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Reviewed by Will Harris
f there is ever to be a sitcom model by which all other sitcoms should be judged, then that model should most certainly look a great deal like “Fawlty Towers.”
Arguably the most famous solo project done by any member of the Monty Python troupe (and unquestionably winning the day if only television programs are considered), the concept for “Fawlty Towers” famously arose from real life events when John Cleese and his Python compatriots stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, England and endured extraordinary levels of impoliteness from its owner, Donald Sinclair. A few years later, Cleese took inspiration from Sinclair and, with the assistance of his then-wife, Connie Booth, created the character of Basil Fawlty for himself – as if anyone else could possibly have done it justice.
As owner and proprietor of Fawlty Towers, Basil Fawlty is to hotels what Randal Graves is to retail. And if you’ve never seen “Clerks,” here’s Randal’s take on the life of a video store clerk: "This job would be great if it weren't for the fucking customers." That’s basically Basil’s position as well, except that he’d probably add, “And you can’t get good help these days, either,” given his perpetual complaints about his staff. Manuel (Andrew Sachs) might be a top-notch employee in Barcelona, but given his decidedly sketchy grasp of the English language, he’s forever making errors due to problems in translation. On the other hand, Polly (played by Booth) is actually rather competent, but Basil doesn’t trust anyone to do anything right. Anyway, it’s not as if it matters. Mind you, things around Fawlty Towers might run more smoothly if Basil’s wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales), actually lent a hand and did a bit of work once in awhile rather than prattle on endlessly to her friends, but God forbid that should ever happen.
The most brilliant part about “Fawlty Towers” is that the series ran for two seasons, each of which consisted of six episodes, and then it ended, leaving 12 episodes of pure hilarity without a duff one in the bunch. The idea of ending a series while it’s still on top is something that almost never happens in America, but – not coincidentally – it does still occur in England once in awhile, most notably with the work of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. (Rest assured that, if “Fawlty Towers” had aired today, it probably would’ve had a wrap-up special as well, just as “The Office” and “Extras” did.) If Cleese and Booth had decided to continue with the further adventures of Basil, Sybil, Polly and Manuel into a third season, it might well have diluted the effect of what had come before. Instead, you can look back at the existing events at Fawlty Towers – we speak of visits from the health inspector and the hotel inspectors, Mrs. Richards and Lord Melbury, the Americans and, of course, the Germans – and see a track record of comedic perfection.
Special Features: If you’ve ever purchased “Fawlty Towers” before, we regret to inform those of you with limited budgets that, yes, you really will want to buy it again. This 30th anniversary set features commentaries from Cleese on every single episode, each of which provides an enjoyable listen for the longtime fan; even three decades later, he’s still highly critical of what he views as errors in comedic timing, but he’s full of stories about the making of the episodes, and even when he descends into laughing along with the events onscreen, it’s worth listening, if only because his laughter is so infectious. You’ll also enjoy the opportunity to listen to commentary from the show’s directors, John Howard Davies (Season One) and Bob Spiers (Season Two). Other features include lengthy interviews with Cleese, Booth, Scales, Sachs, and various guest stars from throughout the course of the series, a collection of outtakes, a tourist’s guide to Torquay (no, seriously, it’s a real documentary), and profiles of the actors.