I don't know how long ago it was, but I have a vague memory of watching the sixth episode of "Fawlty Towers". Either I just happened to click over to it on late-night TV or I had dug up an old family VHS recording taped off of PBS, but watching the episode, called "The Germans", in which Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) gets knocked on the head and suffers a concussion, I laughed loudly enough that I was told to stop out of fear that I would wake my mother up. However, a couple of years later, I bought the DVD set to finally see the whole series, and it was a markedly different experience. I hate to admit it, "Fawlty Towers" is one of those shows I just don't love. I definitely don't dislike it, and I think John Cleese is a talented writer and physical comedian, but turning the show off that evening apparently put some sort of permanent damper in my brain, because I think the series' status as one of the greatest sitcoms ever made seems blown out of proportion.
Cleese and then-wife Connie Booth's setup, about a class-obsessed, rude hotel manager, his acid-tongued wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), their demure waitress Polly (Booth) and eternally confused waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs) trying to run the title hotel provides a good foundation; in fact, it's versatile enough that you'd think someone would have ripped it off by now. The real key, though is that the concept plays to Cleese's strengths: nobody does righteous irritation better. Whether he's trading verbal blows with his wife over something he should (or shouldn't) be working on, failing to hide his disgust at the people who patronize his hotel, or just trying to combat the natural flow of the universe working against him, his slow build from sarcasm to full-body fury is pretty amazing. It's a testament to the rest of the cast that they manage to keep pace, especially Sachs and Booth. Manuel bears the physical brunt of most of Basil's violent outbursts, whereas Polly slyly deflects or defuses Basil's complaints.
The 12 episodes that make up the series get better as the show continues. There's some particularly good writing in the last three episodes, "The Kipper and the Corpse", "The Anniversary" and "Basil the Rat", which are larger in scale than the rest of the series. Most of the other episodes follow a pattern, in which Basil is trying to hide some sort of disaster from someone else (his hotel's inadequacy, a drunk chef, racetrack winnings, etc.), and these last three episodes are no different, but they introduce additional layers that subtly change the angle of the comedy. In the first, the episode is structured around a dead patron which Basil is determined to hide from the other guests, essentially turning the episode into a large-scale version of the cup-and-balls trick using laundry baskets and guests' rooms, which is pretty clever. In the second, Basil backs himself into a corner with lies as usual, but this time there's a party guest (Ken Campbell) who sees through each and every one of his excuses and is visibly amused, giving the audience something to laugh at other than Basil's misfortune. The episode also gives Booth a chance to shine when Basil talks Polly into posing as Sybil, which leads to one of the funniest scenes in the whole series. Finally, "Basil the Rat" introduces an entirely unpredictable animal element in addition to an imposing, short-tempered health inspector. Usually, human Basil's frustration is due to his own incompetence, but for once it's actually out of his hands as the whole staff tries to track down the runaway rodent.
That familiar episode pattern I mentioned is the real problem, however, because the series borders on monotonous. UK series traditionally run short in comparison to American ones ("Towers" comes in two series of six episodes each, with a four-year-gap in between) in order to avoid playing out the basic concept, but I felt the first time I saw the episodes and still feel now that if you've seen one episode of "Fawlty Towers", you've seen all of them. The show is not noticeably serialized, so Basil never learns anything from the various catastrophes he gets himself into. You'd think at some point, he'd stop putting any faith in Manuel's ability to understand him, or stop trying to hide certain things from Sybil, but he never does, resulting in the various predicaments all feeling alike. Yes, it's fun to watch Cleese get frustrated, and each time he does he contorts himself into new and unusual positions, but at the end of the day, it's still essentially the same joke. Personally, I'm also more of a dialogue person than anything, and almost every episode has several good one-liners ("Racket? That's Brahms! Brahm's Third Racket!"), but "sitcom" is short for "situation comedy", and that's ultimately where "Fawlty Towers" derives most of its jokes.
I'm also going to come off like a stick-in-the-mud, because it's just a comedy TV show, but many of the Basil/Sybil relationship scenes are distracting to me. I understand that their bickering is part of the joke, but it's distracting that their entire marriage consists of the characters' hatred for one another. Additionally, the show splits down the middle when it comes to Sybil. On one hand, most episodes depict Sybil being more together and intelligent than Basil, I would also put her in the wrong in several of the show's situations. There's more than one moment where it seems odd that she wouldn't be trying to help, or her misconceptions about Basil become almost too frustrating, given her holier-than-thou attitude. On the other, sometimes Basil's unadulterated venom for her borders on misogyny, or at the very least hinges on Sybil's character embodying a few old-fashioned stereotypes. The show is 30 years old, which accounts for some of it, but I'd be lying to you if an occasional line of Basil's didn't bother me (he also calls Manuel a "dago" a few times and threatens to hit Polly at least twice, albeit in an exaggerated manner).
