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fawlty towers


Fawlty at Large, Part Four:
“Why did you laugh if you don’t understand it?”

Posted 6th December 2019

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LWT logo

In the penultimate part of this series, we examined the full wrath of John Cleese. Today, to round things up, I want to investigate his softer side. The softer side that nonetheless involves a sharp jab at his fellow professionals, because this is John Cleese: the man who deliberately broadcast David Frost’s telephone number to the nation because he thought it was funny.

And a character like Mr. Davidson – someone who is the embodiment of anti-comedy – is the perfect vehicle Cleese can use to slag off some lazy jokes.

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Fawlty at Large, Part Three:
“He doesn’t know when to stop, does he?”

Posted 4th December 2019

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Mr. Davidson and Collier

Last time in our analysis of No Ill Feeling!, we took an in-depth look at Dr. Upton’s nemesis, Mr. Davidson. We are now heading towards our final showdown with that particular fragment of humanity.

It is utterly glorious. It is also utterly savage, in a way that you might not expect from a 1971 LWT sitcom. And it’s something which seems to have been pretty much ignored by everyone in their analysis of the episode – in as much as the episode has had any analysis, beyond “look, there’s an early version of Basil”.

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Fawlty at Large, Part Two: “Join in the fun!”

Posted 2nd December 2019

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Mr. Davidson

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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Fawlty at Large, Part One: “Did you book a sprout?”

Posted 30th November 2019

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Doctor Upton and Mr. Clifford, from Doctor At Large

There is a tendency, when talking about TV shows, to get caught up in the same old anecdotes and stock opinions.

Star Trek: The Next Generation only got good with Season 3. Panorama was briefly interesting in 1957 with its spaghetti harvest April Fools, and again that time when Dimbleby sat there like a twat when no films would run. Catchphrase is reduced to Mr. Chips having a wank next to a snake.

It’s the same with sitcoms. Hancock is all about armfuls of blood and reading off cue cards. Are You Being Served? is entirely centred on Mrs. Slocombe’s minge. The Office invented a whole new way of making comedy.1 So it is with Fawlty Towers, which has its own set of anecdotes and origin stories, all endlessly repeated over the years until nobody bothers to question them.

So let’s question one of them, shall we?

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  1. It didn’t. 

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Fawlty Towers: A Touch of Class

Posted 20th March 2016

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Fawlty Towers sign from pilot episode

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.

Fawlty Towers - opening titles from A Touch of Class

Opening titles from A Touch of Class

Fawlty Towers - opening titles from The Builders

Opening titles from The Builders

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.

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  1. 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. 

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11 Things Wrong With Fawlty Towers

Posted 11th February 2015

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Flowery Twats sign

One of my favourite DVD commentaries I’ve ever heard is John Cleese’s on the Fawlty Towers Remastered box set.1 Of course, I could listen to John Cleese talk about comedy forever and a day, but more than that: it’s rare to hear someone of his generation so utterly committed to the art of giving a good commentary. Having clearly rewatched the episodes in preparation, there are very few awkward pauses; the whole thing is dense with facts. Moreover, rarely has someone been so endlessly generous in talking about the talents of the cast of a show… and genuinely makes you appreciate why they are so good, rather than just gushing.

My favourite thing about the commentary, though?2 His thoughts, 30 years later, as to which parts of Fawlty Towers are his favourite, and which bits he likes the least. The former have been talked about before – Basil’s Best Bits on Gold, for example – but I find the latter especially interesting. Having read a number of ill-thought-through criticisms of Fawlty Towers over the years, it seems the only person who actually has any sensible ones is a certain J. Cleese.

Here then, are some of his least favourite things about the show, as taken from his commentary. I’ve picked what I think is his most interesting criticism of each episode. Enjoy.

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  1. That’s Remastered in the Doctor Who Restoration Team sense, rather than this one

  2. Apart from the fact that he makes very clear that the show was written by him and Connie Booth, and not by him alone. 

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