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.
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. ↩