Too woke, broken Britain needs Basil Fawlty more than ever

John Cleese as Basil Fawlty - BBC One
John Cleese as Basil Fawlty - BBC One

I have to admit that I smiled a big sappy smile on reading the surprise news that John Cleese has been working on a ‘reboot’ of Fawlty Towers.

Why? Because this is the British sitcom that stands above most - if not all - others in fond critical opinion and viewers’ polls. This is the sitcom that Cleese (co-writing/ co-starring with Connie Booth, the American actress wife from whom he was separating) brought to a halt after two series in 1979, because he didn’t want to sully it by overdoing it. Good point. And if anyone was against the idea of a follow-up it was the venerable Python himself.

Only a few years ago he vowed not to tread on the same terrain: “If I ever tried to do a Fawlty Towers-type sitcom again, everyone would say: “Well, it’s got its moments but it’s not as good as Fawlty Towers”, so there’s not much point in doing that. You have to do different things.” Yet he’s now revisiting his greatest calling-card and adding a footnote, the premise being that Basil is running a boutique hotel with his newly discovered daughter - played by real-life daughter and co-writer Camilla.

The reaction online so far has already been saturated with scoffing nay-sayers who see it as a threat to the show and its creators’ legacies. But for all kinds of reasons I honestly think Fawlty Towers 3 – let’s call it that – could work. It’s not as daft an idea as you might hastily think.

Most immediately, the prospect of seeing Basil in his dotage and yet still trying to run a business affords the prospect of the wincing pleasure that coursed through the original series.

There are also the comedy credentials of the team involved in the new show. Rob Reiner, whose Castle Rock Entertainment company is producing, has directed some of American cinema’s most cherished hits including This is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally and Stand By Me.

Reiner understands that (as per Spinal Tap) sometimes you need to turn things up to 11 so he should duly honour the fact that Fawlty Towers’s appeal lay as much in its being a farce as a sitcom. The overgrown school-boy in Cleese came to the fore in Basil’s berserk antics, his hotelier brought into states of flapping consternation and steeple-chase frenzy.

Unsubtle, perhaps, but even if door-slamming is less in vogue, we derive involuntary pleasure from excruciating slip-ups as much now as we did in 1979. Admittedly, Cleese is now 83, but his exasperation can still amply be conveyed thanks to the old trouper’s aptitude for vertiginous superciliousness and stiff rectitude.

Connie Booth and John Cleese in Fawlty Towers - BBC
Connie Booth and John Cleese in Fawlty Towers - BBC

Moreover, despite Cleese’s advanced years and the long decades since Fawlty was a national phenomenon, the ‘sequel’ looks inspired in terms of timing. The world has changed hugely while this figure of bubbling irascibility inevitably won’t have; that scenario has basic comedy legs. Whether it’s the cushion-plumping pretensions of a boutique establishment (presumably still in Torquay) with all the related customer entitlement, the welter of new technological challenges (wi-fi etc) and modern manners and regulations, from personal pronouns to supervening officialdom, the pressure-cooker environment will have more steam to it.

There’s an irony that the forces of sensitivity which have slapped content warnings on Fawlty Towers – and even saw ‘The Germans’ episode briefly removed from UKTV – may well sharpen the pen of the script-writers now, to usefully satirical effect. Comedians are having “to set the bar according to what we are told by the most touchy, most emotionally unstable and fragile and least stoic people in the country” Cleese has said. Well, lo, he has a vehicle to prick progressivism.

Yet, at the same time, Fawlty Towers had its insights into the way we carry on as a country which have never stopped being relevant. Beyond the pratfalls, it unpicked the foibles of the British class system, over which we still obsess. Lower middle-class Basil aspired to be better bred. He listened to Brahms’s ‘third racket’ to cultivate himself, and, in the first episode, bent over backwards to accommodate aristocratic hotel guest ‘Lord Melberry’. The fact that this moustachioed toff was actually a fraudster was a little stab in the heart for Basil – a sharp realisation that the social hierarchy he had invested in was all smoke and mirrors.

And then of course, there was Sybil (played to perfection by Prunella Scales), whose refusal to adhere to her husband’s standards of gentility was a source of constant frustration. “He bust his zip this mornin’,” she gleefully told Andre, the local restaurateur in ‘Gourmet Night’. Basil’s face, a mixture of contempt and embarrassment, spoke volumes.

So in the 44 years since Fawlty Towers was last produced, we can say that, funnily enough, the world has moved on, hasn’t moved on and, most importantly, has come full circle. Late 70s Britain was a flailing state where nothing worked and here we are again, beset by economic woes, strikes and slapdashery. We tried to up our game at ‘service culture’, but progress has since stalled rather like Basil’s comically unreliable Austin 1100 Countryman. The eccentric Basil type is, remarkably, still among us, and aren’t we all – pushed to intemperance by countless petty annoyances – becoming more like him?

Thus, the ‘reboot’ may triumph by holding a mirror up to our frazzled age. And while it may not meet the gold standard of the original, if it is a tenth as funny as Fawlty Towers, it would still be ten times funnier than your average TV comedy. Worth a shot, I’d say.