Fawlty Towers: Series One Review
Tuesday 12th May
Our hotel, The Gleneagles, was a little out of Torquay, overlooking a beautiful little cove, plenty of trees around. Eric and John were already there sitting beside the pool. Decor was clean, rooms nice. Mr Sinclair, the proprietor, seemed to view us from the start as a colossal inconvenience.
When we arrived back at 12.30am, having watched the night’s filming he just stood and looked at us with the same look of self-righteous resentment and tacit accusation that I’ve not seen since my father waited up for me 15 years ago. Graham tentatively asked for a brandy; the idea was dismissed out-of-hand. And that night, our first in Torquay, we decided to move out of the Gleneagles.
Back at the Gleneagles, avoided breakfast. Graham, Terry and I have been fixed for one night at the Osborne, from then on at the Imperial. Asked Mr Sinclair for the bill. He didn’t seem unduly ruffled, but Mrs Sinclair made our stay even more memorable by threatening us with a bill for two weeks, even though we hadn’t stayed. But off we went, with lighter hearts…
from Michael Palin’s journal
It is always difficult when reviewing something like this. A programme so well known that almost anything I say will be contested or disputed by somebody somewhere. It is doubly difficult as it is a programme that I love and have done since first viewing repeats when I was around ten or eleven years old.
For those of you who have been in prison for the last thirty years or who were born after 1985 I will briefly explain that Fawlty Towers was John Cleese’s first project post-Monty Python. A sitcom that lasted for just two series of six episodes. This double disc set collects the first series together with some intriguing extras.
John Cleese grew tired of Monty Pythons Flying Circus after series two, he didn’t leave the group, though, until after series three. After his departure he spent time founding a corporate training film company Video Arts and he and then wife, Connie Booth co-wrote and starred in a Chekhov adaptation Romance With A Double Bass.
It wasn’t until 1975 that Fawlty Towers, their most successful venture, was aired. The programme is ostensibly about an eccentric Torquay hotel owner Basil Fawlty and his hotel, the eponymous Fawlty Towers. Continuing a grand old stage tradition of farce, the show depicts Basil creating grand webs of deceit and thus ensuring his own humiliation on a weekly basis.
Using just four characters we are witness to some convoluted stories which start off in a seemingly mundane manner but which lead Basil downhill at great speed. By the end of each episode Basil is usually left seriously wounded, sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically!
This disc contains the episodes A Touch Of Class, The Builders, The Wedding Party, The Hotel Inspectors, Gourmet Night and most famously The Germans.
Each of the six episodes feature ‘classic’ comedy moments and of these Gourmet Night is a particular treat. Basil is hoping that the cream of Torquay will attend a special gourmet feast at the hotel. The newspaper ad he places specifies ‘no riff-raff’ – this gives a clue to the sort of man Basil really is. He has no love of his fellow man, in the interview on the second disc Cleese states that Fawlty’s worldview means that humans can be split into two groups - those that can help improve his social standing and everyone else.
Based on a real Torquay hotelier named Donald Sinclair, Fawlty is easy to laugh at as he is so unlikable. The situations he faces are almost always of his own doing and one feels comfortable with the laughter. Cleese suggests that our laughter disguises Fawlty’s awfulness - I would argue that it just emphasizes it.
The one stand-out moment in this episode is when Basil’s car breaks down whilst on an urgent run to collect food for his guests from a local restaurant. The situation is, as usual, his own fault having ignored his wife, Sybil, who told him to take the car to the garage. Realising the inevitability fate he gets out of the car, pulls a nearby apart and beats the car with it. A scene which recently made it into the top 100 TV moments.
At the time of it’s broadcast in 1975 the first series was moderately successful. In an age before widespread use of home video recorders it was reliant upon repeats in order to find its audience. By the time of the second series some four years later it was a hugely successful programme. In the intervening two decades it has become a much loved, oft-quoted British comedy classic.
Picture and Sound
Naturally the disc is presented in the original 4:3 ratio and looks like the claims of ‘digitally remastered’ that adorn the packaging are accurate. It is the best that I have ever seen it looking. My old VHS tapes can now be retired, as a direct comparison between the two revealed that the colours are brighter, the picture crisper, contrast and brightness are significantly improved and those annoying dust flecks and scratches are almost entirely absent.
