It’s a British institution, one of the greatest series ever produced by the BBC. A show etched into the national psyche, a programme that everyone has watched and loved. The prime example of British humour: cleverly crafted and inoffensive. These were the sort of comments that my friends and family made when I admitted that I had never watched Fawlty Towers before.
Thoroughly convinced that I had been deprived of something special, that my formative years were a little dimmer without the humour of John Cleese and co. at their mad-cap finest, I decided to give it a go. Yet despite the hype, Fawlty Towers disappointed me. It seemed vulgar, insular and heavy-handed. I sensed that there was darkness lurking behind the slapstick, and it made me feel nauseous.
Can we really feel comfortable watching a show where ‘He’s from Barcelona’ is thinly-veiled code for ‘he’s an idiot’ and ‘don’t mention the war’ (the most famous snippet from this oft-quoted programme) is an onscreen manifestation of the very real anti-German sentiment rife in 1970s Britain? This sort of casual, infrequent but utterly undeniable racism and nationalism surfaces often enough to cause unease.
For the few readers amongst you who are yet to encounter this British institution, Fawlty Towers is an amalgamation of stereotypes. In fact, the show is so embedded in misguided generalities that its characters have become something of an archetype in the TV world, often copied by filmmakers looking for an easy laugh. The general incompetence and constant frustration of Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), the uptight, rude owner of the Fawlty Towers hotel, is the source of the show’s humour. Yet the humorous nature of his character is as much the result of his situation as the repressed husband of a domineering wife as his actual character traits. Sybil (Prunella Scales), Basil’s demanding wife, is the embodiment of bossiness. She is the one who drives Basil to exhaustion with her demands and pretensions. These sort of relationships between oppressed men and shrewish wives were the TV norm throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and can be spotted even now in sitcoms such as Not Going Out. While the stereotypes are not quite so clearly defined, the two shows are unsettlingly similar.
Basil and Sybil are joined on set by their trusty hotel staff. Polly (Connie Booth) and Manuel (Andrew Sachs) act as comic devices rather than characters in their own right. Manuel is frequently mocked for his accent, which provides many a gaff, while his grasp of the English language and British customs is continually lacking. His exaggerated ‘foreignness’ makes him the natural target for Basil’s jokes. In the face of such ridicule Manuel is shown to be continually grateful for his job and his life in Britain, a farcical, self-gratuitous depiction of European immigrants that goes beyond poking fun at ‘little Englanders’ and instead perpetuates problematic stereotypes.
On the surface, then, Fawlty Towers is a misogynistic, insular comedy that perpetuates outdated stereotypes. Yet despite all these problems, Fawlty Towers is still regarded as one of the best British TV shows. Why? I felt compelled to see what all the fuss was about. The first episode I watched was The Builders, in which Basil selects – against the wishes of his wife – an Irish builder called O’Reilly to change the location of a door in the hotel rather than the dependable English option.
My 21st century sensibilities were immediately shaken by the depiction of O’Reilly, whose laziness and dishonesty are a grotesque caricature of the genuine dislike for Irish immigrants found in England at the time. In the show, O’Reilly is a crooked craftsmen whose incompetence compares unfavourably with the reliability of his English counterpart, who does a decent job when he’s called upon to fix O’Reilly’s mistakes. This is hardly palatable today, yet it seems even worse when situated in the context of the original broadcast. At that time, Britain was in the midst of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, a period of bitter conflict fuelled by just this sort of blinkered prejudice.
The show does not just reinforce racism. It also buttresses gender prejudices. Prunella Scales’s Sybil is a horrific parody whose behaviour reads as an amalgamation of well-established bigotries. During most of her on-screen appearances, the audience see her gossiping to an anonymous friend over the phone while filing her nails, brushing her hair or putting on make-up. When she is not on the phone, she constantly snaps at her husband and makes wry, sarcastic comments. Throughout the show, she is portrayed as a nagging and irritable women whose vanity and haughtiness epitomise the Medusa-esque wife of misogynist lore.
Polly escapes the same treatment as Sybil, who is doomed to ignorance throughout the show, instead posing as the voice of reason among the slapstick chaos. Yet even Polly cannot escape unscathed. She is always at Basil’s beck and call, lured into helping him out of some sticky situations. She is obliged to be constantly available to help Basil evade disaster, while her own character is left undeveloped.
Despite the initial shock, I persisted with Fawlty Towers, and was amazed that a show dearly loved by so many could rely on humour grounded in prejudice and culturally insensitive cliché so often. Even the Major uses the N-word in a racist tirade during one episode of the show. Although more recent reruns have cut this scene from the television show, the fact that such editing had to occur in the first place illustrates the extent to which Fawlty Towers is out of date and out of touch.
I don’t deny that Fawlty Towers is humorous, and the temptation to disconnect from its less politically correct aspects is strong. This aspect could be dismissed as a relic of the late-1970s, when casual racism and sexism were commonplace. The writers, the actors and the producers didn’t know any better, we might claim. However, the rhetoric of its genius, and of its inter-generational greatness, should be questioned in view of the prejudice and misogyny that pervades it.
In the cold light of 2018, Fawlty Towers seems like a fossil, an outdated work that ought to be disregarded or even discarded. At the very least, its faults should be brought to light and considered carefully. Is this the sort of show we want to put on a pedestal and praise?