About Fawlty Towers

The secret of timeless comedy is knowing when to call it a day. Fawlty Towers, which ran to a paltry 12 episodes, is the classic example of this dictum: John Cleese, Prunella Scales et al quit while the show was at the very height of its powers, thereby preserving in TV aspic the glory of Basil Fawlty and his most dysfunctional of hotels.

Fawlty Towers

The real Basil Fawlty

Hard as it is to imagine a genuine human being quite as odious as Fawlty Towers' eponymous hero, one such man did apparently exist. The story goes that back in 1972, when the Monty Python comedy team were filming in Torbay, they were booked into a hotel run by a man called Donald Sinclair. So execrable was his temperament that the whole Python team decamped to a more amenable location. All, that is, except John Cleese, who stayed behind to further observe this remarkable character. And the rest, as they say, is blistery.

Mrs Cleese

Basil Fawlty finds the immovable object to his unstoppable force in the form of battle-axe wife Sybil (unforgettably portrayed by Prunella Scales), but Cleese's real-life other half was also an integral part of the proceedings. Connie Booth, who plays Polly the chambermaid, was married to Cleese for 10 years until 1978. Andrew Sachs, the Englishman who delighted in putting on a thick Spanish accent to play Barcelona-born waiter Manuel, was never married to Cleese or Fawlty, as far as we know.

The clientele

The fewer, the better. What with the cackling wife and bewildered staff to deal with, Fawlty really has no time to spend on handling guests, especially as kid gloves are not in Fawlty's wardrobe. The one regular guest is The Major, a permanently befuddled septuagenarian fool with a penchant for whisky and the unerring tendency to forget himself on a regular basis. But it's the once-only visitors who provide the real richness to Fawlty Towers' soup of sang-froid: be it builders, Germans, wedding guests, American tourists, corpses or even rats, there's always someone or something to drive Fawlty ever closer to that inevitable aneurysm.

Don't mention the war!

Probably the single most famous phrase to have passed into common parlance since its initial broadcast in Episode 6, "don't mention the war!" refers to Basil's preturnaturally PC attempts to ingratiate himself towards a group of visiting Germans. Yet somehow, every attempt to be kind and welcoming rapidly degenerates into inadvertent slights on the Hun. Xenophobic drivel pours unstoppably from his mouth in a torrent. Happily, Fawlty Towers has found an appreciative audience in Germany over the years, giving the lie to that hackneyed adage about Teutonic humourlessness.