How can we tell when genius strikes? Exactly 39 years ago this week (on Friday 19 September 1975), the very first episode of Fawlty Towers was broadcast. And if anything can safely be said to define the word “genius,” it’s Fawlty Towers. In the case of the creation of Basil Fawlty, we have that rarest of luxuries. We can pinpoint when genius struck. We know the when, the where, the who, the how and the why.
In his superb and invaluable book The Python Years: Diaries 1968-1979 (on pages 27 and 28, should you wish to seek it out for yourself), Michael Palin generously records the exact moment of the conception of one Mr Basil Fawlty.
It would seem that Basil Fawlty is believed to have been inspired by one Mr Donald Sinclair, then proprietor of the Gleneagles Hotel, Torquay, England. The Monty Python team spent the night of Monday 11 May 1970 at this very boutique. It was to be their base for a two-week filming stretch away from London. But it would appear that Mr Sinclair’s behaviour provoked most of the the Pythons to move on after just one night. Palin relates:
“Mr Sinclair, the proprietor, seemed to view us from the start as a colossal inconvenience, and when we arrived back from Brixham, at 12.30, having watched the night filming, he just stood and looked at us with a look of self-righteous resentment, of tacit accusation, that I had not seen since my father waited up for me fifteen years ago. Graham [Chapman] tentatively asked for a brandy – the idea was dismissed, and that night, our first in Torquay, we decided to move out of the Gleneagles.”
Only Eric Idle and John Cleese elected to stay on at the Gleneagles Hotel. Were they just suckers for punishment?
With the assistance of hindsight, Palin observes in a footnote that this was “a lucrative decision” for Cleese, as “he later based Fawlty Towers on Gleneagles.”
I am sorry to report that Mr Sinclair has long since left us (You can learn more about him here). But the Gleneagles Hotel, Torquay, is still a going concern. If you’re curious, here’s what it looks like (signpostage with letters disappointingly un-rearranged):
And of course the genius of Fawlty Towers remains eternally accessible to us (despite Palin’s concerns – recounted in his Diaries on the night that the first episode aired – that “it could become a bore and certainly there are as yet no reserves of warmth or sympathy in the character of Fawlty to help it along.”).
I’m sure everyone has their own favourite moment of Fawlty Towers genius. My very favourite (and there is of course a lot of competition) is Mr Fawlty’s none-more-biting-the-hand-that-feeds-one delivery of the words “My God, you’re ugly, aren’t you?” in The Germans.
What’s your favourite moment of Fawlty Towers genius?
Update 1 (Sunday 14 September 2014): Haunted by Fawlty?
Were the Python team haunted by the spirit of Basil Fawlty throughout their post-Python lives? Just the morning after publishing this post, I read the following lines in Michael Palin’s Halfway to Hollywood, Diaries 1980-1988 (penned on his first ever day setting foot in Australia, Tuesday 11 January 1983):
“Back to the hotel afterwards. Not welcome in the restaurant as I have no jacket. The receptionist immediately takes the side of the restaurant. ‘One of the waiters had a heart attack tonight, so they may be a little tense in there’ – pure Fawlty.”
I’ve had some very interesting Twitter responses to this post, too. The great Simon Heath shared the following via Twitter: “Always loved all things Python-related. Cleese is an alumnus of my alma mater.” The alma mater in question turns out to be Clifton College, Bristol. Mr Heath notes that Mr Cleese is “listed as an old boy of note,” but also cautions that “he has been pretty scathing about the place.” He also very kindly shared with me a link to a (frankly epic) list of illustrious alumni, which includes the following entry on Cleese:
“Monty Python actor John Cleese (A persistent school legend has it that he was expelled for a humorous defacing of school grounds. In the story, Cleese used painted footsteps to suggest that the statue of General Haig had got down off his stand and gone to the toilet. Though the prank may indeed have happened, Cleese was not expelled for it. Another, that Cleese was expelled for staging a suicide off the Wilson Tower during Commem after yelling, “I can’t stand it any longer” to the shocked parents coming out of the Chapel, before a dummy plummeted to the ground, has also been long celebrated by successive generations; but proved as untrue).”
Tim Scott, meanwhile, has generously shared with the world not one but two favourite moments of Fawlty Towers genius. The wonder of embeddable Youtube videos allows us to enjoy them, too. Thank you, sir! And please do get in touch and let me know your own favourite Fawlty Towers moments, or any other tales either Fawlty- or Python-related!
Here’s Tim’s first selection (tweets first, then video!):
And his second: