Fawlty Towers: The Germans (BBC2, 24 October 1975, John Howard Davies)

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These reviews reveal plot twists.

The hotel has some German guests arriving – not the best time for Basil to suffer from a concussion…

Hotel sign: We don’t see it this week. This is the only episode not to start with an establishing shot of the hotel.

STAFF:

* Sybil is in hospital with an in-growing toenail, but still manages to henpeck Basil, reminding him to do various errands and carry out a scheduled fire drill. After Basil is injured during the drill, Sybil has to give up her hospital bed for him. (She’s never seen in the hotel during this episode.)

* Basil is visiting Sybil in hospital as the episode begins. We also learn he’s bought a stuffed moose’s head for £12, which he intends to display in the hotel lobby. Sybil doesn’t like it, saying it’s mangy, but wants it up so it’ll stop snagging her cardies. Later, back at Fawlty Towers, the fire drill doesn’t go well when Basil accidentally sets off the burglar alarm and confuses the guests. Then the hotel is actually set alight, and in the ensuing panic Basil is knocked unconscious. He’s taken to hospital, but ignores doctor’s orders and returns to the hotel, where he makes a mess of dealing with some German guests. (His biggest struggle is in not referring to the Second World War.) When the doctors arrive to take him away, he tries to run – but ends up with the moose’s head falling on him.

* Polly is brushing up on her German in anticipation of the guests arriving (Basil says it’s a waste of time: the language barrier is their problem). We learn that she’s only at the hotel during mealtimes, which would cause an issue during a real fire: who would make sure the upper floor was evacuated? When Basil tries to carry on working with a concussion, Polly telephones for the doctor – who arrives in the Fawlty Towers dining room 190 seconds later. Now, that’s service!

* Manuel has difficulty when Basil asks him to fetch a hammer, thinking he means either a ham sandwich or a hamster. During the drill, Manuel actually sets the kitchen aflame while cooking some food – Basil, thinking Manuel’s protestations are part of the drill, locks him in with the fire.

NOTABLE GUESTS:

* The Major’s happy because Hampshire won a cricket match (“Did it?” asks Basil). He enquires after the hospital-ridden Sybil, but doesn’t quite follow Basil’s explanation of what’s wrong with her. He also thinks Elsie – a former employee who moved to Canada two years earlier – still works at the hotel. He later believes the moose’s head is speaking to him because he can’t see Manuel doing the talking.

* Various guests appear in the fire-drill sequence, arguing with Basil over emergency procedures and alarm-bell pitches. (One of them is played by Claire Davenport, who was later in both Carry On Emmanuelle and Return of the Jedi.)

* Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby take part in the shambolic fire drill too. Later, when Basil is confused after a bump on the head, Miss Tibbs says, “We don’t think you’re well, Mr Fawlty.” He replies, “Well, perhaps not, but I’ll live longer than you.”

* After 23 minutes of the episode, we get our first sight of a German guest. There are at least six staying at the hotel: a middle-aged couple confuse Basil by saying, “Wir wollen ein Auto mieten”; and there’s a younger group of four, with whom Basil has a catastrophic chat that mentions the war ever so slightly.

OTHERS:

* A sister at the hospital (Brenda Cowling) pisses Basil off by being brusque, so he launches into sarcasm. Later, after his accident, he upsets her by telling her she needs a plastic surgeon.

* Sybil’s doctor (Louis Mahoney) tells Basil that her operation will mean quite a bit of pain… so Mr Fawlty rubs his hands in glee. The doctor later arrives at the hotel to collect a deranged Basil.

A SELECTION OF THE BEST GAGS:

* The Major tells Basil that he used to be so sweet on a girl that he took her to see India. “India?” asks Basil. “At the Oval!” cries the Major.

* Basil has to stop hanging the moose’s head in order to answer the phone, which turns out to be Sybil calling to remind him to hang the moose’s head. “What is the point of reminding me to do what I’m already doing? What is the bloody point?!” She then rattles off a list of other jobs that need doing, and Basil replies, “Anything else? I mean, would you like the hotel moved a bit to the left?” When she hangs up, he says to himself, “I wish it was an in-growing tongue.”

