While being famed more for bringing us disco and Star Wars, Natalie Voorheis explains why the 70s gave us one of the funniest British comedies ever made
A lot of dodgy things came out of the 70s. Geometric prints, polyester, the word ‘groovy’, and let’s admit it, even the James Joyce Library. However, don’t despair because that bastion of a disaster decade did give birth to something wonderful, Fawlty Towers. This classic BBC sitcom is undoubtedly the funniest thing to come out of the decade since male flares.
The inspiration for the show came during a stay with the Monty Python team at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. The owner of the hotel, Donald Sinclair, captured John Cleese’s imagination after he behaved erratically towards the team; throwing a timetable at a guest who asked when the next bus to town would arrive, chucking a suitcase out a second floor window and criticising American-born Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam’s table manners for not being “British.”
The plot centres on Basil Fawlty (Cleese), the arrogant, impatient and completely ineffectual hotel owner whose cranky attitude to his guests invariably results in misfortune. Three other characters make up the bulk of the cast. Prunella Scales as Basil’s domineering wife Sybil, Connie Booth as Polly, the overworked maid and Andrew Sachs as Spanish waiter and general dogsbody, Manuel. Fawlty Towers ran for two seasons each composed of six episodes with the first being aired in 1975 and the second in 1979.
Commonly regarded as the funniest episode of the show, ‘The Germans’ was the sixth episode of the first season. With wife Sybil in hospital for a minor procedure, Basil runs wild though the hotel with no hand of restraint on his shoulder. Simple tasks left by Sibyl such as hanging a moose head in the lobby and conducting a fire drill become ordeals, invariably ending in the physical or verbal abuse by Basil of his long-suffering waiter.
When a group of Germans arrive to stay at the hotel, maid Polly’s innocent reminder to Basil of “don’t mention the war” places it firmly in his mind, and despite his best efforts, every comment he makes seems to involve it. After upsetting one guest with his constant reference to the war, Basil tries to cheer her up with a slapstick impersonation of Adolf Hitler, leaving his German guests stupefied at his abrasive cheek and wondering: “How ever did they win?”
Cleese’s excellent sense of timing and his off-the-wall, physical humour lend this series its heart. Expect to laugh so hard your sides ache and your tears run at this gem of a comedy.