Monday, June 15, 2009

Fawlty Towers

Prunella Scales, John Cleese, Connie Booth and Andrew Sachs.
(Sybil, Basil, Polly, Manuel)

I might have mentioned it before, but if not, I am a stone fan of Fawlty Towers, the British sit-com from the 1970's. That, and Ab Fab, another Brit-com, both of which feature characters who are rotten to the core and hilarious as a result.

In American television, there must be redemption. No matter how bad the bad boys or girls are, deep down, they have a streak of goodness that they keep mostly hidden, but that will eventually out. Murphy Brown only seemed to be a hard-hearted bitch -- she really wasn't.

Basil Fawlty, on the other hand, was a total rotter. Ditto Edina and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, from Absolutely Fabulous.)

When they tried to do an American version of Fawlty Towers, with John Laroquette, starring as Royal Payne, who ran the Payne Inn, the show went belly up after a few episodes, and rightly so.
It wasn't funny, and they had to give him a glimmer of goodness down under all that nastiness.

What made Basil work is that he had no goodness down deep.

While doing a post on another site, I remembered something I found fascinating when I first saw it.

Fawlty Towers was written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, who were married at the time. The stress of the show, and Cleese's perfectionist's nature regarding it, apparently contributed greatly to the breakdown of their marriage, which ended in divorce after the show's first season. Though they worked together on the second season, the experience apparently put Booth off comedy. Eventually, she left acting altogether and became a psychotherapist. For thirty years, she has refused interviews about the show, and only recently posed for pictures with the rest of the cast.

Those of you who are Monty Python fans will remember Booth as Michael Palin's "best girl," in the infamous "The Lumber Jack Song" skit ...


Todd Erven said...

Fawlty Towers is an absolutely great show. My favorite episodes have to be "The Germans" and "Basil the Rat".

Irene said...

Booth was also the Witch in "Search for the Holy Grail".

Bobbe Edmonds said...

Didn't you just love the way the little hooligan from down the street would rearrange the sign out front to say things like "Warty Towels" "Flowery Twats" and "Flay Otters". Great throwaway gags to open a show with!

One thing, Connie Booth didn't leave the show, it simply ended. John only wrote the two seasons, which is how things are done on the BBC. Unlike here in America, where a show will run as long as at least three viewers are tuning in and it has absolutely no writing, plot, character development or unanticipated moves, most BBC stuff has a limited run & stops, no matter how great it is. Cleese simply wrote to a certain point & stopped there.

Booth & Cleese did in deed divorce after season one, however, and Cleese is famous for heavy-handing it on a set he's in charge of.

I think the John Cleese-Graham Chapman writing duo was one of the best comedy had ever seen, period.

It doesn't surprise me that we tried to make an American version. We do that kind of shit all the time; Red Dwarf (no Blacks, please!) The Office (no humor, please!) and about a billion other shows Hollywood seems to think need to be dumbed down for Americans.

Steve Perry said...

Not so much dumbed-down, I think, as changed sensibilities. Both Fawlty Towers and Ab Fab had bigger audiences on this side of the pond than that -- and the videos sold better. It's that American producers tend to want that redemption thing, and also that a lot of actors won't play weak.

Read Goldman's book Adventures in the Screen Trade, he talks about it. Only a relative few big start actors -- usually the better ones -- will take a role in which they are complete bastards. They fear that playing weak will mark them as such.

Cleese has said he only wrote two seasons because he had said all he wanted to say, but Booth was half the writing team and after the divorce, stayed on but hated it. Kind of like Sonny & Cher, once they split, the magic wasn't there. I heard that Booth wasn't going to stay, and they decided to pack it in.

It obviously distressed Booth greatly -- that she wouldn't even talk about it for so long. She and Cleese had a daughter, and they managed to be civil, but look at the body language in that picture.

At this remove, who can say?

Steve Perry said...

Dojo Rat said...

Haven't seen Fawlty Towers, but we get Canadian TV up here and my wife is hooked on "Coranation Street"
--On British TV, anybody can be an idiot, so unlike American crap...
Funny and intresting stuff-

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, when we lived in Sekiu, the only things our TV would bring in were curling and sumo wrestling ...

Dan Moran said...

We've watched quite a lot of BBC recently -- BBC on a bad day is better than American tv on a good one. They both have their ups and downs, but the presumed literacy of BBC audiences is about five grade levels above that of American audiences, as best I can tell.