In Part One of this series, we took a trip to 1971 and Doctor at Large, where newly-qualified doctor Michael Upton went to stay at the Bella Vista hotel. There, he met Mr. Clifford, our ersatz Basil Fawlty, and had a fairly baffling time with him.
That’s where most analysis of the episode No Ill Feeling! ends. But to me, it’s really just the beginning. Today, we meet the real nemesis of Michael Upton… and John Cleese.
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Upton quickly enters the dining room, and sits down. Three elderly ladies are sitting behind him1, and immediately start discussing him. “He’s here!” “Where’s he going to sit?” They also seem rather excited that he is a doctor.2 These three ladies will be our greek chorus throughout the episode. Upton is mildly perturbed by them, but it’s fine. He can easily cope with that little lot.
Then… he arrives. Trust me, Mr. Clifford was just the warm-up for the actual Worst Man in the World. Here he is, in all his vile glory.
Mr. Davidson – played magnificently by Roy Kinnear – is a thoroughly awful human being. Yes, he tells crap jokes, but that’s not the worst thing about him. It’s that he tells crap jokes while imposing himself on you. It’s that he tells crap jokes while publicly judging you. And he will not, under any circumstances, let you go. You are not permitted to quietly enjoy your dinner. You will have fun, and you will do so on his terms.
In short: he is a bully.
He is also a shining example of why I frown when people say comedy dates easily. So much comedy is simply about people, and I don’t think people really change that quickly. And you can see Mr. Davidson everywhere today. Yes, most obviously the office joker, who is still alive and well and ready to cause misery in workplaces across the country. But I see countless cousins of Mr. Davidson clogging up Twitter, with their crap jokes, with their forced jollity, with their barely-disguised contempt of you. The kind of person who pops up in your mentions to explain your own jokes back to you. A humourless bore is easily recognisable, whether he’s sitting in the dining room of a crap hotel in 1971, or sitting on Twitter in 2019.3
Now, you might think I’m being a bit too mean on poor old Mr. Davidson from the above. Maybe he just wants dinner time at the Bella Vista to be fun, however ineptly he goes about it? Surely we shouldn’t be punishing people for their lack of social graces?
I very strongly argue this is not the case. As proof, here he is, seeing a chink in Upton’s armour… and thoroughly exploiting it, purely to make him feel better about himself.
Let me be absolutely clear. If you think that is acceptable conduct in a public place towards a complete stranger, please stay out of my life.
And as if that wasn’t enough, later on in the episode, Mr. Davidson takes a step into really quite dangerous behaviour indeed. When poor Upton is out on his rounds, he is greeted with perhaps the worst sight in the known universe: Mr. Davidson, hanging out his office window and shouting unpleasantries, his cronies joining in behind him. And when his cries cause Upton to walk straight into a lamppost and bang his head really fucking hard, Mr. Davidson shows no absolutely no remorse.
We just get this: “Fetch an ambulance! I mean the fire brigade! Ahahahaha, fire brigade!”
As his laughs echo into the distance, you wonder what it would take to stop Mr. Davidson short. Would Upton need to lose an arm? Perhaps it would need multiple limbs? What about a scalp? Or would you need all-out genocide to stop Mr. Davidson in his tracks? Would he even stop then?
I find the portrayal of Mr. Davidson fascinating. Far more fascinating than Mr. Clifford. For all that people talk about our proto-Basil in No Ill Feeling!, he doesn’t take up nearly as much screentime as Mr. Davidson. And it’s Mr. Davidson who John Cleese really wants to examine in this episode. Which backs up what Cleese said when he points out that he didn’t write No Ill Feeling! as a test run for Fawlty Towers:
“I set one of the episodes at a hotel which had been based on this one [The Gleneagles in Torquay]. An old friend of mine said to me ‘You know, there’s a series in that hotel,’ and I thought “Bloody television producer, can’t see a program without thinking about a series.’ The extraordinary thing was, he was absolutely right. It did make a series, but at the time he suggested it, I didn’t take him seriously.”
John Cleese, “Life Before and After Monty Python”, p. 86
You can’t help but think that if Cleese was really trying out the owner of the Gleneagles for the big time, the whole episode would have revolved around his nonsense. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine an episode of Doctor at Large with the entire show spent on Upton dealing with Mr. Clifford, with Clifford’s wife far more heavily involved. But it’s clear that this isn’t really what Cleese was up to. The heart of the show is the grotesque Mr. Davidson.
