Watch This: Fawlty Towers on DVD
The Brits have always done television better than America. Rather than running a series into the ground when it's well past the sell-by date, the Brits have always known when to quit and leave you wanting more. Queer As Folk (the US version never came close to topping the original), The Office, Life On Mars, Absolutely Fabulous and Ashes to Ashes (the finale is coming in the spring) all ran for just a few series and bowed out while still at the top of their game. Fawlty Towers, which has just been released in a newly remastered, three-DVD boxed set ($42.98, BBC Video or purchase episodes on iTunes), also belongs on that list.
In 2000, the British Film Institute put Fawlty Towers as number one on its list of Greatest British Television Programs. And for good reason. Created by Monty Python's John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth, the comedy ran for six episodes in 1975 and then a second set of six episodes in 1979. That's all there was -- 12 episodes of one of the funniest comedies ever on television. It's now considered a cult classic in America after airing on PBS stations for the past 30 years. This new DVD set celebrates the series with beautifully restored picture and audio, as well as a disk full of documentaries, interviews, outtakes and even a tourist documentary of the seaside town of Torquay where the series was set. John Cleese gives commentary on every episode.
Cleese, as put-upon hotel owner Basil Fawlty, is hilarious. Always on the verge of a massive stroke, Basil works himself up into a state over minor things (not to mention sucking up to rich guests and desperately trying to keep the "riff raff" out) and is forever mis-communicating or misunderstanding situations that lead to hilarity. His snappy relationship with his more evenly-tempered, no non-sense wife, Sybil, is the heart of the show. Andrew Sachs as the abused Spanish bellman, Manuel, plays the character as a wild stereotype and Basil's xenophobia -- like Archie Bunker's racism -- wouldn't fly on today's PC television. Connie Booth's Polly is probably the most sane character on the show, an art student employed as a waitress in the hotel's restaurant, who is often forced into many other jobs to keep the hotel running.
There are scenes from episodes of Fawlty Towers that are now classic: Basil beating his broken down car with a tree branch screaming, "I'm going to give you a damn good thrashing," and the episode where the German tourists come to stay and Basil, suffering a concussion, insults them with Nazi jokes and impersonating a goose-stepping Hitler. Cleese and Sachs extreme physical comedy is reminiscent of the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers. They both must have been bruised after every episode.
What amazes me is that although there was a four year gap between series, the second series picks up as if no time has passed at all and is just as funny -- sometimes more so -- than the first. Cleese and Co. could have surely carried on for more episodes, but decided to go out on top. Cleese said he and Booth took six weeks to write one 30 minute episode and were always worried it wasn't good enough. Even on the commentary, Cleese bemoans some of the less funny parts of episodes. Cleese and Booth, who divorced in the gap between series but remained friends and writing partners, said they considered a third series in the 80s but decided against it. Cleese recently said there would never be another series because he and the actors are "too old and tired and expectations would be too high." He's right about the expectations. Fawlty Towers is locked in time and imminently re-watchable. It's nostalgic, comfort television of the highest order.