Has “Fawlty Towers” Been Overrated?

Garry Berman
20 min readMay 4, 2024

The popular British sitcom Fawlty Towers has made its way to London’s West End, premiering there at the Apollo Theatre on May 4. The original series, created by ex-Python John Cleese and his wife at the time, Connie Booth, has been praised as a comedy milestone by fans and television professionals alike, despite the fact that only twelve episodes were produced.

The play, Fawlty Towers Live, for which Cleese combined three of the series episodes together, isn’t really new. It first debuted back in 2016 in Sydney, Australia using Australian actors, before touring that country and New Zealand.

With the play’s premiere in the West End (now named Fawlty Towers: The Play), it’s time to consider the possibility that the series may have been over-praised to some degree, and is due for re-assessment, nearly forty years since it premiered on the BBC.

Heresy, you say? Calm down, and hear me out.

Firstly, a bit of background history:

According to legend, the idea for Fawlty Towers grew from an actual experience by Cleese and his fellow Monty Python members at a hotel while filming on location near Torquay. The hotel manager, Donald Sinclair, apparently made no effort to mask his disdain for his guests. A few years later, Cleese left Python and planned to collaborate with Connie Booth. When the BBC approached him to do a new series, it didn’t take long to hit upon the premise of a hotel setting featuring a relentlessly rude manager. “It was the second or third idea that came into our minds.”

Cleese has always been especially proud of the scripts and the scriptwriting process he and Booth went through for each episode. While most sitcom episodes are written in a week to ten days, Cleese and Booth took an average of six weeks to construct each episode. They would sit with a large sheet of drawing paper and jot down ideas for a beginning or middle of a story, making short notes off to the side, and ever-so-slowly construct the plot over a two-week period. Here he explains his technique:

“On Fawlty Towers Connie and I used to spend enormous quantities of time on the plot…There were certain things we took pride in, trying not to let the audience guess what was going to happen. So whenever we were getting plot points across or establishing something that was absolutely necessary to lead on to the final direction of the story, we would always try to make it as funny as possible so that people thought it had been put in because it was funny, but at the same time they would absorb the point, the plot point [Cleese learned that technique from Marty Feldman]…We would try to get two or three threads and at a particular point…basically they start on separate tracts and then start weaving. And of course the best ones are where they all come together right at the end…Connie and I would laugh till the tears rolled down our faces, but we would always ache for Basil. We were really like two gods — we were writing this man’s life and making it absolutely awful — he never had a chance!”

The first series of six episodes began airing in September of 1975, when viewers were first introduced to the manic Basil Fawlty, his shrewish wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), their hopelessly incompetent Spanish waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs), and their level-headed and sarcastic housekeeper Polly (Connie Booth).

While the dialogue is no less capable of providing big laughs, Cleese himself maintains that a great visual gag stays with the viewer much longer than the dialogue.

Highlight episodes include, from the first series, “Gourmet Night” and “The Germans.”

In “Gourmet Night” we find Basil pursuing his relentless quest to attract a higher class of clientele. He arranges a formal dinner to feature his new chef, Kurt. The first setback occurs when most of the guests must cancel at the last moment, leaving just two couples in attendance. Basil decides to make do, until Polly informs him that their chef Kurt has drunk himself into a stupor (apparently Manuel has rejected his affectionate advances). With no dinner to serve, the panic-stricken Basil hurries into town to pick up a prefab duck dinner at his friend Andre’s restaurant. Back in the hotel kitchen, he and Manuel collide as Manuel’s foot wedges its way into the duck. A second mad dash back to Andre’s follows, where Basil thinks he’s picking up a new duck dinner (it is obscured by a silver tray cover). His car stalls on the way back, bringing on an apoplectic fit as he screams at the car and even beats it with a tree branch.

Finally, he wheels the dinner into the dining room and lifts the silver lid from the tray to reveal a large trifle dessert. The impatient guests are not amused. “Duck’s off, sorry.” he says meekly.

“The Germans” opens with Sybil in the hospital to have an ingrown toenail removed. Basil is left to manage on his own. He announces to the guests that he’ll soon be conducting a fire drill, but even that proves to be beyond his abilities. The confused guests bombard him with increasingly infuriating questions as he attempts to demonstrate the proper procedure. At the height of the confrontation, Manuel bursts into the lobby from the kitchen to announce a real fire, only to be dismissed by Basil and sent back into the smoke-filled room (Andrew Sachs suffered real burns while taping the scene, and was compensated for his injuries).