All things considered, I'd still chalk up the series' shortcomings to its reputation as much as its few flaws, so modern viewers should just take whatever praise they've heard for the show with a grain of salt and things will probably be fine. "Fawlty Towers" is far from my favorite sitcom (or even my favorite British sitcom), but it still has plenty of top-notch writing, sharp dialogue and brilliant physical comedy packed into its short run.
"Fawlty Towers" comes in a 3-disc digipak inside a sleeve, with some curious 3D paintings of the hotel. Each disc has one of the famous "alternate hotel sign" title treatments on it, there is a disc breakdown on each of the flaps, and a booklet with an article about the show inside of it. There is also a BBC Video customer satisfaction postcard included.
The Video and Audio
This is supposedly The Complete Collection - Remastered, but these 1.33:1 full frame presentations aren't overwhelmingly better than my memory of what the last DVD set of "Fawlty Towers" looked like. The primary issue is the slightly washed-out colors and the consistent fuzziness, although there are a few odd episode quirks as well, like some weird video edge halos around Cleese in the first episode that are black instead of white, or frequent flashes of glowing blue in "Gourmet Night" (there are similar flashes of other colors in future episodes). The shot-on-16mm outdoor segments (a British TV calling card) are extra-contrasty and grainy too, but that's expected. Fans of the series shouldn't worry though; it may not look better, but it doesn't look any worse than it ever has (a DVDTalk forum member mentions that it's brighter, which might be true, but all I have is my memory of the last DVD; I don't have it here to compare directly).
Dolby Digital 2.0 audio also sounds the same: perfectly clear dialogue and music, and not much else going on. A second DVDTalk thread mentions a few audio errors on the previous set, which I listened for (the line "Fortunately, I love it!" in "Gourmet Night" and "Is it your legs?" in "The Kipper and the Corpse"), but everything seems to be intact this time through. English, German, French and Spanish subtitles are provided, although the English subtitles had a surprising amount of typographical errors (mainly a lack of capitalization).
Many of these extras are holdovers from the previous DVD set, which "Fawlty Towers" fans will already be familiar with: the audio commentaries on all episodes by John Howard Davies (Season One) and Bob Spiers (Season Two), Interviews with John Cleese (52:49), Andrew Sachs (24:57) and Prunella Scales (7:49), "Torquay Tourist Office" (11:38), the Cheap Tatty Review (0:58), Outtakes (1:33), and "Helpful Staff"/"Guest Registry", which lead to amusingly outdated narrated filmographies. There is also one easter egg (2:28), which is also from the old DVD and shouldn't take too long to find. Since I'm already late on this review, I'm not going to go into detail, other than to say that the interviews are fairly good and the commentaries aren't (unless you like dead air).
As for all-new extras, there are only two. The first one is a new audio commentary on all 12 episodes by co-creator/co-writer/star John Cleese. These tracks aren't wall-to-wall anecdotes or technical behind-the-scenes information, but more like what you'd expect if you knew John Cleese and sat down with him to watch the entire series. The friendly, even wistful discussion includes plenty of praise for the actors with smaller roles, discussion of he and Connie Booth's writing process, and some perfectionist criticism of the little things that could have been done better. Interestingly, listening to these chats and hearing what Cleese thinks on an episode-by-episode basis probably improved my opinion of the show as a whole, so I suppose in that respect, it's excellent stuff; viewers should just be prepared for the incredibly laid-back atmosphere, which struck me as different than what might traditionally expected of a good commentary.
The other new feature is 2009 Interviews (38:32), which gathers Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs, Series 1 director John Howard Davies, Bernard Cribbins (the spoon salesman, "The Hotel Inspectors"), Geoffrey Palmer (Dr. Price, "The Kipper and the Corpse"), Sabina Franklyn (Quentina, "Basil and the Rat"), Nicky Henson (Mr. Johnson, "The Psychiatrist"), David Kelly (O'Reilly, "The Builders") and, yes, Connie Booth. It's a nice inclusion, but fans should be careful not to let Booth's participation be the defining reason to pick the set up. Maybe it's ironic to criticize the end of her long-lasting silence on the subject given that I'm sure I'd have criticized her omission had I reviewed the initial DVDs, but her insights, well-intentioned as they are, come off slightly awkward and placid. The other cast interviews are on the redundant side, especially Cleese's; the best part of the featurette is hearing about the experience from some of the smaller, peripheral roles, which is a change of pace from the rest of the extras.
"Fawlty Towers" is a good show, although its reputation has a tendency to get blown out of proportion (for instance, actor David Kelly proclaims in the extras that Basil Fawlty is "the funniest character ever broadcast on television anywhere in the world"). This new DVD set offers some improvements over the old one, such as a couple of audio fixes, commentaries by co-writer/star John Cleese, and a long-awaited (but fairly straightforward) interview with co-writer/star Connie Booth. If you're new to the "Fawlty Towers" phenomenon, this set would be the one to rent or buy, but if you've already got the older DVDs, I don't think the new set warrants dropping another $30 unless you consider it a true all-time favorite.
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