Fawlty Towers: A Touch of Class
19th September 1975, 9pm, BBC2, and the first programme of a little series called Fawlty Towers is broadcast. And whilst most of that first series of Fawlty Towers was shot in the summer of 1975, the very first episode – A Touch of Class – was recorded eight months earlier, in December 1974. The reason for this is simple: that first programme was a pilot. Unlike some programmes, which are re-recorded entirely for their first episode1, most of that pilot made it to air more or less in its original form. For instance, the opening sign is a different design in the pilot episode compared to every single other programme in the first series, and the theme music is also a different recording. Indeed, you wonder why, when it came to broadcast, they didn’t at least change the opening titles to be consistent with the other episodes, but I digress.
One detail, however, was changed between the initial pilot recording, and its broadcast. Polly was originally meant to be a philosophy student – and that’s what she was in that pilot episode. For the series, they decided to change her to being an art student – and so they reshot parts of the pilot to incorporate the change. To quote John Cleese, in an interview on the 2001 DVD release:
CLEESE: She in the pilot episode was a philosophy student, and we didn’t feel that worked as well as art student, so we re-recorded just a little – maybe four or five minutes – and cut that into the first episode before it was transmitted to the general public.
The obvious question to ask, then – at least, if you’re me – is: which parts of the transmitted episode were reshot? And was it really four or five minutes of material? But whilst you could easily guess about one section which was reshot, for years that was all the information we really had about the change.
Until 2009, when the Remastered edition of Fawlty Towers was released on DVD… and John Cleese recorded a brand new commentary for every single episode. I’ve already waxed lyrical about this commentary before – suffice to say that it’s up there with one of my favourite DVD commentaries ever recorded. And sure enough, we get a little more information about the re-recorded sections, during the scene in the dining room where Danny and Polly share a moment:
CLEESE: We actually recorded this show as a pilot at the end of ’74, and then at the beginning of ’75 we re-shot two scenes – and that little bit between Robin and Connie was reshot, because in the original pilot she was a philosophy student and we decided that didn’t work so well, so we made her an art student.
So, let’s take a look. The re-recorded bit of dialogue which was dropped in later portraying Polly as an art student is clearly this section – I’ve marked the re-recorded part like this:
BASIL: Sorry, sorry about that…
BASIL escorts MANUEL off through the kitchen. A slap is heard. POLLY walks in.
POLLY: Sorry about that.
DANNY: No – I like a bit of cabaret. You left your sketch.
POLLY: Oh, sorry.
DANNY: It’s very good. Do you sell any?
POLLY: Enough to keep me in waitressing.
She leaves. BASIL walks in, carrying a bottle.
BASIL: One half bottle of beaujolais…
For the proof that it was just the dialogue between Danny and Polly which was reshot and nothing else, take a look at the close-up during Danny during the conversation with Polly, and then the wide shot immediately following this dialogue:
In the reshot section, Danny’s grapefruit is far larger and has a cherry on top, compared to the rather meagre offer on display once we cut to the wide shot.
The observant amongst you, however, will note that Cleese says two scenes were reshot. If this is one of the scenes, then which was the other? I wondered about this for ages – in fact, the point of this little article was going to be me asking whether anyone else knew what the other scene was.
That is, until I worked it out by myself. And once you notice it, it’s screamingly obvious. The other section which was reshot is in fact the earlier piece of dialogue between Polly and Danny, which opens the scene:
POLLY: Ready to order?
DANNY: Yeah. What’s a gralefrit?
DANNY: And creme pot… pot rouge?
POLLY: Portugese. Tomato soup.
DANNY: I’ll have the gralefrit. Now… balm carousel. Lamb?
DANNY: Sounds good. Does it come with a smile?
POLLY: It comes with sprouts or carrots.
DANNY: Oh, a smile’s extra, is it?
POLLY: You’ll get one if you eat up all your sprouts.
POLLY walks off.
DANNY: [to BASIL] Waiter!
And how did I work this out? Once you know what you’re looking for, Robin Ellis’s hair is very different in the material which was reshot. The first picture here is from the re-recorded section, and the latter is seconds later when he shouts for Basil:
As I say, once you see it, it’s screamingly obvious. (The collar is different too, of course.) But I’ve watched the episode countless times, and never noticed the change in hair before!
For our final proof of this – and a little background information as to exactly why his hair is different – take a look at this blog post by Robin Ellis, who played Danny:
“The pilot was approved and the series got the go-ahead. Six half-hour episodes were in the can, but a late plot change involving Polly – played by Connie Booth, John’s writing partner and wife at the time – meant they had to re-record part of my dinner scene exchange with Polly.
My hair had grown and changed color for Poldark – so for one afternoon at Television Centre in mid-summer, they dyed my hair dark brown and pinned it up at the back–and I was briefly Cockney Danny Brown again.”
Of course, there is one question unanswered there: why was that other section re-recorded? The bit where Danny talks about the sketch is obvious enough, but during the opening of the scene there is no reference to her being an art student at all. Did the original recording of the opening of the scene contain reference to her status as a philosophy student? If only we had access to the original copy of the script.2
It is worth noting that in that 2001 interview, Cleese states that “four or five minutes” of material was re-recorded. In his 2009 commentary though, he simply notes “two scenes” were changed – which I’ve taken to mean two sections of a single scene. In total, the re-recorded material I have identified above is just 33 seconds of footage – a huge difference from the four or five minutes Cleese originally suggested. Perhaps it’s possible that more material was re-recorded, and just not used – or maybe Cleese simply misremembered in his initial interview. It’s worth noting that one reason Cleese’s set of commentaries are so good is that he’s clearly rewatched every episode before doing the commentary to jog his memory – he makes several references to this, along with the fact that he hadn’t seen the episodes for years before then. So I’m far more inclined to take his 2009 commentary reminisces over an interview he did in 2001.
So there we have it. I believe those 33 seconds I’ve identified above are the only re-recorded material which made it into the final episode. There are some subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes made to the sets between the pilot and the second episode – check out the clock and barometer on the wall of the lobby, to name but two – and I can’t see any other material which looks like it was dropped in later. I think that’s your lot.3
Now, maybe the real question is: does the original edit of that pilot survive anywhere, even on a non-broadcast quality format, which includes the original Polly scenes? Probably not. But wouldn’t it be fun if it did?
Citizen Smith is a good example of a show which had a pilot, and then was completely reshot for its first episode broadcast six months later – both are on the DVD, and it’s fascinating to compare them. ↩
Here’s a conspiracy theory for you, and not something borne out by anything in the episode. Note that in the later section of the scene, Polly had left a sketch behind. We never actually see this, however. When the scene was re-recorded, did we actually see her leave the sketch behind originally, but that didn’t make it into the final edit? Probably not, but I’m going to leave this here in case we ever find out and it makes me look clever. ↩
Though if you want another weird bit of editing in the show, take a look at 21:09, when Basil asks “Did you cash it?” Polly replies “Yes” – but that sure doesn’t sound like Connie Booth’s voice… ↩