Later, after receiving a nasty bump on the head, Basil finds himself sharing Sybil’s hospital room. Woozy from a concussion but concerned about the hotel, he “escapes” the hospital in time to welcome the long-awaited German guests. Despite his admonishments to Polly “not to mention the war,” the lightheaded Basil promptly upsets his guests with several ugly references to Nazi Germany.

As popular as this episode is (in 1997 it was ranked #12 in TV Guide’s list of the 100 greatest episodes of all time), Cleese himself was less than totally satisfied with it, conceding that the two halves don’t quite fit together very well.

There is a noticeable gap of time between production of the first and second series (we Americans call them seasons). One reason for this was that Cleese and the other members of Monty Python began writing the script for their feature film, The Life of Brian during that time. More significantly, Cleese and Connie Booth divorced. Despite the obvious emotional strain of ending their marriage, they in fact shared the desire to continue working together as writing partners. “We just couldn’t live together,” he explained. So, in February of 1979, a new series of six Fawlty Towers episodes began its run. Cleese feels the second series is stronger than the first. Certainly, two episodes in particular have ranked high in popularity.

“The Kipper and the Corpse” provides Basil with a hotelier’s nightmare — a dead guest. In this case, an ill guest retires for the evening and asks to have his breakfast sent up the following morning. Basil resents the inconvenience but delivers the breakfast and chats away, oblivious to the fact that the guest is as dead as a doornail. Polly discovers the body, and Basil embarks on a mission to get the body out of the room and out of sight of the guests until the undertaker arrives.

He and a reluctant Manuel drag the body through hallways and into closets and laundry baskets. At one point, the elderly Mrs. Tibbs catches sight of the corpse and faints dead away, leaving Basil with two bodies to shuffle about the hotel.

The absurd slapstick ballet of “The Kipper and the Corpse” is perhaps surpassed by the final episode of the series, “Basil the Rat.” A surprise visit by the health inspector puts the staff on notice. Everything in the hotel must be spotless in time for his follow-up visit. Later, Basil discovers Manuel has been keeping a pet rat, which has to go. But during the inspector’s next visit, the rat returns (Manuel has been secretly keeping it in a storage barn). Rat poison ends up on a piece of veal, possibly on the dish served to the inspector.

A tangle of complications ensues, topped off with a frantic chase after the rat through several areas of the hotel. It disappears momentarily, only to reappear sitting in a tin of biscuits offered to the inspector. His face-to-face meeting with the rat leaves him in a daze, as we see Manuel dragging the unconscious Basil out of the dining room.

This final episode aired nearly seven months after the rest of the series, due to a union strike at the BBC (John Cleese had wanted Basil’s final appearance to be in a sketch for the premiere episode of Not the Nine O’Clock News. Instead, this final episode aired on its own shortly thereafter).

Diehard fans of the program may be quick to claim that each and every Fawlty Towers episode is a classic, period. But some are obviously better than others, and certainly not all are classic half-hours. By taking a hard, objective look at the series, it must be said that — if we’re being truthful — some of its episodes are far from brilliant. The premiere episode, for instance, while burdened with every sitcom premiere episode’s task of introducing the setting and characters, is not especially memorable. The plot involving a con man posing as “Lord Malbury” is fairly mundane, at times confusing, and leads to some forced slapstick as Fawlty chases the exposed con artist through the hotel until the police arrive.

Perhaps the weakest episode of the twelve is “The Americans,” from the second series. It is basically thirty minutes of an impatient, rude, and angry American tourist bullying Fawlty and demanding a Waldorf salad long after the kitchen and dining room had been closed for the evening. The episode grows tiresome as Fawlty, for some reason, nervously cowers and goes through hell to please him by attempting to prepare the meal himself. This behavior is much unlike the disdainful treatment he dishes out to most of his guests (unless he sees some advantage — whether real or perceived — of catering to their every request).

In “The Anniversary,” also from the second series, not much really happens at all. Basil makes the unfortunate decision of pretending to forget his wedding anniversary, causing an upset Sybil to storm off and seek solace with her friend overnight. In truth, Basil has planned a surprise get-together with several of their friends, but Sybil’s absence forces him to think fast. As the friends arrive, they curiously refuse to accept Basil’s explanation that Sybil is sick in bed, and they insist on visiting her. This forces Basil to implore Polly to disguise herself as a bed-ridden Sybil.

The sequence with the group waiting in the hallway while Basil stalls, and then having them literally tripping over each other in the darkened bedroom to conceal Polly’s silent impersonation, doesn’t gain the momentum it obviously seeks. The gag of the injured, moaning guests making their way back downstairs actually falls quite flat.

