Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 2 release of Fawlty Towers: series 2. A fantastic sitcom gets a pretty good, although not outstanding DVD release
The TV Series
If Monty Python were the Beatles of comedy (and I shall be looking at this rather questionable supposition more closely in my upcoming review of Monty Python and the Holy Grail), then it’s tempting to start comparing post-Python careers to those of the Beatles, ignoring Terry Gilliam and Graham Chapman for the sake of a neater comparison. Michael Palin can be seen as a Paul McCartney figure, still attracting immense public affection despite not producing much of any great quality; Terry Jones can be seen as a sort of George Harrison type, a man who has moved away from the obvious fame and fortune. If Eric Idle, meanwhile, is a Ringo character, having squandered his talent in facile rubbish, then John Cleese is left as the John Lennon figure. As analogies go, this isn’t perhaps the most obvious one, and in fact it’s verging on the absurd. However, Lennon, for all the controversy he attracted in his lifetime, was clearly a genius of sorts, and thus Fawlty Towers can be seen as being directly comparable to, say, ‘Imagine’.
The sitcom itself has been introduced very nicely by Simon Evans in his review of Series 1, so I’ll get on with describing each episode:
This is the episode in which Basil bets on a racehorse at the same time that another guest loses her money. Perhaps not as top-drawer an episode as some of the others, this still has many hilarious moments, and Prunella Scales is memorably vile as Sybil, with the antagonism between her and Basil being even more pointed than in the first series.
In this episode, a psychiatrist arrives at the hotel, and Basil begins to behave somewhat…oddly. Possibly the funniest episode in the series, there are numerous classic moments, most of them involving Basil’s new-found obsession with the young woman, who Sybil believes he is having an affair with. You will cry with laughter.
Or, Basil does the cooking out of necessity. My least favourite of all the episodes, because it seems vaguely wrong to have Basil as an incompetent blunderer; he’s more suited to seeing himself as a sane man amongst lunatics, with the laughs coming from the obvious fact that he isn’t. Still, even weak-ish Fawlty is head and shoulders above nearly all other comedy.
The Kipper and the Corpse
The other strong contender for the funniest episode, this is the infamous episode in which a guest dies, and the body has to be disposed of. Strictly speaking, this is closer to League of Gentlemen or Joe Orton territory than the rest of the series, with numerous hilarious moments involving undertakers, sausages and hysterical old women. And the cast is great as well, including Geoffrey Palmer and Charles McKeown in small parts.
Here, Basil plans an anniversary party for Sybil, only for complications to ensue (don’t they always?) when she storms out, meaning that he has to improvise. A rare chance for Connie Booth (who reviews have nearly always neglected, despite the fact that she co-wrote the series) to do something crucial to the plot, and also another chance for Cleese to shout, scream and behave in an intensely amusing fashion.
Basil the Rat
The final episode (to date, at least), and Manuel has a pet rat in his room, which Basil determines to destroy by all means possible. Vaguely reminiscent of Gore Verbinski’s Mousehunt, although of course this came first, this is a hysterically funny episode, complete with the usual physical violence being visited upon Manuel, which, in these politically correct times, probably shouldn’t be funny, but most certainly is.
Surprisingly, the picture is slightly better than you’d expect for a 1970s TV programme, with the source material seeming much cleaner and brighter than you would anticipate. Obviously, it still looks very much like a low-budget TV show, but this is a pleasingly good effort in putting it onto DVD, and it looks many times better than VHS as a result.
The mono track produces the soundtrack and dialogue perfectly clearly, as well as the omnipresent canned laughter (which might well actually enhance the show, although it seems irritating while you watch it). However, there are few surprises to be had here.
In a growing trend from the BBC, we have a 2-disc set, one disc for the series and another for the extras. However, the extras themselves are not especially stunning. Bob Spiers’ commentary is sporadic, to say the least, and he doesn’t reveal anything especially interesting, meaning that it really isn’t worth bothering listening to. Far better are the interviews with Cleese and a slightly bored-sounding Scales; while the material of what they’re saying may be familiar, both are very funny about the show, and both convey the joy of having made one of the greatest sitcoms ever. The other extras include a short but amusing outtake reel, a ‘Cheap Tatty Review’, which was a piece of linking material done by Cleese when filming was cancelled at the time of the BBC strike, and there’s also a nice Easter Egg, showing film of the real Fawlty Towers after it was burnt down.
A truly wonderful TV series gets a not-bad DVD presentation, although the disappointing commentary is an opportunity missed. Cleese has recorded commentaries for Life of Brian and the Holy Grail, and it’s a shame he wasn’t asked to here. Still, this is easily the best presentation of Fawlty Towers we have ever had.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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