That said, the age of the programme is apparent and no amount of digital trickery can disguise it. The colours have the slightly muted look that older TV programmes seem to have and the skin tones, particularly on Basil seem a little ‘waxy’. Although the blacks are well reproduced tend to be a bit too magnolia for my liking. This I feel, may just be a little too picky, though. It wipes the floor with my 1998 VHS tapes for clarity and picture quality so I shouldn’t complain too much.
No great surprises here, the sound is presented in mono only. It is very clear and, to my ears, an improvement over both the BBC and UKGold broadcasts.
We are also given subtitles in English, German, French and Dutch. (For those that are amused by such things, the German for ‘Don’t mention the war’ according to the subs is ‘Erwähne nicht den Krieg’).
The animated menus are nicely designed, easily navigated and feature the theme tune and a number of interesting variants on it. (Particularly on the scene selection screen). Each episode is divided into a nice 8 chapters, just about right for a 30 minute show.
Given that my VHS box set featured a 60 minute interview with John Cleese, broken into four segments (one per tape) I was intrigued to see what the BBC would do with this important back-catalogue release. Especially as they managed to short change the British punter so badly with the Blackadder discs. Overall, they have come up trumps.
First up is the commentary for each episode by Director John Howard Davies. I sense that this is the first time he has done anything like this, his comments are stilted and there are lengthy pauses (up to four or five minutes). He comes across as quite tired and fails to inject any real enthusiasm. At the end of The Hotel Inspectors he actually apologises for not talking much.
Although Davies does throw up the odd interesting snippet he all too often lapses back into silence, with only his breathing and occasional snorts (presumably of laughter) to keep us going.
I would have given up on these after two episodes if it weren’t for this review. I have suffered so that you need not, dear reader! Editing his comments from all six shows and adding them to just one episode would have been a better option.
Things to improve dramatically on the second disc. The John Cleese interview is indeed the same as the one on the 1998 VHS release. Billed as Part One (I assume the rest is on series two) and divided into 9 segments (although no chapter access is offered) it runs for 27 minutes.
Cleese is in good form and it has been tightly edited with no interviewers questions, just Cleese talking at length about all aspects of the show and his life.Cleese tells us how he stumbled into comedy via the then rarely-trodden route of the Cambridge Footlights Revue in 1962. He also offers up comment on the shows audience, critics, the history of farce and the delicious image of Fawlty towers being used as a training video by the hotel industry!
Andrew Sachs is interviewed more recently and is happy to talk about his time as Manuel and where the inspiration came from. With German being his first language, and worrying about his Spanish accent, Sachs asked Cleese if he could be a German waiter - Cleese politely refused! Running for 25 minutes it is well worth a look.
The final filmed extra is an excellent 11-minute documentary entitled ‘Torquay Tourist Guide’. Rather than being a cheesy period ‘come to Torquay’ corporation film that the title suggests, this is a nice look at the real Basil Fawlty, Donald Sinclair, one-time manager of the still operating Gleneagles Hotel. Interviews with other hotel managers (who took in guests fleeing the Gleneagles) and guests make for a compelling piece.
The usual cast biographies are present, these are nicely done in that they are also narrated. The four main cast members along with six of the more notable guests are offered here.
Overall I would have to say that as a fan this disc was always going to be a hit with me. Few shows garner the accolade ‘classic’ but in my opinion this is one such show. The BBC have been guilty of putting out some very average discs in the past but this is more ‘Doctor Who’ than ‘Blackadder’. The extras aren’t going to take up too much of your time but what is there (commentary excluded) is well worth seeing.
The show speaks for itself and if you are a fan then it is a must purchase. Even those who with VHS copies can purchase, safe in the knowledge that it is not going to get any better than this. The picture and sound are as good as they can be and, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
As a footnote I would like to say that the reason this gets a 9 instead of a 10 is purely down to the commentary. Single person commentaries are often very engaging (Bey Logan leads the way on the HKL discs) but Davies really needed a foil to brighten up his woeful efforts here.