So, where does this leave us?

The fact remains that the series produced only a dozen episodes, which in itself would not disqualify Fawlty Towers from its established status as a classic. Other Britcoms such as The Young Ones, The Office, and Extras each produced only a dozen episodes apiece. But if we subtract the three rather mediocre Fawlty Towers episodes out of twelve, the nine remaining episodes — while they are very funny and have considerable comic inventiveness and energy going for them — are they really enough to justify the praise bestowed upon Fawlty Towers as the “greatest” or “funniest” Britcom of all time?

It is worth considering how any sitcom with so few episodes can be judged as one of the “best of all time,” when other comedies have been able to maintain their own extraordinarily high comic standards over the course of thirty, forty, even eighty or more episodes.

Fawlty Towers did reach #5 in the 2004 poll of Britain’s all-time favorite sitcoms. But in that same poll, the classic and sentimental favorite Only Fools and Horses came in first, by over 60,000 votes, on a list of 100 programs. So, we can also acknowledge the semantics of terms like “best,” “funniest,” “favorite,” etc. and how those adjectives may determine the overall sitcom rankings with the public and the press.

Later polls, in 2007 and 2019 — some taken among fans, others among critics, indeed placed Fawlty Towers at the top, but the rankings among a special handful of the top ten series in such polls have been fluid, with some climbing upward, and some losing favor over time. In the end, it’s all subjective.

Therefore, I offer three hilarious British sitcoms that, in my humble opinion, rank at least equal to or above Fawlty Towers, and that managed to maintain a strikingly high degree of quality over the course of several series and dozens of episodes. They are available on YouTube, the Britbox subscription service and on DVD as well:

‘Allo, ‘Allo!

Writer/producer David Croft had already enjoyed years of tremendous success with sitcoms such as Dad’s Army, Are You Being Served? and several others by the time he and partner Jeremy Lloyd created their farcical masterpiece ‘Allo, ‘Allo!. For nine series, this shamelessly silly comic soap opera set in Nazi-occupied France never passed an opportunity to go for a big laugh, regardless of — anything. Each and every episode is crammed with sight gags, plot twists, and ludicrous dialogue. The colorful characters and absurd situations create an unstoppable momentum from one episode to the next. ‘Allo, ‘Allo! is a marvel of comic invention, praised by both critics and fans around the world.

The huge cast of characters.

The sprawling story revolves around the most unlikely of heroes, Rene Artois (pronounced “Atwah”), a cafe owner in the small French town of Nouvion. As played to perfection by Gorden Kaye, Rene’s efforts to maintain a reasonably normal life under German occupation go awry in the first episode. The plot elements established in the first episode expand outward from that point at a dizzying rate. The French Resistance, led by a beautiful young woman named Michelle (Kirsten Cooke), has designated his cafe a safehouse for escapees.

Rene’s protests go unheeded, and before he knows it, he is performing a delicate balancing act between pacifying the local German officers and assisting the Resistance in their efforts to sabotage the Third Reich in France. Rene is the first to admit he’s a coward, and isn’t shy about expressing his reluctance to get involved with Michelle’s harebrained schemes.

Like it or not, Rene always finds himself in a pivotal role. In the opening episode, he and his waitress Yvette (with whom he’s having an affair) must deal with the early arrival of two British airmen who have been shot down. Michelle has sent them to Rene’s cafe to hide from the Germans. But communication problems ensue:

In the early going of the series, Rene stages his own death by a German firing squad and then poses as his own twin brother. But before he can resume his life, he must ensure the Germans witness his funeral. And for that, the undertaker Alphonse must measure him for his coffin:

There is so much more mayhem that ensues throughout the most outlandish storylines in the series’ 83 episodes that must be seen to be believed.

Despite its relatively low profile in the U.S., ‘Allo, ‘Allo! has been the biggest selling Britcom internationally. It has been sold to more countries than Fawlty Towers, and towards the end of its run in 1992 was even purchased to air in Germany. “It hasn’t grown in America like Are You Being Served? has,” says David Croft, “But I think it will grow undoubtedly.”

The series enjoyed a successful life beyond its incarnation on television. In 1986, a stage version starring most of the television cast members opened at the London Palladium. Record audiences kept it running for six months, twice as long as originally planned.

The Brittas Empire

The Brittas Empire, which premiered in 1991, was hailed as “the Fawlty Towers of the 1990’s,” and deservedly so. While it has not enjoyed the household-name status in America as that of Fawlty Towers, this fast-paced, outrageous series full of inventive gags shares much of the same style. In both cases, the cast of characters (especially the leads) manage to turn molehills of problems into mountains of catastrophe.

