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Fawlty Towers (1975, 79)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Fawlty Towers (1975, 79)
12 x 30 min editions in 2 series (colour)
ProducersJohn Howard Davies
 Douglas Argent
Written byJohn Cleese
 Connie Booth

Cast: John Cleese (Basil Fawlty); Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty); Andrew Sachs (Manuel); Connie Booth (Polly Sherman); Ballard Berkeley (Major Gowen)

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Delirious goings on in a Torquay hotel run by the rude, snobbish Basil Fawlty and his overbearing wife, Sybil.

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In 2000, the British Film Institute's poll of television industry professionals and critics judged Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975; 79) Britain's greatest TV show of the 20th Century, and the sitcom is almost as fondly remembered by the public.

Co-written by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, the show was inspired by a Torquay hotel where the Monty Python team stayed in 1971 during filming. Cleese later described the Gleneagles' proprieter, Donald Sinclair, as "the most wonderfully rude man I had ever met"; the rest of the Pythons relocated to another hotel, but Cleese and Booth remained, unconsciously gathering material which would eventually come together in their creation Basil Fawlty, the neurotic, eccentric and bad-tempered manager of Fawlty Towers. In 2002, Beatrice Sinclair, the hotelier's widow, broke her silence to complain of the show's unfair portrayal of her late husband.

Henpecked and embittered, not to mention rude, accident-prone and an appalling petit-bourgeouis snob, Basil Fawlty is in a long-line of British sitcom losers, including Anthony Aloysius Hancock (Hancock's Half-Hour, BBC, 1956-60), Harold Steptoe (Steptoe and Son, BBC, 1962-74) and David Brent (The Office, BBC, 2001-02).

Cleese's characteristically deranged physical performance as Basil was an instant hit, but all of the leads contributed to the show's success. Prunella Scales was unforgettable as Basil's domineering wife Sybil, while Booth, as the inexplicably loyal chambermaid, Polly, was the perfect foil to the unhinged Basil. Best of all was Andrew Sachs as Spanish waiter Manuel, whose rudimentary English - and the series of astonishingly brutal humiliations he suffers at the hands of Basil - gave rise to many of the funniest moments.

Basil was an inspired creation, but Fawlty Towers was not especially innovative - following, more or less, the traditional sitcom format established in the 1950s and '60s. It was, however, brilliantly funny. Each episode, usually involving Basil's hopeless attempts to hide his latest incompetence from Sybil, teetered on the edge of insanity, as Basil's behaviour becomes more and more erratic and deranged. Among the most memorable episodes were 'Gourmet Night' (tx. 17/10/1975), in which Basil's attempts to attract a higher standard of clientele collapse in inevitable disaster, and 'Basil the Rat' (tx. 25/10/1979), in which the escape of Manuel's 'Siberian hamster' coincides with a visit by an environmental health inspector.

Fawlty Towers' legend was assured when Cleese decided to axe the show at the height of its popularity, after just twelve episodes.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Manuel, Major and moose (1:15)
2. Don't mention the war (1:20)
Complete episode: 'The Germans' (31:10)
Production stills
Taming of the Shrew, The (1980)
Booth, Connie (1949-)
Cleese, John (1939-)
Cribbins, Bernard (1928-)
Davies, John Howard (1939-2011)
Scales, Prunella (1933-)
Spiers, Bob (1945-2008)