COSTLY divorces have forced a remake of Basil Fawlty’s most memorable scene, much to the disappointment of Aidan Smith
A suburban street, a mock-Tudor building, a parked car. A man enters the car and turns the key in the ignition – nothing happens. The man gets annoyed. He starts yelling at the car like it’s a person able to answer him back. Absolutely furious now, he mentions previous occasions when it’s let him down. He gets out of the vehicle – inanimate, mute and not going anywhere – and … well, you know what happens next.
This is the funniest scene in the funniest sitcom, ever. It’s regularly No.1 in those list programmes. You’ll be familiar with them: 50 All-Time Best Comedy Moments featuring celebrities, including some you’ve heard of, yapping self-evident truths without insight or profundity. Cheapo, rubbish telly, in other words, and so unlike the chart-topper itself. That is of course Fawlty Towers and the scene is the one where John Cleese goes on to give the offending motor a “damn good thrashing” with a tree branch.
I say “is” like Fawlty Towers exists in the present, is ongoing or about to be revived like Friends. Neither is true and comedy bores like me don’t want any more episodes. But the show does exist in the present: it’s never off the Gold channel. On just about any given night you’re only ever ten minutes – the length of a War and Peace waltz, perhaps – from being able to watch The Hotel Inspectors for the 472nd time or The Germans for the 473rd. The re-runs seem almost state-decreed, as if they’ve been deemed vital to the nation’s wellbeing, which they are. The 12 instalments – and that’s all, folks – exist as votive objects.
Ah, but now there is something else. Not a new episode but something worse: a commercial exploiting the funniest sitcom’s funniest scene. That it’s not new Fawlty Towers material – which, I stress, I don’t want – reminds you how Cleese has subsequently struggled to match the show’s brilliance. That he’s accepted the ad man’s shilling is rather sad. Sacrilegious? Yes, pretty much. I almost want to beat him with a branch, but he’s 76.
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Cleese appears in the commercial as Fawlty. I mean, I think it’s him but he’s no longer able to impersonate a “brilliantined stick-insect” – a memorable piece of abuse from Basil’s wife Sybil – so there’s no physical comedy any more. This is important when you think of the mirth to be had from watching Basil negotiate stairs, reception desks, wall-mounted (though not for long) moose, kitchen infernos, life. Also as he’s expanded round the middle he seems to have acquired additional hair. He looks somewhat desperate.
I feel a bit of a heel commenting on Cleese’s appearance because that’s partly how we’ve arrived at the requirement for him to blow a gasket at a non-functioning car, one more time. Between his third and fourth marriages, he had a relationship with an actress 42 years his junior who thought it would be a great idea to blab about how normally old guys were a bit saggy “down there”, but he had a “great package”. Cleese’s failure to choose the right woman has been costly in divorce payments. After reaching a £12 million settlement with Wife No.3, he commented: “I got off lightly. Think what I’d have had to pay if she’d contributed anything to the relationship – such as children, or a conversation.”
That’s a barb worthy of Fawlty, proving Cleese has still got it, and that he’s probably quite similar to his character, although I think we knew that. The inspiration for the show was a Torquay hotel established by a Scot and this adds to my proprietary feeling towards it, which is something of an obsession. It’s my hunch Cleese would find such fanboy devotion extremely irritating. He’d probably fling a typewriter at me, stuff me in a hamper, ping my forehead with a spoon.
See what I just did there? All the great Fawlty Towers insults and rants come in threes. Such as: “May I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain?” But back to the Gleneagles, the Devon version, where in 1970 the Monty Python team decided to rest up after some filming. This would provide Cleese and co-writer Connie Booth with the material for a half-hour comedy which, at the time of last September’s 40th anniversary of the first broadcast, was hailed as “after the NHS, arguably Britain’s greatest achievement since the Second World War”.
Donald Sinclair, the proprietor, is supposed to have thrown Eric Idle’s suitcase over a cliff because he thought it contained a bomb. Terry Gilliam was scolded for leaving his knife and fork at an angle rather than together – “as we do in Britain”. Cleese declared Sinclair “the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met”, but while he may have been the model for Fawlty, it was his Ellon-born wife Beatrice who opened and ran the hotel while her husband was still in the navy. Without her: no show.
At the end of last year, we learned the hotel is to be knocked down, but Fawlty Towers lives. “Fall-ty showers” ran a headline the other day about a ceiling collapse, while “‘William Tell’ actor dies” in the same newspaper devoted more words to the fact Conrad Phillips was in The Wedding Party.
Beatrice died in 2010 having complained that her war-hero husband was made a laughing-stock while the “utter fool” Cleese made millions. Not enough of them, it seems, but what a shame he’s allowed this ad. You shouldn’t fiddle with greatness. Was a moustache ever added to the Mona Lisa? Did David Bowie ever make a drum ’n’ bass album? OK, these things happened but you know what I mean. I wish I could come up with another example, making the magic three, but then I’m not John Cleese.