Fawlty Towers/History

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Title: Fawlty Towers


A brief timeline of the events in the lives of the denizens of Fawlty Towers before, after and during the run of the series. All times are expressed as relative to the first season (S1), so S1 + 1 would be one year after those events, and S1 - 1 one year before.

  • ca. S1 - 25: Basil serves in the Korean War, possibly in the Catering Corps, where he may be injured by shrapnel. (See 1x03 - The Wedding Party and others.)

Sex, Sexual Politics & Politics

One of the most remarkable points about Fawlty Towers is how well it holds up. Thirty years after its debut, the show seems as fresh and funny as it did in the 1970s. Much of that is because, like Monty Python's Flying Circus before it, Fawlty Towers avoids making too many pop culture and current events references. It is not so much a satire of a specific time and place, as, say, All in the Family is. (And it certainly helps that most of the fashions are relatively constant, also. The guests often wear regular suits, Polly and Manuel wear uniforms, and Basil Fawlty's clothes are intended to be out-of-fashion, anyway.)

Yet Fawlty Towers was made in a specific time and place, and like almost anything, it is, to a certain extent, a product of its time. Some themes are universal, but a few themes in any work of art will always grow out of what is happening in the world in which that work of art is conceived. In Britain in the 1960s and 70s, just as there was in America during that time, a cultural revolution was raging. The younger generation—those born after World War II—were questioning their parents' values and social mores regarding, among other things, sex, classism, sexism, racism, obedience to authority and social institutions such as marriage. It is only fair to point out that some members of older generations were thrilled by the liberation of their children, but the overwhelming majority found it shocking and unseemly.

Within that context, Basil can be seen as the ultimate parody of the English middle class in the 1970s: Sexless and emasculated; begging to be accepted by the upper class and enraged when they reject him (as in 1x01 - A Touch of Class, 1x05 - Gourmet Night); contemptuous of the lower classes and foreigners (1x01 - A Touch of Class, 1x06 - The Germans); mistrustful of modern and liberal institutions such as psychiatry (2x02 - The Psychiatrist) and labor unions (1x01 - A Touch of Class); favoring Conservative Party politics (1x06 - The Germans); fascinated by and in awe of Britain's military tradition. The guest Basil abuses the least and seems to have the best relationship with is Major Gowen, that representative of the British military. It is also established, in 1x01 - A Touch of Class, that Basil has on display a collection of old coins representing Britain's imperial conquests. And several times throughout the series beginning with 1x03 - The Wedding Party, he mentions his service during the Korean War, something of which he is very proud, although his wife Sybil dismisses his service as being "in the Catering Corps."

As for sex, Basil is never motivated by lust, although he is accused of so being on more than one occasion. Yet it is possible that such temptations as the flirtations of Mrs. Peignoir in 1x03 - The Wedding Party do stir something in him. Thus he is more likely, when confronted with sexual desire, to find in other's actions tawdry implications where none exist. For instance, in that episode, his mind invents all manner of depraved explanations for Alan's request for the location of a chemist so he can buy batteries, when in fact Alan just wants to shave. (See also: 2x02 - The Psychiatrist.)

In that light, Polly, then, can be seen as a representative of the younger generation of Britons in the 1970s: She is established as an artist (and by implication an artistic spirit) from the first episode, and while there may be no particular political implications from her apparently Impressionistic art, Basil certainly sees some there when he describes it as "very good, very Socialist" in 1x05 - Gourmet Night. She is also seen in 1x03 - The Wedding Party sharing public displays of affection with her apparent boyfriend while obviously not wearing a bra, and later in the episode, she strips down to her underwear without shame in front of old friends. She is also much more accepting of the lower classes, other people's sexuality, foreigners and post-World War II institutions. (See also: (1x01 - A Touch of Class, 1x02 - The Builders, 1x06 - The Germans, and 2x02 - The Pyschiatrist.) If Basil is the neutered old middle class, Polly is the liberated young generation.

Seen through that lens, Basil and Polly's peculiar relationship becomes all the more complex. For while Basil may disapprove of Polly's actions, attitudes and artwork, he trusts her and relies on her more than any other member of the Fawlty Towers staff, including his own wife. He also enlists her aid in lying to his wife and concealing his mistakes. In 1x04 - Hotel Inspectors, he even brags to a man he believes he should impress of her artistic ability and "caliber." For her part, Polly frequently objects to Basil's actions, yet she nonetheless offers him the assistance he requires, sometimes going above and beyond what he has asked her to do. (See also: 1x02 - The Builders, 2x01 - Communication Problems, 2x04 - The Kipper and the Corpse and 2x05 - The Anniversary.)

From this point of view, Fawlty Towers may suggest something about John Cleese and Connie Booth's own views of the revolution going on around them. Cleese and Booth were married for ten years—including during the production of the first season of Fawlty Towers—and Cleese's other work does not suggest he shares Basil's social conservativism. In his script for A Fish Called Wanda, for instance, the "happy ending"—which is indeed, tellingly enough, portrayed as a happy ending—involves a staid, emasculated, conservative English lawyer abandoning his wife for a young, untrustworthy, nymphomaniac bank robber whose lifestyle he himself describes as "liberating." And certainly in Monty Python, both in the TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus and such movies as Life of Brian and Monty Python's Meaning of Life, Cleese and his fellow Pythons poke fun at such revered old British institutions as the military, religion, government and private education. Further, it is known that in real life, Cleese was accepting when his old friend Graham Chapman revealed his homosexuality.

Thus, while the character Basil Fawlty may have been on one side of the culture wars, Cleese himself was firmly on the other. Yet while the cultural shift during the 1960s and 70s was more dramatic than in some other decades, some degree of a generation gap is universal. The old have always been and will always be shocked and confused by the young. And so it is for this reason that, although a product of its time, Fawlty Towers could just as easily be set in 2005 as it was in 1975.