel relationship is reprised between Black-adder and Baldrick in Blackadder; there is also a link between Basil's tirades and the "comedy of abuse" in the work of Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry; and, as in Fawlty Towers, a similar tension between caricatures playing off characters in Absolutely Fabulous.Yet no one has ever matched the pace of Fawlty Towers, the elements of farce and slapstick, and the inexorable turn of the screw that the best scripts provide.

As with Monty Python, there have been few direct imitators, simply because the original was so strong. From that point of view, it is as if Fawlty Towers dropped in from nowhere, charmed the world, then skidaddled.

The best ever? To fans, yes. But of course it has never achieved the 18 million audiences of comedies like Only Fools and Horses and One Foot in the Grave, because, says Spiers, the really great comedies will always be too complex, perhaps too abrasive, to get those extra five or six million viewers. But they will always last longer.

Will there ever be more? No, says Cleese. He and Booth found writing the second series too draining and, anyway, what's the point?

"The problem is that if you have written something that has attained the status that it has, you are on a hiding to nothing if you write more. I don't mean you can't get lots of money up front, but from an audience point of view it is not going to be as good.

"Fawlty Towers is probably as good as I can do in the half-hour format. Somehow Connie and I managed to top the first series with the second. There is no way we could top that." !

Comments