Which leads us to the next obvious question: are there any descendants of Mr. Davidson in Fawlty Towers? Of course, it’s immediately tempting to class Roger from The Anniversary as one of his clan, with his endless quips at Basil’s expense. I’d argue, however, that not only does he lack the sheer ill-intent, but he doesn’t force himself on you like Mr. Davidson. Roger does not impose; he merely observes. And besides, Roger’s jokes can actually be very funny.4
But I still think you can see echoes of Mr. Davidson in Fawlty Towers. Most obviously with Mr. Hutchinson from The Hotel Inspectors, if only because the job of both characters is literally to sit there and be obnoxious in the dining room for most of the episode. I’d also count Mrs. Richards from Communication Problems as a distant relative of his; you only have to remember her shrill “I need change for this!”, and her utter lack of correct queueing etiquette, to remember how she loved to impose herself on others.
I think this is thinking too literally, though. Because the fascinating thing about No Ill Feeling! is how everyone has picked up on the proto-Basil… but generally tends to ignore Mr. Davidson, beyond a one-line “joker” description. But take a look at him. It’s clear from Mr. Davidson’s first line how obsessed he is with Upton’s profession: “Is there a doctor in the house?” Mr. Clifford didn’t care that Upton is a doctor, beyond the annoyance of having to write out his form again; Mr. Davidson does, and he feels immediately threatened. Upton is young, bright, attractive, and relatively successful. Mr. Davidson is none of these things. The only way he can cope with Upton is to assert his dominance through any means possible, no matter how wretched. And while this is exactly the opposite of Basil, who is subservient to those he considers better than him, the obsession with class politics is most definitely present and correct. “Well, you don’t want to be toffee-nosed. Join in the fun!”
And let’s be clear: Upton has done nothing wrong. He didn’t swan into the Bella Vista, parading around like he owned the place. He was quiet, unassuming, and polite – even when confronted by Mr. Clifford. He ignores the old ladies behind him giving a running commentary of where he is going to sit. And then he is greeted with the full force of Mr. Davidson regardless. Because Mr. Davidson wants to make his neuroses your business.
Remind you of anyone? Yes, it’s Basil. And that’s the key thing which is ignored when discussing this episode. Everybody talks about Mr. Clifford and his nascent Fawltyesque tendencies, but Mr. Davidson and his neuroses don’t really get a look in. For example, see this review of the show:
“Unfortunately however, it’s terrible. Little of Cleese’s unquestionable genius for the form is evident here, in a tiresome 25 minutes featuring annoying, impossible characters at every turn. Bateson’s hotelier is not so much misanthropic as just plain strange, and given to Spoonerisms – not a particularly rich vein of humour onscreen in my opinion, possibly because I’ve never actually heard anyone use one in reality.
And as I’ve intimated, the hotel manager is so far down the list of importance in the storyline that it’s hardly been worth anyone commenting on its existence – as Fawlty in nascent form that is – all this years.”
“Sitcom Oddities”, The Story of Euston Films
My argument: it’s Mr. Davidson who really has the Fawlty streak. His problems might be slightly different than Basil’s, and they come out in a different way. But in terms of him projecting his own issues onto to people who are just trying to enjoy their meals, and causing absolute chaos while doing so, the similarities are there for all to see. Just imagine how Mr. Davidson would cope with a pair of psychiatrists coming to stay at the Bella Vista, for instance.
If you don’t tackle Mr. Davidson, you aren’t really tackling the heart of No Ill Feeling! at all – either in terms of Fawlty Towers, or as a piece of comedy in its own right.
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John Cleese hates the Mr. Davidsons of this world. The final scene of No Ill Feeling! makes this entirely clear. Because he takes the opportunity to destroy him.
Next time, we see how brutal a 1971 LWT sitcom can really be.
Intriguingly, one of them is wearing an outfit which recalls her flapper heyday from 50 years ago, which is a nice touch. ↩
“My late husband wouldn’t have a doctor in the house. He wouldn’t let a doctor near him. He died when he was 28.” What a deliciously nasty joke. ↩
I have to say, there is one point where I think John Cleese can’t quite help himself. As Mr. Clifford wanders through the dining room, Mr. Davidson calls him over. “Come on Mr. Clifford, give us a comic song about being henpecked. You can slit your wrists for an encore.” Mean, yes. Imposing, certainly. But also actually quite funny. A bit too funny for Mr. Davidson. In the main, Cleese resists the urge to write Mr. Davidson as genuinely amusing in himself; this is a slight misstep. ↩
Roger is responsible for one of my favourite lines in the whole of Fawlty Towers. When Basil is busy explaining what they’re planning to do with the bar area (“…sort of a Captain’s cabin, charts on the wall, ropes, wheel in the corner…”), Roger pipes up with “Yeah, give it a bit of class!” ↩