Basil Fawlty

Written by @EllieDangerous
Typical. Absolutely typical. The kind of arse Mr Fawlty has to put up from us people. We ponce in here, expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while he's trying to run a hotel here! Have we any idea of how much there is to do? Do we ever think of that? Of course not, we’re all too busy sticking our noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren't we? Well let me tell you something: this is exactly how Nazi Germany started.

Spoiler Alert
Basil Fawlty was one of the biggest steps in John Cleese’s silly walk to eternal glory. ‘Fawlty Towers’ follows Basil in his frightfully snobby management of a nice hotel by the sea — and yes you can see the sea. It’s over there between the land and the sky.

So claims the famously rude hotel manager, and when you look at what a git he is you have to wonder why we ever rooted for him. Because we really did root for him. Don’t pretend you didn’t. Him with his heron-like flapping and his utter disdain for anyone without a peerage. “I mean, have you seen the people in room six? They've never even sat on chairs before.”

The televisual feast that is ‘Fawlty Towers’ was built around Basil’s impossible dream of running a hotel in which all the guests are posh middle-aged English sycophants who leave him alone and let him have a piece of toast. That’s the dream. We know it’s futile, but we choose to watch him scramble for it — and why watch the climb if you’re not cheering for the climber?

There’s something ludicrously satisfying about watching that huge grin spread eagerly across his whiskers when his dream seems to inch closer. Like when one worthless little twit transforms miraculously into the most desirable guest imaginable. “I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting, your Lordship”, stammers Basil when he realises he’s talking to a Lord. “I do apologise, please forgive me. Now, was there something, is there something, anything, I can do for you? Anything at all?”

Then, of course, when things turn sour his attitude follows suit. It’s quite a relatable u-turn. Deciding you’re a huge fan of someone until they stamp on your puppy. Naturally, Basil takes this to dramatic proportions. “You snobs!” he cries after the fleeing guests who didn’t fall for his tacky charm. “You stupid, stuck-up, toffee-nosed, half-witted upper-class piles of pus!”

… What? I’m still very much on his side. You’ve seen him when things do go his way, prancing around, whistling, singing, preparing a drink with a flick of his wrist. Such glee. I’m all for Basil-flavoured jubilation. It’s also pretty satisfying to watch him crack over situations we wish we could crack over. Some of the guests are a massive nuisance, or ask silly questions that really do deserve a rude answer. Like, “is the room airy?”

“Well, there’s air in it.”

It’s hard not to talk about Basil’s relatability without also mentioning a certain toxic midget. ‘Fawlty Towers’ aired in 1975, and Sybil Fawlty was presented as nagging and scary; Basil’s “little nest of vipers”. She’s a far better manager than Basil (it’s hard not to be), but that’s a boring reason to take her side over his. I think the reason why we sometimes feel sorry for Basil when looking at their marriage has nothing to do with him being “put upon”; it’s more about her being frustratingly calm while Basil blows the roof off. “Ooh, I know.”

Sometimes in an argument, the calmer your opponent gets the angrier you become. Basil often sees Sybil as his opponent rather than his partner, and while she sits there boredly he springs around, red-faced, eyes bulging. She loses her temper, yes, but she’s as tense as a gentle ocean breeze. There’s nothing more stressful than dealing with someone who refuses to be stressed.

One of my favourite scenes comes after Basil’s arduous struggles with a group of incompetent builders. Sybil rightfully has no faith whatsoever that the construction work will be done by the time she returns home that day, so Basil proves her wrong. It’s all about the win. Sybil enters the hotel to find everyone mysteriously absent (Basil is hiding), but the construction work is done, while magical music from The Nutcracker plays on Basil’s tape-recorder. It’s completely unnecessary, and it’s all about our antihero’s triumphant exhilaration.

In those moments of triumph, Basil earns himself some self-respect — which, let’s face it, is the only type of respect he’ll ever get. He’s woefully desperate to be admired, but he refuses to earn it by having admirable qualities. His is a rather sad brand of naivete; and yet another reason why he has our sympathy.

And that’s why we root for Basil Fawlty. At least, that’s what I think, and I didn’t even mention the war. Is that enough reasoning for you? Have I done enough? Or would you like the hotel moved a bit to the left?
A satisfied customer. We should have him stuffed.
Guest: "Is there anywhere they do French food?"
Basil: "Yes, France, I believe. They seem to like it there. And the swim would certainly sharpen your appetite. You'd better hurry, the tide leaves in six minutes."
Ellie Ball is the founder of Good Characters, and someone who enjoys coffee cake a great deal. She is a graduate of the Scriptwriting MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. For fun and respite, check out her TV analysis articles on Bang2Write or tweet coffee cake at her @EllieDangerous.
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Published on 24 September 2015
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