We first meet Gordon Brittas as he assumes the role of manager at Whitbury New Town Leisure Centre (a fitness and health club to Americans). An eternal optimist, he prefers to downplay the fact that his previous tenure as a leisure center manager in another city ended with him being more or less run out of town. Instead, he’s ready to make a fresh start. As he introduces himself to the staff and establishes his philosophy of life and leisure centers, they quickly size up their new boss. Gordon is well- meaning enough. He has a Dream, one in which world harmony is achieved through sport and friendly competition, and he intends to pursue his dream for the rest of his life. The only drawback to his pursuit is his peculiar knack of driving those around him absolutely crazy — even homicidal — with Brittas as their target.

Of course, he is totally oblivious to the effect he has on people. He is an incessant stickler for proper procedure (no matter how trivial), insists on employing a hands-on approach (no matter how incapable he is for the task), and somehow manages to treat his staff and customers in a manner that might be best described as cheerfully condescending. Whenever he takes it upon himself to “help out” at the front reception desk, Gordon inevitably transforms a handful of docile customers into an angry mob. Thanks to a rollicking performance by Chris Barrie (Arnold Rimmer on Red Dwarf), Gordon Brittas in action is truly a sight to behold.

Despite Gordon’s uncanny talent for courting disaster singlehandedly, his constant striving to maintain an efficient leisure center is often undermined by his own eccentric staff. One of the deputy managers, Colin Weatherby (Michael Burns), is a fiercely loyal and, in his own way, industrious employee, if not a very hygienic one. He is perpetually nursing a variety of skin infections, injuries, and any number of ailments involving repugnant bodily secretions. His accident-prone ways have prompted Gordon to dub him “a dead pigeon in the jet turbines of management.” Gordon’s apathetic secretary Julie (Judy Flynn) assists her boss when the mood strikes her, and not a minute sooner.

Only Laura Lancing (Julia St. John), the center’s assistant manager, represents the voice of reason when all around her is crumbling to the ground, sometimes literally. She is the one person the others can turn to in their more dire moments under Gordon’s command.

Carole (Harriet Thorpe) and Laura (Julia St. John).

On rare occasion, Laura even attempts a heart-to-heart talk with her boss, with the glimmer of hope that he might recognize how his maddening ways tend invite disaster and nudge his staff to near-mutiny. Julia St. John as Laura shines as the eye of the storm over The Brittas Empire. But even Laura often finds herself helplessly swept up in the chaos.

Laura, Colin, and Brittas ponder the latest crisis.

“It had the advantage that the public keeps coming in,” said co-creator/co-writer Andrew Norriss, “though we had one of our rules which was that the public always had to be sane and decent ordinary people, and if anything weird happened, it had to come from Brittas. He was the only one who was allowed to do anything strange — except Colin was allowed to be strange as well.”

In “Generations,” a typically chaotic episode from the first series, Brittas encounters a farmer fixing his disabled van in the center’s parking lot, with his prize-winning (and pregnant) cow in tow. Gordon orders them off the property, but becomes distracted with other matters, such as Carol’s pregnancy, in its ninth month. The cow wanders into the building and eventually onto a squash court. As fate would have it, both Carol and the cow have inadvertently eaten samples of Colin’s exotic leaves, used for, among other things, helping induce labor. They both go into labor shortly thereafter. The concerned farmer encounters a gynecologist who is just finishing a game on the next squash court, and offers him a hefty sum to deliver the calf. Meanwhile, the local vet arrives:

As Julia St. John recalled, “I read the first script and thought that it was extremely well-written and very subtle, as well as all of the more overt anarchy. There were some lovely subtle things, which I think is the hallmark of it, actually. And each episode has three or four storylines, which all get resolved at the end…It was a hoot. For the five series that I did, it was tremendous fun.”

Carole (Carol Parkinson) and Laura (Julia St. John)

The end of series 5 seemed the end of Brittas for sure.

“The one we really thought was the end was one where we killed him,” says Norriss. The story has Gordon rescuing Carol’s son Ben as the leisure centre, in one of its many calamities, collapses around them. Ben survives, but Gordon doesn’t. We then see Gordon at the Pearly Gates, getting on St. Peter’s nerves before he’s even allowed in. “I’m terribly proud of that one,” says Norriss. “The last quarter of an hour, the cast acting and the rest of it, and the story, it’s wonderful.”

