state of the arts

John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers reboot might not be ‘anti-woke’ – but it’s still a terrible idea

A reboot of the classic Seventies sitcom won’t just be a disappointment, says Louis Chilton. It proves that absolutely nothing is sacred

Friday 10 February 2023 10:23 GMT
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‘Fawlty Towers’ originally aired on the BBC back in the 1970s
‘Fawlty Towers’ originally aired on the BBC back in the 1970s (Alamy Stock Photo)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Yes, it’s finally happened. Fawlty Towers is getting a reboot.

For decades, the very idea seemed unthinkable. Running for 12 episodes (two series of six episodes apiece) in 1975 and 1979, John Cleese and Connie Booth’s Torquay-set comedy was a paragon of restraint. From the writing through to the performances, it was bottled lightning. Each episode was a classic. And then, after 1979, it was gone. No more. Decades later, the series would still be widely celebrated for this “quit while you’re ahead” philosophy. Ricky Gervais, for instance, has often compared the decision to endThe Office after two series to the precedent set by Cleese. To some extent, Fawlty Towers came to embody the UK’s entire attitude towards TV, establishing one of its golden rules: less is more.

And yet, on Tuesday, it was announced that Cleese would be returning to the character of Basil Fawlty, in a new series created alongside his daughter, Camilla Cleese, who will also co-star. The problem with a Fawlty Towers reboot isn’t simply that it will disappoint – though disappoint it surely will. Even if some people can get past their compunctions about watching Cleese in this day and age (the comedian is tirelessly committed to causing offence about anything he considers “woke” – though has already shot down the suggestion that the new series will be “anti-woke”), there is simply no recreating the singular charm of the original. The thrill of watching Basil Fawlty always lay in Cleese’s energy, in the manic physicality he brought to the performance. Now 83, Cleese’s days of frenetic gesticulation are surely behind him. But the bigger issue with a Fawlty Towers reboot is what it represents for the industry. Truly, nothing is sacred.

Of course, by now, audiences are so numb to the very word “reboot”, that it could be easy to overlook the significance of a Fawlty Towers one. Sex and the CityFrasierThe Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Take your pick. In the modern world of “intellectual property”, every work of art is reduced to a familiar face, a pristine corpse waiting to be dug up and dusted off. But even within this sea of dredged-up mediocrity, the absurdity of a Fawlty Towers reboot cannot be downplayed.

The fact that it’s been years since Cleese was a talked-about presence on the British TV circuit is of course not insignificant. A cynical mind might suggest that reviving Fawlty Towers is the only way for Cleese to get a major TV role again. That the decision to do so constitutes one last desperate grasp at the limelight from a man who has, in recent years, become known far more for his reactionary off-camera viewpoints than any new screen work of note.

A few weeks ago, I argued in favour of the forthcoming Frasier revival, a prospect that has prompted only doom and foreboding in many of the series’ fans. With Frasier, particularly, there are parallels with Fawlty Towers. Both series are being revived at the sole behest of the original star, without the involvement of other cast members.  Like Cleese, Frasier star Kelsey Grammer is an actor whose political opinions have marginalised him in the industry, who has struggled for prominent parts for years. Yet there is a world of difference between the two ideas. Frasier, for all its merits, was inherently a product of American TV excess – a spin-off of a long-running sitcom, lasting for 264 episodes (many of which, towards the end, were of radically inconsistent quality). Fawlty Towers, with its diamond-tight 12 episodes, is frankly incomparable.

In 2018, Cleese told The Independent: “If I ever tried to do a Fawlty Towers-type sitcom again, everyone would say, ‘Well, it’s got its moments, but it’s not as good as Fawlty Towers’, so there’s not much point in doing that. You have to do different things.” What’s changed, exactly, between now and then? I’m not sure. Maybe everybody has just got older. Maybe the TV industry really has just run out of ideas. Whatever it is, one thing’s certainly true – there can be no changing back.

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