Monday, November 23, 2009

Fawlty Towers

Of the five members of Monty Python, John Cleese was always my favorite. Graham Chapman had the leading man charisma, Eric Idle could parody anything, Michael Palin had the only real acting range, Terry Jones funneled the absurd silliness into social commentary that could reach back centuries and Terry Gilliam has had the most rewarding career post-Python, exploring the great spectrum of imagination and dreams with a handful of modern classics. But something about John Cleese always fascinated me. As cliché as it might be, I think the key lies in his most notable of Python sketches, The Ministry of Silly Walks. In that bit of daft frivolity is Cleese in a nutshell: a man of imposing height and deadpan severity, who will without warning explode in physical or verbal insanity.

Cleese himself must have pinned down what people like about him, as Fawlty Towers, the series he created when then-wife Connie Booth after he left Monty Python's Flying Circus, plays to all of his strengths. Over the course of 12 episodes, none of which connected to any other, Fawlty Towers rewrote the book on British sitcoms, and today it stands as perhaps the country's most enduring comedy program, more popular in its home country -- if polls are to be believed -- than even Monty Python.

Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, owner of a tinpot hotel in Torquay on the "English Riviera." He views hotel ownerships as a ticket into some level of class, yet he's so middle-class (to take from Lord Alfred Douglas' put-down in Wilde) that he refuses to spend any of his money to convert the hotel into the sort of place that will attract a better class of clientèle. So, Basil's days are spent dealing with British snowbirds and twenty-somethings who wear gaudy '70s clothing that I suspect somehow excreted these people into a greasy existence -- if this show had lasted long enough I imagine we might have seen some of these Studio 54 floor scrapings come to Fawlty Towers expecting, and John Cleese might have filmed the mock birth of the world's first chav.

Basil's life can be characterized as an uproarious dichotomy between his obsequious worship of class and wealth and his general hatred of, well, people. Everything you need to know about his character is perfectly summarized in the first episode, as he wearily converses on the phone with a builder who recently performed shoddy work. A customer approaches the desk and asks for a room, much to Basil's annoyance. After rudely tossing some forms to the man and continuing his phone conversation, Basil freezes when the man signs his name Lord Melbury. With only a moment's pause, Bail calmly blurts "Go away" into the phone and immediately doubles over in servitude to this illustrious guest.

Nearly all of the episodes follow an identical blueprint: Basil either serves his upper-class guests with too much zeal or attempts to undermine the working class' right to live, until he runs like Wile E. Coyote into the painted rock wall that is his wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales). Then, his uncontrollable urge to lie and cover up whatever he just did, failed to do or is about to ruin kicks in, and the whole thing spirals until he ends the episode on the precipice of utter madness. Sybil, the henpecking wife, strikes more fear into Basil's heart than all the hotel inspectors, tacky gold chain-wearing disco freaks and critical guests combined.

She's such a terrifying presence in Basil's life that the show needs two characters to field the psychological aftermath of Sybil's harping: Manuel (Andrew Sachs), an immigrant bellhop/waiter who cannot understand English past two or three words in a row -- "He's from Barcelona," Basil explains to the guests when Manuel inevitably performs the wrong action -- suffers the physical and verbal abuse arising from Basil's Freudian gender confusion. Meanwhile, Polly (Booth), ostensibly a waitress but typically the one who must shoulder all of the jobs as she's the only competent one of the bunch, provides Basil the opportunity for Basil to vent his emasculation at a woman, though Polly is clever enough to deflect Basil before he could really say anything hurtful to her to get out whatever misogynistic rant lies just below the surface. Polly also serves as the primary plot mover, as Manuel's language barrier separates him from Basil, who can't very well confide in Sybil since she's the one he's trying to work around.

Do not let the rigidity of its character types and basic plot structure fool you, however; every episode of Fawlty Towers manages to wring fresh laughs out of its situations and the way that the bad can always get worse in Torquay. Fawlty Towers refined and perfected the style of comedy in which the protagonist will dig a hole for himself, then dig deeper in an attempt to escape. Take the episode "The Psychiatrist": Basil attempts to catch out a lascivious young man he believes secreted a girl into his room, only to routinely burst in on a gorgeous young female patron instead. All of his feeble tries to make amends for inadvertently harassing the woman only compound the matter, especially as the old-fashioned Basil worries how all of his sentences will be analyzed by the visiting psychiatrist. Naturally, Basil ends up speaking in unfortunate innuendos anyway, and you believe the doctor when he remarks near the end that he could write a whole conference on the hotel manager.

