Just don't mention Fawlty Towers ...

So you thought Basil Fawlty was beyond belief? As Brian Viner discovered at the Torquay hotel that inspired the nation's favourite comedy, truth really can be stranger than fiction
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The Independent Travel

On 19 September 1975 - 25 years ago this week - a new sitcom, written by and starring John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth, started without fanfare on BBC2. In a small, semi-detached house in Southport, Lancashire, a 13-year-old boy watched it with his father. The boy sat on the living-room sofa (in those days, strictly speaking, it was the lounge couch), the man in his favourite Parker Knoll armchair. By the end of episode one of Fawlty Towers - the one about the bogus Lord Melbury, who turns out to be a con man - both of them were weeping with laughter. When they watched the final episode of that series, the one about the Germans, the man howled so much that the boy laughed just watching his dad.

On 19 September 1975 - 25 years ago this week - a new sitcom, written by and starring John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth, started without fanfare on BBC2. In a small, semi-detached house in Southport, Lancashire, a 13-year-old boy watched it with his father. The boy sat on the living-room sofa (in those days, strictly speaking, it was the lounge couch), the man in his favourite Parker Knoll armchair. By the end of episode one of Fawlty Towers - the one about the bogus Lord Melbury, who turns out to be a con man - both of them were weeping with laughter. When they watched the final episode of that series, the one about the Germans, the man howled so much that the boy laughed just watching his dad.

One evening less than five months later, the boy and his mum were watching ... And Mother Makes Five, starring Wendy Craig. His father was away on business. Then the doorbell rang. It was two police constables, bringing the devastating news that his father had died of a heart attack on the train to London.

One lunchtime some 20 years later, I sat with John Cleese in a tiny Greek restaurant in Camden Town, north London. I was interviewing him for a national newspaper. He was in good cheer and we got along famously. He even reminisced about Fawlty Towers, which he is generally reluctant to do - in fact, he gamely recorded a message in Basil Fawlty's voice for my answer machine. But I didn't know whether to thank him for indirectly supplying the happiest, most vivid memories I had of my dad.

It seemed rather soppy, although I needn't have worried. Cleese, as perhaps Britain's most celebrated psychotherapee, is used to emotional candour. When I thanked him and explained why, his eyes filled with tears. He reached across the table towards me, but I wasn't sure whether he was closing in for a handshake or a hug. We ended up performing rather awkward high-fives over the table. I got a little dollop of taramasalata on the elbow of my jacket.

Last week, I spoke to Cleese again. He phoned me from his home in Santa Barbara, California, in response to a fax I had sent him. He apologised profusely, but said he really didn't want to talk about Basil any more, even though he was deeply touched that television-industry folk had just voted Fawlty Towers the greatest programme of all time, in a poll conducted by the British Film Institute.

I persevered. Could he remember anything about Donald Sinclair, the irascible Torquay hotelier on whom Basil was based? "Was his name really Donald?" asked Cleese. "I only knew him as Mr Sinclair. And I am making a film at the moment called Rat Race, in which I play a casino-owner whose name is Donald Sinclair. Extraordinary."

Extraordinary indeed. As for the real Donald Sinclair, he ran, with his domineering - one might even say Sybilline - wife Betty, the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, where the Monty Python team stayed in the summer of 1970 while they were filming in nearby Paignton. Having failed to jog Cleese's memory, I called the ever-obliging Michael Palin. "Oh yes, I remember the Gleneagles," he recalled, chuckling. "That man Sinclair ran it like a high-security prison. I remember asking for a wake-up call and his eyebrows went skywards. 'Why?' he said. We also had a meal there, and Terry Gilliam (who is American) left his knife and fork at an angle. Sinclair leant over him while Terry was in full flow, put his knife and fork together, and muttered 'this is how we do it in England'.

"It's funny now, but it really did seem like the worst hotel in the world. Everything we asked for seemed to be the most unforgivable imposition - in fact Terry Gilliam, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and myself checked out after just one night. But John and Eric Idle stayed, which I couldn't understand at the time, especially as Sinclair had taken Eric's suitcase and put it outside, by the gate, apparently because he thought it might contain a bomb.

"John is not an uniquely tolerant person, either. I suppose this is one of the best examples of tolerance being rewarded."

