Recently I was having one of those days. You know, when it’s all a bit crap and you can’t get your mind off the negative. I turned to something that (for me) invariably flips the ‘I’m over it’ switch in my head. A good comedy series.
I grew up on British comedies. My parents watched the ABC religiously, only flicking over to ‘Sale of the Century’ as an allowable aberration. ‘Are You Being Served’. ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’. ‘Porridge’. ‘Open All Hours’. The one I particularly adored was ‘Fawlty Towers’; and so it was to this classic I turned for some distraction. As expected, it transported my mind to a happy place the other afternoon. As I sat there smiling merrily on the couch, I found myself pondering why this politically incorrect, frustrating and in many ways excruciating comedy still ticks all the boxes. Having recovered my joie de vivre I did a bit of research.
‘Fawlty Towers’ was famously penned by John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, first airing in 1975. The couple were to divorce after the first series but valiantly still worked together to produce the second in 1979. Only six episodes were written for each, with the scripts meticulously worked and reworked by Cleese. Just this year “The Radio Times” poll revealed that, yet again, it remains the most popular British comedy of all time. Why?
Well it’s certainly not visual production values. There are wobbly walls, the odd visible boom mike and the most unrealistic Siberian hamster/rat puppet in shot. The acting performances are of good quality, but some of the delivery is a touch stagey by certain characters. The magic is in the writing. In particular the creation of Basil Fawlty. Who is expertly portrayed by Cleese.
Cleese encountered his inspiration for Basil in 1970 when travelling with the Python crew. They had the misfortune to stay at a Torquay hotel run by a man named Donald Sinclair. Cleese was fascinated by Sinclair. He and Connie Booth stayed on for several days to observe him after the rest of the cast had left. By all reports Sinclair was rude, obnoxious and clearly disliked running a hotel. He appeared to resent the guests and see them as an imposition. He was a man with absolutely no filter.
It is accepted that comedy scripting has a basic formula. “A beginning, a muddle and an end”; as aptly described by poet Philip Larkin. Cleese and Booth honed this beautifully. They also created a character that you love to hate. Basil is very dislikable, but you sympathise with his dysfunction. There’s a bit of you that wants him to triumph. There’s a part of you that has Basil Fawlty days… where you just want to squat in a hallway, cover your head and make like a demented frog. When Fawlty comes out ahead betting on a horse you know he cannot prevail. You realise that Irish builder O’Reilly’s seemingly successful rectification of a building blunder can only end in further humiliation. The man’s life is a misery, and a misery of his own creation in the most part.
The scripts have an exquisite tension to them as they progress. In the majority there is a ‘false’ resolution of tension at the end of the exposition or beginning. This causes you to relax as the viewer. You then enter the middle of the writing and get swept up in the ‘muddle’ which is unrelenting and cringe worthy. Whilst there are elements of slapstick, it is not so overdone as to not have stood the test of time. The plot resolution is fairly swift in each episode. Each character does not change in their hierarchy throughout any of the stories. There is a comfort in knowing that is safely established. I describe ‘Fawlty Towers’ as the comedy where you can’t look …but you can’t look away either.
It is hard to know if people will still laugh at the plight of Basil Fawlty in another forty years time. It’s refreshing that in an ever changing world, where even language is morphing at a rapid rate, a classic still stands.
I would venture to say the American equivalent may indeed prove to be ‘Seinfeld’. Once again, the magic is in the writing. A consistency of plot quality and character creation that does not age. It too still tops the charts twenty years after its final season aired. There’s a grounding in real characters who were carefully observed and then honed to fit the comedy genre.
They say laughter is the best medicine. Trite, but in my experience somewhat true.
Just don’t mention the war. 😉