Judge Victor Valdivia knows a rude hotelier in Tucson, Arizona. Surprisingly, he's not really that funny.
"Well, I'll go and have a lie down then. No I won't; I'll go and hit some guests."—Basil Fawlty
When Monty Python's John Cleese embarked on Fawlty Towers in 1975, fans of Python's surrealism were not particularly optimistic. Fawlty Towers was a conventional sitcom, with regular characters and plots (instead of Python's anarchic sketch comedy), and the premise—a hotelier in a small town in England—didn't sound promising. Reviews and ratings were initially middling, and it wasn't until 1979 that Cleese got to do another season. Thirty years later, Fawlty Towers is considered maybe the best sitcom of all time, acclaimed by critics and fans alike. Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection Remastered serves as the definitive release of this classic series.
Facts of the Case
Basil Fawlty (John Cleese, The Adventures of Pluto Nash) and his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales, Howards End) run Fawlty Towers, a small hotel and restaurant in Torquay, England. Assisted by Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs, Coronation Street), who doesn't speak a word of English, and smart but trapped maid Polly (Connie Booth), Basil runs the hotel with staggering rudeness and selfishness, although he's constantly in fear of Sybil. Here are the episodes collected on two discs:
• "The Builders"
• "The Wedding Party"
• "The Hotel Inspectors"
• "Gourmet Night"
• "The Germans"
• "The Psychiatrist"
• "Waldorf Salad"
• "The Kipper and the Corpse"
• "The Anniversary"
• "Basil the Rat"
Fawlty Towers was named as the No. 1 television program of all time by the British Film Institute. While that praise is hyperbolic, there's no denying the series is a rarity amongst sitcoms. Some shows are brilliantly written; others are superbly acted. It's rare to find one in which the spectacular quality of the writing is matched by impeccably timed comic acting.
Much of the credit for Fawlty Towers' brilliance belongs to Cleese and Booth. They created the series and co-wrote every episode together, setting the style and pace for how the rest of the cast and crew should work. What's interesting is not that Fawlty Towers breaks new ground in its storytelling; Cleese freely admits that many of the stories are tried-and-true sitcom conventions (the Overheard Misunderstanding, the Disastrously Kept Secret, and so on). The show's real genius lies in how it adds hilariously bizarre twists that only Cleese and Booth could have thought of to these hackneyed plots. "The Kipper and the Corpse," for instance, follows the standard formula of a protagonist trying desperately to keep a secret from everyone else that ultimately probably wouldn't really matter much if it was revealed. The catch in this series, though, is that the secret is that one of the guests has unexpectedly passed away during the night, and Basil, ever pretentious and tightfisted, can't bear to think that a guest or two might be put off. So he embarks on a series of ridiculous misadventures to hide the corpse from everybody. Similarly, "The Germans" takes the tired story of the protagonist struggling not to embarrass himself in front of important visitors and adds the uncommon twist that Basil's idea of embarrassing himself is to say scabrous and tasteless things about World War II to a group of visiting German tourists. You may be offended or shocked, but you may also be laughing in spite of yourself. One thing's for sure, you've probably never seen anything like it in any other sitcom.
As superb as the writing is, it's also helped immeasurably by the performances. Sachs is widely considered the series' scene stealer and with good reason. His performance as Manuel, the sweet but uncomprehending waiter who Basil uses and abuses (mainly because he's cheap) is a brilliant mixture of physical and verbal comedy. Scales, as the tiny but brisk wife that Basil fears, is wonderfully tart and unruffled, no matter the madness that Basil provokes. It's no surprise that Cleese excels equally at both physical and verbal comedy—he proved that repeatedly over three seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus—but what is noteworthy is his skill at characterization, in using each episode to subtly add little details that define Basil as an increasingly complicated and even sympathetic, although still severely flawed, character. Because Booth was saddled with the straight-man role, she doesn't get quite as many chances to shine, although her best moments in episodes like "Communication Problems" and "The Anniversary" are the equal of anyone else in the series. Separately, these would be excellent performances, but put together, they work phenomenally. In an episode like "Communication Breakdown," for instance, the rapid-fire pace and split-second timing make for a show that crackles with an unrelenting comic energy. If anyone needed a textbook example of what farce at its best looks like, they need only look at the best moments of this series.
BBC has done a great job of presenting this series on DVD. The newly remastered image looks as good as it ever could, with colors more vivid and edges sharper than on any previous release. Of course, thirty-year-old videotape has its limitations, but it's hard to imagine that any more improvement is possible. Similarly, the PCM mono mix is clear and loud. You'll have no problem making out even the softest dialogue.
For this set, many of the extras from the previous DVD release have been ported over, including interviews with Cleese, Scales, and Sachs and commentary tracks by the show's directors, John Howard Davies (on the first disc) and Bob Spiers (on the second). These original commentary tracks are rather dull—neither man has much to say and when they do, it's usually to describe what's happening onscreen. The interviews are more interesting, especially Cleese's. They go into detail on how the series was created and shot and how the actors approached their parts. There are also some text bios and filmographies, but these haven't been updated since the previous release, making them useless.
The new extras compiled for this set may not be numerous, but in this case it's quality over quantity. The most eagerly awaited are the commentary tracks by Cleese on all twelve episodes. Though there are times when he's simply laughing at what's onscreen, he also provides some brand new stories on how the episodes were cast (most of the guest actors were his close friends) and the real stories that inspired some of them. He also proves his reputation as a nitpicky control freak, as even more than thirty years later, he can't resist pointing out flaws in his performance and writing. There are also brand-new interviews with the entire cast, as well as several guest actors. The real treat here is the interview with Booth, who has not discussed her role as co-writer and actor since leaving show business in the early '90s. She actually has quite a lot to say about the show and how she and Cleese worked together. The interviews with the guest actors are all brief but still substantial. There's also a collection of outtakes (1:33), a snippet of film that Cleese recorded when the show was pre-empted (0:57), and "Torquay Tourist Office" (11:38), a brief piece on the real hotelier who inspired Basil Fawlty.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To be fair, Fawlty Towers isn't for everyone. If you're at all easily offended, you will find plenty to dislike about the series. It may be a sitcom shot in front of a studio audience, but that doesn't mean it resembles other watered-down sitcoms like Home Improvement in any way, shape, or form. Cleese is well-known for his hard-edged humor and there's plenty of that here. Also, if you don't have some familiarity or affection with British culture, you may find much of the show impenetrable. It's one of the reasons why some of the hyperbolic praise that the show has earned recently may raise expectations unnecessarily.
This is the definitive issue of this series, for both fans and newcomers alike. The new extras and remastering make it a must for fans who own the previous DVD issue and anyone else who is the least bit interested in British comedy simply can't do any better than Fawlty Towers. You may not find it the best comedy of all time, but if you're in the right frame of mind, you will certainly find plenty to enjoy about it. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Episode Commentaries
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