Surely this incident would mark the end of Gordon Brittas. The attendees at his funeral are convinced of it — until they hear a faint knocking from inside his coffin…

Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister

While it never aimed for straight farce the way ‘Allo, ‘Allo! and The Brittas Empire did, it is probably safe to say that no sitcom, British or American, has ever achieved the level of literacy and sophistication of Yes, Minister, one of the 1980s greatest and most admired Britcoms. While audiences in the U.S. seem to have little interest in television comedies set snugly in the world of American government and politics (the closest we’ve come was The West Wing, which offered a greater dose of drama than comedy), our British counterparts embraced Yes, Minister and even saw it evolve into Yes, Prime Minister for two more series. It is that rarest of programs that requires more than a modicum of intelligence to follow, and then rewards the viewer with funny, sharply drawn characters and deft political satire. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Prime Minister at the time of the show’s run, was known to be a big fan, as were many Parliament members and other high ranking government officials.

The first series opens as James Hacker (Paul Eddington) begins his term as the newly elected Minister of Administrative Affairs (a title created by the writers). The new position gives him the responsibility of ensuring that government policies are formulated and carried out with a minimum of red tape. He is eager to change the system for the better, yet he’s more than a little naive about how things really get done in government.

Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne), Bernard (Derek Fowlds), and Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington).

Enter Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), Permanent Under-Secretary. Before our fresh-faced Minister can get comfortable in his new leatherback chair, Hacker meets his philosophical nemesis; Humphrey thrives on maintaining the status quo, proudly revels in red tape, and is determined to foil Hacker’s attempts to achieve true progress on just about any issue. He is a master of double-talk and gobbledygook, and when need be, can effortlessly create a verbal labyrinth leaving Hacker dizzy with confusion.

The man caught in the middle of this battle of wills is Hacker’s private secretary, Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds), whose allegiance to the Minister is routinely tested by Humphrey’s persuasive manner. Bernard wants only to do the right thing, but is sometimes unsure of just what the right thing is. Still, he is an invaluable presence to Hacker, except perhaps when he volunteers to explain a fine point of government bureaucracy — Bernard’s gift for lapsing into gibbering double talk is at least equal to Humphrey’s.

The major issue of the 1980s for Britain, Europe, and to a lesser extent, the U.S., are confronted on Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister with remarkable humor and insight, and have proven to be as relevant today as they were forty years ago. That’s no small achievement for a humble sitcom.

There are still many other British sitcoms of the past half-century (and some even earlier) that have offered memorable characters, clever dialogue, and hilarious situations that deserve to be forever remembered and enjoyed. And, in my humble opinion, ‘Allo, ‘Allo!, The Brittas Empire, Yes, Minister, and others deserve to be re-visited (or visited for the first time) for their comedic brilliance. Doing so just might cause considerable second thoughts before crowning Fawlty Towers as the greatest or funniest ever.

Until next time…

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You can read more about British sitcoms in my book Best of the Britcoms: From Fawlty Towers to Absolutely Fabulous, originally published in 1999, and which covers fifty series that have aired between the early 1970s and late 1990s. An updated edition, Best of the Britcoms: From Fawlty Towers to The Office, published in 2010, offers seven additional chapters.

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You can also read about American television and over 100 “firsts” in TV history in my book, For the First Time on Television.

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Other television-related articles of mine that might be of interest to you:

“Television Stars Who Went From Hits to Flops” (pt.1): https://medium.com/@garryberman/television-stars-who-went-from-hits-to-flops-c21205caa1bd

“Retro Review: Pan Am” https://medium.com/@garryberman/retro-review-pan-am-2afc7af35905

“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525

“A Mother’s Day Tribute to our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/a-mothers-day-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-68f9122538a8

“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://medium.com/@garryberman/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0

“Comedy to Die For: When Death Rears it’s Head in Sitcoms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/comedy-to-die-for-when-death-rears-its-head-in-sitcoms-7a51cb0acc32

“Saying Goodbye to ‘Modern Family’” https://medium.com/@garryberman/saying-good-bye-to-modern-family-73897235416d

“No Laughs, Please: Our Greatest Comedians as Dramatic Actors” https://medium.com/@garryberman/no-laughs-please-37fdf614e85a

“Fifty Years of ‘The Odd Couple’ on TV” https://medium.com/@garryberman/fifty-years-of-the-odd-couple-on-tv-part-i-62a0eac93520

“My Funny Valentine: Comedy’s Real-life Married Couples” https://medium.com/@garryberman/my-funny-valentine-comedys-real-life-married-couples-1f0605e2caca

“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor?” https://medium.com/@garryberman/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1

Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://medium.com/@garryberman/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e

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Garry Berman

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.