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'Fawlty Towers' Hits Neurotic Heights


From Monty Python to "A Fish Called Wanda," John Cleese has specialized in portraying the repressed Englishman--a part of him that he has struggled to overcome in his own life, he's said in interviews and in books.

Among all the emotionally straitjacketed characters he has created, none has come so tightly wound, or unraveled as spectacularly, as Basil Fawlty, proprietor of a small hotel in the English seaside town of Torquay.

"Fawlty Towers," a BBC series of the '70s that still crops up occasionally on public television, is something like the TV equivalent of a train wreck: It's hard to tear your eyes away from Basil's self-destruction. To watch "Fawlty Towers" is to cringe and laugh at the same time.

Cleese made only 12 episodes of the show, six in 1975 and six in 1979. He has said that it was simply too much work, with he and then-wife (and co-star) Connie Booth taking six weeks to write each episode. That attention to craft is evident in the work, a tight blend of broad physical comedy and acerbic verbal wit.

All 12 episodes are available on video in a boxed set, or on individual tapes of three episodes each.

At the center of the action, always, stands Cleese, a supernaturally lithe physical comedian who also has an unrivaled way with insults. He is by turns fawning, with guests he thinks he should impress, and mockingly superior, with just about everyone else.

His best asides are muttered under his breath to domineering wife Sybil, played wonderfully by Prunella Scales. Booth is Polly, the hired help who offers a bit of near-normalcy amid the lunacy; Andrew Sachs is Manuel, the inept but endearing Spanish waiter ("We're awfully sorry. He's from Barcelona," is Basil's ever-ready apology for Manuel's gaffes).

The shows follow a similar pattern: Basil makes a mistake of some kind, and in trying to cover it up and save face he merely careens closer and closer to complete nervous breakdown. Favorite episodes vary among "Fawlty Towers" fans, so here are a couple of personal picks. Overall, however, the series is amazingly consistent.

In "The Germans," Basil is left to run the hotel while Sybil undergoes a small operation. There is a hilariously sustained comedy sequence as Basil tries to organize a fire drill, during which an actual fire breaks out in the kitchen. Basil is knocked unconscious trying to fight the blaze.

Dazed from a concussion, he escapes from the hospital and sneaks back to the hotel, where he reduces a group of German tourists to tears with inadvertent references to World War II. He even does a goose-stepping Hitler imitation before being dragged back to the hospital.

"Waldorf Salad" sets up an archetypal conflict for Cleese, in which an obsequious Basil is cowed by a bullying American tourist. Basil promises to deliver a Waldorf salad, even though he has no idea what it is. On the same tape is "The Kipper and the Corpse," in which Basil tries to conceal the body of a deceased guest, whom he assumes has died from eating the kippers at breakfast.

A taste for British humor helps in appreciating "Fawlty Towers." Even armed with that, however, there may be a limit to how many episodes one can watch in a single sitting. After two shows, for me, the cringes begin to outweigh the laughs.

"Fawlty Towers" episodes "Communications Problems," "The Anniversary" and "Basil the Rat"; "Gourmet Night," "Waldorf Salad" and "The Kipper and the Corpse"; "The Builders," "The Wedding Party" and "The Psychiatrist"; "Hotel Inspectors," "The Germans" and "A Touch of Class." Each episode is 30 minutes. Not Rated.

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