* When Sybil calls again, Polly answers the phone while Basil is dealing with moose’s head. “Tell her I’m doing it now!” he shouts. When he hears Polly ask Sybil how her nail is, Basil says, “I wish it was this one,” then hammers away at the wall.

* The entire fire-drill scene is an exquisite comedy set-piece in the middle of the episode. Just as it’s about to begin, Sybil rings from hospital once again to tell Basil she’s put the alarm key in the safe. When he goes to get it, he accidentally sets off the burglar alarm – which everyone else naturally assumes is the start of the fire drill. We then get semantic arguments, sarcasm, slapstick and stunts.

* “My God, you’re ugly, aren’t you?”

* Basil’s unsteady attempt to walk behind the reception desk.

* Basil’s attempt to translate some German. (He’s lied and said he can understand the language.)

* Basil’s rambling chatter while seeing to some other German guests. He constantly makes war-related malapropisms and Freudian slips, mixing up food orders with Nazi terminology. The harder he tries *not* to put his foot in his mouth, the further in it goes.

* “Don’t mention the war!” Basil whispers to Polly. “I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.”

* One of the German guests begins to cry, upset by Basil’s insensitive obsession with the war. Basil asks what’s wrong.
“Will you stop talking about the war?!” demands her friend.
Basil: “Me? You started it.”
German guest: “We did not start it!”
Basil: “Yes, you did: you invaded Poland.”
A better-constructed joke is impossible to imagine. It works on about 17 different levels. The timing is out of this world too.

* Basil’s goose-stepping.

Outside? There’s an establishing shot of the hospital. Later on, we see outside the hotel’s front door as Basil asks the guests to come back in after the fire drill – considering it’s a bunch of actors on location for just a few seconds, it’s an amazing amount of effort to go to.

Dated: It’s, um, an interesting episode in terms of its political correctness. It was made 40 years ago – we’re further away from it now than Second World War had been at the time – but nevertheless presents some troublesome issues. Judged in context, Fawlty Towers is clearly not racist; neither are its writers. But this episode satirises racism and xenophobia by showing some pretty full-on examples. Even though the joke is about the Major being out of touch, would a less-popular sitcom be forgiven for having a character use the N-word three times during an anecdote about black and Indian cricketers? Of course, the episode is all about how idiotic prejudice is – Basil’s faux pas come from fear of embarrassment rather than any hatred, a more sensible character like Polly has no problem with there being German guests, while the Germans themselves are decent people with a sense of humour. We’re invited to laugh at Basil’s uptight attitude, a situation heightened by a concussion scrambling his concept of what’s acceptable. A bigger problem, however, might be his earlier reaction to a black doctor. I genuinely have no idea whether Basil’s recoil when he sees him is racist or not. Is it because he’s shocked to see a black man in a hospital? Or am I misunderstanding the moment?

Henry Kissinger: Basil asks whether it was Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) who said women had minds like Swiss cheese (ie, full of holes – not ‘hard’, as the Major suggests). He also blames then-prime minister Harold Wilson (1916-1995) for an exploding fire extinguisher. Later, during his attempt to steer the conversation away from the war, he name-checks Nazi twats Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), Eva Braun (1912-1945), Joseph Goebbles (1897-1945), Hermann Göring (1893-1946) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946). Seeing him about to impersonate Hitler, Polly suggests Basil do film actor James Cagney (1899-1986) instead.

Review: Fawlty Towers as sketch show. Series one ends with an episode made up of funny but only loosely connected segments. There’s Basil’s chat with the Major, a slapstick routine with Manuel, the failed fire drill, and Basil’s encounter with the Germans. All great comedy, all very entertaining. But the lack of a real through-line means it’s not quite as satisfying as some episodes.

Eight semitones out of 10

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