Television Revision: Fawlty Towers – Season 1

Television Revision: Fawlty Towers – Season 1. Starring John Cleese, Prunella Scales, and Andrew Sachs. Rated PG. By Andrew Williams.

Television Revision is a weekly feature in which our tuned in TV critic trawls through the best the box has to offer, giving you a primer on some of history’s finest shows (and warning you away from the specific episodes – or even seasons! – that might have ruined their reputation).

Now, this is a story all about how… Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales) run a small hotel in Torquay, England, assisted and hindered by low-key chambermaid Polly (Connie Booth) and hapless waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs).

Happy days? If you’re looking for a rare dissenting voice regarding the quality of Fawlty Towers, I’m afraid this review will be a crushing disappointment. After re-watching the six-episode first season of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s seminal hotel comedy, all I can possibly do is join the expansive chorus hailing Fawlty Towers as one of the funniest shows of all time. The scarily simple premise (Basil Fawlty is the worst possible person to run a hotel) is executed with a confidence and skill unmatched in television comedy history.

Even in a superior show like this, there are two elements that really stand out above the pack. Firstly, the writing from then husband-and-wife team Cleese and Booth displays a command of structure, language, and timing every comedy writer has desperately been striving to achieve ever since. Secondly, John Cleese as Basil is certainly in the top five all-time great comic small-screen performances, and possibly right at the very top. In the years since, it’s arguable that Manuel has become the show’s most famous and recognizable creation, but when you actually watch these episodes back, Cleese just dominates the screen. As a performance, it’s a timeless master class in comedy acting.

If I’m stretching for negatives, it has dated a little bit in the years since its 1975 debut, but I’m still willing to forgive a lot for writing this brilliant (it’s a bit sad that in the people-who-hate-their-jobs-and-encounter-the-odd-racial-stereotype genre, we’ve gone from this to 2 Broke Girls). Booth’s Polly is a barely defined character with foggy motivations, and the sheer level of physical and verbal abuse is an eye-opener, but this show is nearly forty years old, and it’s still hilarious. That’s all you really need to know.

The final frontier: Fawlty Towers is a bona-fide comedy classic.

Top three episodes: 1) A Touch of Class. Spends absolutely zero time on exposition and is all the better for it; a lesson just about any modern show would do well to learn. 5) Gourmet Night. Cleverly lays traps for Basil we know he’s going to fall into,  but we can’t help but laugh anyway; another episode that gains significant mileage out of Basil’s aversion to what he calls ‘riff-raff’. 6) The Germans. Four words: Don’t mention the war.

Worst episode: 3) The Wedding Party. This is like picking which of six newborn babies is the ugliest, but Wedding Party sees Basil acting so idiotically it’s a little tiresome.

Season MVP: Without a shadow of a doubt, for crafting and performing one of history’s greatest comedy characters, it’s John Cleese.

Fawlty Towers Season 1 is available on DVD. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.

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