It must be said, though, that as masterful as the show is, it is not without flaws. Basil's old-fashioned sense of morals is intentional, a means to cast him as an obsolete relic of stiff-upper-lip class consciousness whose absurdly reactionary opinions of social behavior are merely the outgrowth of his own sexual dysfunction; however, it is still a bit too far-fetched to watch the series today and think that only 30 years ago a man could be so outraged by sex outside of marriage that he could work himself into such a bother. Cleese and Booth even resort to some easy stereotyping in "The Builders," featuring inept, rowdy Irish workers and a genuinely violent Sybil (as opposed to her usual intimidation), undermining some of the fantastic comedy in the rest of the episode. One episode, "The Anniversary," breaks from the traditional Fawlty Towers setup as Basil does something genuinely nice for Sybil, but she misunderstands his actions and storms out, leaving Basil to field questions from their friends who have come to celebrate Basil and Sybil's anniversary. One might think a change of pace would add some freshness, but "The Anniversary" is about as close to a complete failure as an episode can get without being outright terrible: you can argue that it places Basil in a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" scenario, wherein a marital life filled with lies and dispassion have left Sybil so suspicious of his every action that when he finally does something right she assumes that he's ballsed it up as usual. But there's just nothing particularly funny about someone who does the right thing being punished for it (unless you're Lars Von Trier).

Still, these weaknesses can be easily overlooked when placed in the context of the brilliance of the rest of the series. Cleese and Booth have a supreme command of mounting chaos, but there is also subtlety at work here: Basil plays at old-fashioned ideals, but the semi-permanent residence of an old codger simply referred to as "Major" allows the writers to poke fun at how these supposedly quaint elders from a more majestic time carry with them horrifically blasé attitudes concerning imperialism and racism. Their portrayal of Irish punters might strike many as questionable, but foreigners generally shed the most illuminating light on Basil and his foibles. In the series' most famous episode, "The Germans," Basil suffers a concussion just as a group of German visitors arrive, leading to Basil's incessant referencing of World War II in front of them, culminating in the gut-busting exchange between one of the frustrated Germans and Basil:

"Will you please stop talking about the war?"
"Me? You started it!"
"We did not!"
"Yes you did, you invaded Poland!"

It's a brilliant piece of dialogue, but the true comedy of this scene comes not from Basil putting down those dastardly Germans but in Cleese's satire of the lingering British arrogance concerning the war. Note that, in the lead-up to this exchange, Basil's incessant references (he's wracking his concussed brain not to mention the war that everything comes out in some way linking the guests' requests to Nazism) make one of the German ladies burst into tears. There, in a comic nutshell, are the respective responses to World War II: the Allies drone on and on about our might and morality, while the Germans continue to stand shame-faced of the sins of their parents and grandparents. Even Americans get a positive spin: in "Waldorf Salad," a typically brash, stand-offish American proves the only guest willing to challenge Basil's gross incompetence, and the man emerges as a sort of hero by the end.

Through it all, however, the draw is Cleese. The "digging to China" method of cringe humor would later be adopted with exacting realism by Ricky Gervais for his masterpiece The Office, but Cleese veers dangerously close to pantomime. He's the best coiled spring in the biz, capable of acting rationally one moment and lashing out the next, and the way that Cleese can literally fold over onto himself when the world is just too much for Basil, and even how he makes his 6ft 5in frame look feeble and impotent, even when he's berating a guest he knows he can insult. In my favorite episode, "Communication Problems," he messes with a (selectively?) deaf patron as a form of service charge for putting up with her insufferable demands. The seething sacrasm with which he responds to her demands for a better view ("Why? Because Krakatoa's not erupting at the moment?") and the sly way he moves his lips in silence to make her turn up her hearing aid, only to then shout at the top of his lungs, is pure Cleese.

BBC Video recently re-released Fawlty Towers in a remastered collection. To be honest, I couldn't tell any difference in video or audio quality, but for those of us who never bought the old DVDs this new version comes with a lovely set of commentary tracks from Cleese. As he is a polite and genial British man, these tracks often slip into typical actor luvviedom, but there are a number of behind-the-scenes information and amusing anecdotes worthy of a fan's time. The unassuming nature of these tracks reflects the series itself; Fawlty Towers was never as incisive a look at Britain and its decried class warfare as Blackadder, nor did it feature the sort of anarchic slapstick satire of Cleese's previous place of work, Monty Pyton. Yet the simplicity of its structure and the cheeky way it approaches the typical themes of British comedy from the flanks as opposed to the headlong charge of the aforementioned programs makes it the most accessible of British programs, one that continues to influence comedy across national borders as much as any other comedy you'd care to name.

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