Fawlty Towers/Basil Fawlty
From The TV IV
Basil Fawlty, the owner and manager of Fawlty Towers, is played by John Cleese, and appears in all 12 episodes of the show, achieving First Billing in all of them.
Like Louie De Palma, George Costanza or the character Larry David, Basil Fawlty is a rarity in television, in that he is a character without a single redeeming trait whatsoever. Television tends to prefer characters with some endearing qualities—Ralph Kramden may have raged and threatened to abuse Alice, but in the end of almost every episode, he was very loving towards her. Even Al Bundy occasionally showed affection towards Peg. Yet Basil is neither Ralph nor Al. John Cleese—who both created and played Basil—describes him as a "wretched character" and an "awful man." He is rude, arrogant, sadistic, miserly, snobbish, deceitful, asexual, sarcastic, racist, classist, misogynist, homophobic and utterly lacking in warmth or empathy. He openly confesses to not just enjoying, but taking a certain glee in, the suffering of others, especially his own wife (1x06 - The Germans), and he never thinks once of them, even in their deaths (2x04 - The Kipper and the Corpse). Cleese has said, "He has no interest in other human beings as human beings at all. They're either objects of derision and scorn or an opportunity to ... improve his position in the social hierarchy." Yet strangely enough he is, like his counterparts, beloved all around the world.
Basil has many motivations to act the way he does, but compassion is never one of them. Neither is lust, although he is accused of such in 2x02 - The Psychiatrist. His most common motivation is fear—fear of embarrassment (1x03 - The Wedding Party, 2x05 - The Anniversary), fear of being shut down and losing his livelihood (1x04 - Hotel Inspectors, 2x06 - Basil the Rat), fear of being forced to face the truth about himself (2x02 - The Psychiatrist) and most of all, a fundemental fear of his wife Sybil. Almost every episode involves Basil attempting to appease or conceal the truth from Sybil in some fashion. Other motives include a desire to be accepted by the upper class (1x01 - A Touch of Class, 1x05 - Gourmet Night), the desire to save a quid (1x02 - The Builders) and a conservative political viewpoint which colors his outlook on the world (1x06 - The Germans). And, of course, there is his seething hatred of his guests, who have a bad habit of interfering with his managing of the hotel.
Little is known of Basil's life outside of what is seen in the series. Born in Swanage, an English town not too dissimilar from his current home of Torquay, he apparently served in the British military—most likely in the Catering Corps. He claims to have served in Korea, killed four men and been wounded in the leg by shrapnel, although whether this is true or a lie Basil tells is anybody's conjecture. He apparently married Sybil around the same time they opened Fawlty Towers, and whether or not there was any affection in their marriage to begin with, there is certainly none now. What little pleasure there is in his life is derived from the Romantic composers, gambling on horses (although Sybil forbids this) and, of course, tormenting his guests and his staff—particularly the hapless Manuel.
Given how awful Basil is, why, then, do audiences feel any sympathy for him at all? Cleese has one theory. "The strange thing about comedy is that if an awful character makes people laugh, ... people feel affectionate towards him. It's insane." But the reaction of British audiences may be more telling. While people all around the world love Basil and Fawlty Towers, in the UK, people assume John Cleese must be like Basil in real life. He says, "I think it's because I caught something about the British character that was so essential to a kind of lower middle class conglomeration of attitudes that it struck home and caused me to be identified with this wretched character ... ever since."
We love Basil Fawlty because, in some parts of our psyches, we are Basil Fawlty. Characters such as this evoke our sympathy because they say and do the things which we, on some level of our most primal instincts, wish we could say and do. We may not be Basil Fawlty (one would hope), but we sometimes want to be him, and that is the secret to his success as a character and an archetype.
- 1x06 - The Germans: Confused by a concussion, Basil tries to entertain several Germans staying in the hotel. When they become upset by his frequent references to World War II, he tries to cheer them up with an impression—an impression of Adolf Hitler.
- 2x02 - The Psychiatrist: Already put ill at ease by the presence of a psychiatrist in the hotel—whom Basil assumes is only interested in sex—Basil attempts to put the kibosh on one guest's attempt to smuggle an illicit lover into the hotel. But his plans are complicated when Sybil believes he is attempting to make a pass at a busty, gorgeous young woman staying in the hotel at the same time.
- 2x03 - Waldorf Salad: At last put on the spot by an intimidating American guest, Basil is forced to listen to his guests' laundry list of examples of his shoddy managing. When they are finished, Basil lashes out at them, accusing them of being akin to the people who started Nazi Germany and threatening to throw them out of the hotel.
- 2x04 - The Kipper and the Corpse: A guest dies in the hotel, and Basil assumes his expired kippers are to blame. When he learns they are not, Basil is elated, but he has to hide his jumps for joy the moment the doctor enters the room.
- Inspiration: Basil Fawlty is based on a real life hotelier—Donald Sinclair, who owned the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay in the 1960s. Sinclair and his wife have always objected to the portrayal, but guests and the Sinclairs' children have confirmed it is relatively accurate. (See also: At a Glance.)
- 1x03 - The Wedding Party: (Repeating to himself.) I'm so sorry, I made a mistake. I'm so sorry, I made a mistake. (Opens the door to Alan and Jean's room.) I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, but my wife has made a mistake.
- 1x04 - Hotel Inspectors: I would find it a little easier to cope with some of the cretins we get in here, my little nest of vipers, if I got a smidgen of cooperation from you.
- 1x04 - Hotel Inspectors: I'm so sorry, he's from Barcelona.
- 1x06 - The Germans: They're Germans. Don't mention the war.
- 2x02 - The Psychiatrist: I'm fed up with you, you rancorous, coiffeured old sow! Why don't you syringe the donuts out of your ear and get some sense into the dormant organ you keep hidden in that rat's maze of yours?
- 2x03 - Waldorf Salad: This... is... typical. Absolutely typical. The kind of... ASS! I've had to put up with from you people! You ponce in here expecting to be hand-waited on hand and foot! Well, I'm trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not! You're too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking about for things to complain about, aren't you? Well, let me tell you something! This is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble! Well, I've had 15 years of pandering to the likes of you, and I've had enough! I've had it! Come on! Pack your bags and get out!