Cleese subsequently quit the Pythons, and did not tell his erstwhile colleagues that the Torquay experience had inspired him to write a sitcom. "The atmosphere was a bit prickly after John left," Palin explained. "There was not a great deal of contact."

But when Fawlty Towers was transmitted, even though the exterior shots were of a hotel in Buckinghamshire, there was no doubting its origins. In fact, in episode two, the source of inspiration was actually mentioned, when Basil condescendingly told resident spinsters Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby that because of building work they would have to get their "din-dins" at the Gleneagles. And consider this entry from Palin's diary, recording his brief stay in 1970: "Got in at 12.30am after night filming ... owner stood and looked at us ... Graham asked if he could have a brandy ... idea dismissed out of hand."

These days, I am hugely disappointed to report, the Gleneagles Hotel (restyled the Hotel Gleneagles after pressure from its grander Scottish namesake) is much more welcoming. The current proprietor, Ray Marks, even met me at Torquay station last Thursday, and helped me trace Trixie, a jolly northerner who worked for the Sinclairs - as Connie Booth's Polly worked for the Fawltys - as a waitress and chambermaid. "John Cleese only scraped the top of the iceberg as far as Torquay hotel-owners are concerned," she told me. "And Donald Sinclair was worse than Basil Fawlty, much worse. Betty used to lock him in their flat because he upset the staff so much. If he went into the kitchens in the morning, she'd sometimes be three staff short by the evening. She'd lock him in, and say to us 'if Donald starts knocking, girls, don't let him out'.

"The funny thing is that he didn't like the guests being unpleasant to the staff - that was his job. I remember a humungous woman checking in one evening, with a weedy little husband, and they complained that we were giving them nasty looks, which we were, because we had to stay on to give them a late supper. Mr Sinclair said: 'How dare you criticise my staff! Get out of my hotel!' He actually threw them into the street, poor things."

The Sinclairs sold the Gleneagles in the mid-1970s and Donald died not long afterwards. The formidable Betty, however, is still very much alive. Thought to be well into her eighties, she is frequently spotted driving round Torquay in an elderly Mercedes convertible. But I was warned that she gives short shrift to anyone who dredges up the Fawlty Towers connection, thundering that Cleese is a "geek" and that her late husband was once a respected lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy. "She didn't have much time for him while he was alive, but she is very loyal to his memory," Ray Marks told me.

Oddly, Marks has associations with another comedy icon; his first cousin was Peter Sellers, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. He is a dapper, genial man of 60, who agrees, with reservations, to perform the Fawlty goose-step for The Independent's photographer. His reservations are largely related to the hotel's thriving relationship with a German tour operator. Staff are thus expected not to mention the war.

From the outside, the Hotel Gleneagles looks much as it did in 1962, when the Sinclairs had the original Victorian stone wrapped in ersatz white clapboard. Inside, it is typical of a certain sort of English seaside hotel, with lots of old couples dozing in wicker chairs, flock wallpaper, a duo calling themselves Pink Champagne advertised under "Forthcoming Entertainment", and a faint whiff of mint sauce. Children are discouraged, which is another legacy of the Sinclair years - indeed Donald/Basil would doubtless approve of the hotel's listing in that indispensable guidebook, No Children, Please.

Otherwise, the spirit of Fawlty Towers is barely in evidence, although guests Shirley and Dennis Cooper, from Bedfordshire, did mention their encounter the previous evening with "a little waiter, too fast for himself, flying about and forgetting what we'd ordered". Moreover, Marks is now thinking of organising a Fawlty Towers theme weekend. "I've found a Basil impersonator called Ed Wells, who is 6ft 7in. He's got a Sybil and a Manuel too."

And so, down in Torquay, in a hotel with a nice view of the sea - "it's over there, between the land and the sky" as Basil once told a dissatisfied guest - life prepares to imitate art imitating life. Seemingly, art got the imitation spot-on. Like Basil, Donald even had delusions of gastronomic grandeur, at least according to a brochure Ray Marks fished out of the archives for me, advertising Christmas Eve Dinner 1969. It features, as in the wonderful Gourmet Night episode (watched by my dad and I on 17 October 1975), roast duckling with orange sauce. Sadly for purists, though, the brochure does not specify "no riff-raff".

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