Fawlty Towers: A Touch of Class (BBC2, 19 September 1975, John Howard Davies)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

Hotel manager Basil Fawlty is overjoyed when a member of the aristocracy comes to stay at his Torquay establishment. However, Lord Melbury is hiding a secret…

Hotel sign: FAWLTY TOWERS, with a wonky S.

STAFF:

* Basil (John Cleese) is teaching new waiter/dogsbody Manuel how to speak English, which is a problem because Basil can’t speak Spanish. Well, he claims he knows classical Spanish, not the “strange dialect” Manuel has picked up from somewhere. Basil has also put an advert in Country Week, which cost a whopping £40 (not the £15 he initially claims). He likes listening to Brahms, and he has a phone conversation with a builder called O’Reilly who has failed to assemble some bricks into the desired wall shape. While fawning over aristocratic guest Lord Melbury, Basil asks a family to move tables in the dining room (he’s pretending that Melbury has a usual, favoured spot). However, when he later learns that Melbury is a conman, Basil goes loopy – and we get blasts of confusion, sarcasm, anger and violence.

* Sybil (Prunella Scales) has been nagging Basil about hanging a picture in the hotel lobby, a task he still hasn’t completed by the end of the episode. Basil is clearly scared of her, but she takes charge when they learn of Melbury’s lies. Despite Basil’s attempt to forbid it, she opens the case of ‘valuables’ that Melbury’s left in the hotel safe – and discovers simply a pair of bricks.

* Manuel (Andrew Sachs) is struggling with his English, though is a well-intentioned soul. He’s over the moon when a guest speaks to him in fluent Spanish (Basil is not impressed at being upstaged), while he later takes Basil’s order to throw away a bruised grapefruit rather literally.

* Polly (Connie Booth) is an art student as well as a Fawlty Towers employee. She earns enough from selling her sketches, she says, to keep her in waitressing. Basil asks her to pop to the bank to get some cash for Lord Melbury, who’s given Basil a cheque (which unknown to Basil will bounce). While there, Polly spots a hotel guest, who reveals he’s actually a copper investigating Melbury. (When this episode was filmed as a pilot, Polly was a philosophy student. Reshoots once the show was picked up changed it to art.)

NOTABLE GUESTS:

* Miss Gatsby and Miss Tibbs (played by uncredited extras) are two of the hotel’s permanent residents. We see them only briefly: Basil and Sybil both go faux polite as they pass.

* A couple didn’t get their alarm call, as the man (David Simeon) keeps jovially emphasising. Basil forgot to wake them, claiming that he’s not perfect.

* The Major (Ballard Berkeley) is another full-time guest. He’s an absentminded old duffer who moans about news of strikes in the paper. He later bores Basil by telling him about a nature documentary he’s been watching.

* Danny Brown (Robin Ellis) appears first as a leather-jacket-wearing wideboy who flirts with Polly and rubs Basil up the wrong way. He has a white sportscar and is the guest who can parlay español. But he’s actually an undercover policeman tracking Lord Melbury.

* Lord Melbury (Michael Gwynn) – as mentioned – is a conman who easily convinces Basil that he’s a genuine posho. He deposits a case of valuable (ie, bricks) in the hotel’s safe as a way of selling the lie that he’s loaded, then tricks Basil into giving him £200 cash. He also plots to swipe Basil’s collection of antique coins before being rumbled by the cops.

* Mr Waring (Terence Conoley) and his family are staying at the hotel but are not likely to give a favourable write-up on TripAdvisor. They get a grapefruit thrown at them, have to move tables mid-meal because Basil’s sucking up to Melbury, and have their drinks order repeatedly ignored.

A SELECTION OF THE BEST GAGS:

* Basil spots Manuel carrying three breakfast trays. “There is too much butter on those trays,” he admonishes. Manuel doesn’t understand, so Basil repeats: “There is too much butter *on* *those* *trays*.” Manuel misunderstands: “No, no, señor. Not ‘on… those… trays’. Uno, dos, tres. Uno, dos, tres.” (See the clip at the foot of this blog post.)

* Mr Brown reading from Basil’s hastily written menu, which contains such typos as ‘gralefrit’ (grapefruit) and ‘carousel’ (casserole).

* Basil ending his phonecall to O’Reilly by telling him to “Go away” after a delicious pregnant pause.

* The phone rings while Basil is hanging the picture. He calls for someone to come and answer it, but snaps “Not you!” when Manuel runs in.

* A nonplussed Basil clanking the bricks together.

* Basil shouting “YOU BASTARD!” at Lord Melbury, then both kicking and asking to punch him once he’s arrested.

* “A gin and orange… a lemon squash… and a Scotch and water please!”

Outside? There’s a fair amount of location filming. We see the steps outside the hotel a few times, most notably at the end when Melbury is being taken away. Polly is also seen in Torquay, coming out of the bank and then spotting Brown on his stakeout.

Dated: Basil’s reverence to the aristocracy is something that maybe wouldn’t fly as well in a modern sitcom.

Henry Kissinger: The former US Secretary of State is not mentioned in this episode, but cricketer Basil D’Oliveira (1931-2011) gets a namecheck – the Major is cheered when he reads that Dolly’s scored a century.

Review: What a brilliant scene-setter. It might have a simple plot when compared with what’s to follow – the twist is hardly unpredictable – but the characters and situation are set up with panache and confidence. The themes of class and social etiquette are the basis of this episode, and they’ll recur as the series progresses. Basil gets into these messes because he’s terrified of being embarrassed. The writing is so impressive, packing a huge amount into a half-hour. And it’s sheer poetry how well the script manoeuvres the pieces around the chessboard – just check out how Basil’s mood is artfully shifted, balanced and prodded so each subsequent scene gets funnier and funnier.

Nine singles (no, make it a double: I feel lucky tonight) out of 10.

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