Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems (BBC2, 19 February 1979, Bob Spiers)

richardson_basil

These reviews reveal plot twists.

A battle-axe of a guest causes chaos when she claims cash has been stolen from her room… on the same day that Basil is trying to hide some money from Sybil…

Hotel sign: FAWLTY TOWER, with a wonky L. (It’s the same as the sign at the beginning of The Builders.)

STAFF:

* Manuel looks pleased when he’s asked to deal with a guest who has a complaint – but he’s bamboozled by rude Mrs Richards, and only confuses her with his Spanish. Later, Basil asks Manuel to place a bet for him in secret. The horse finishes first, but Manuel can’t immediately find Basil so gives the winnings to Polly. He then misunderstands Polly’s request to take some loo rolls up to room 22 (he takes 22 rolls). “I am from Barcelona!” he proudly announces at one point.

* Basil, we learn, is from Swanage. He gets given a racing tip by a guest, but knows Sybil disapproves of him betting so asks Manuel to nip to the bookies. He also has to deal with a grumpy guest called Mrs Richards, but is cheered when his bet is successful. (He’s won £75 from a £5 stake.) He asks the Major to hide the money for him, which causes a big issue when the Major forgets their conversation ever happened. And Basil’s devastated when Sybil sees the cash and assumes it belongs to Mrs Richards, who’s just claimed that £85 has been stolen from her room. But then a guy shows up to deliver a vase to Mrs Richards and gives Basil £95 that Mrs R left behind in the shop. Basil thinks he’s up – even if he gives Mrs R a tenner, he’s still ahead on the deal! However, then Basil smashes the vase, which cost £75…

* Sybil, as well as dealing with a busy week at the hotel, finds time for a phone call with a pal about hair colour. When Basil suggests they used to laugh a lot, she reminds him that it was never at the same time.

* Polly is asked to do the rooms until Monday because new employee Brenda can’t start until then. Pol says that’s fine as she could do with the money. When Sybil later sees Polly with Basil’s winnings, she wonders whether it’s the cash Mrs R has lost – but quick-thinking Polly claims *she* won it on the horse.

* Terry (Brian Hall) is the hotel’s new chef. We only see him briefly.

NOTABLE GUESTS:

* Mrs Richards (Joan Sanderson) is a rude, arrogant, half-deaf guest who barks orders at Polly as soon as she arrives – so Polly hands her off to Manuel, which doesn’t really help. Basil also struggles with her, not least because she has a hearing aid but rarely uses it as it wears the batteries out. Once in her room, she has a raft of complaints for Basil – she disapproves of the bath, the view out of the window, the radio and the lack of toilet paper, so demands a discount. She later says that £85 has been stolen from her room. In the middle of all this, her sister rings to tell her that an offer of £87,000 has been made on her Brighton house. Mrs R tetchily says that she wants £92,750 and not a penny less. (Lovely bit of plotting, this, telling us that losing £85 won’t exactly ruin her.)

* Mr Thurston (Robert Lankesheer) is the guest who Polly is helping when Mrs Richards arrives and interrupts.

* Mr Firkin (Johnny Shannon) is a regular guest. While checking out, he gives Basil a betting tip – Dragonfly in the 3.00 at Exeter.

* The Major is looking spruce because it’s St George’s Day. Later we see him on his way to a remembrance service: he’s got a loud tie on, he says, because he didn’t like the guy. However, the following day he claims he actually went to the theatre with a woman called Winnie Atwell. Her real name is Marjorie, but he calls her Winnie because “she looks like Winnie”. “She’s not black?” says Basil. “Black?” replies the Major, confused. “Churchill wasn’t black…”

* Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby try to be polite to Mrs Richards, but she blanks them.

* Mr Mackintosh (Bill Bradley) is a guest who’s quibbling over his bill, so Basil scrubs the 32p extras off.

OTHERS:

* The same delivery man from The Builders (George Lee) returns, this time bringing a vase for Mrs Richards.

A SELECTION OF THE BEST GAGS:

* Mrs Richards vs Manuel. “CK Watt? Who is CK Watt?”

* Basil’s encounter with Mrs Richards in her room. “You *can* see the sea; it’s over there between the land and the sky,” is just one of several killer lines of dialogue.

* After Mrs Richards complains to Basil about Polly being rude (which she wasn’t), there’s a hilarious run of exasperated lines as Basil struggles to convey information to a woman lacking manners, a working hearing aid and the knowledge of where her glasses are. (Connie Booth is close to corpsing during this scene.)

* “That doesn’t work either,” Mrs Richards says when Basil dings the fully operational reception bell – a delightfully tossed-off gag, which takes a moment to sink in with the studio audience.

* Polly throws one of Mrs Richards’s lines back at her: she says she doesn’t use her eyes because it wears the batteries down. (It took me literally decades to realise that Polly wasn’t present when Mrs R said the original line. Maybe Basil’s told her about it in the interim.)

* Sybil suggests that Basil looks happy. “Oh, happy,” he says wistfully. “Yes, I remember that.” He tells her it’s just his way of getting through the day: “The Samaritans were engaged.”

* A monumentally hilarious scene where Basil tries to reinforce the idea that Manuel should keep quiet about the bet but Manuel keeps getting the wrong end of the stick. “Please try to understand,” says a frustrated Basil, “before one of us dies.”

* Basil speaking mutely as a way of winding up Mrs Richards. The fact that Sybil doesn’t give him away is a masterstroke.

* “Is this a piece of your brain?”

* Basil’s attempt to tell Polly the name of the horse through mime, and Polly’s desperate attempt to understand him.

* To calm down a hyperactive Basil, Sybil throws a cup of tea over him. (Most of it actually lands on the Major, who’s standing next to Basil, and the cast have to ignore the mistake.)

* “I know nothing!” says Manuel, proud and defiant, unaware he’s causing Basil more problems by sticking to their pre-arranged story.

* Basil’s faux-faint when the delivery man asks if he has a guest called Mrs Richards.

* At the climax, Basil fears Sybil has rumbled him – but Polly comes to the rescue with a fake explanation that just about makes sense. There’s then a delicious pause as everyone takes in the situation.

Outside? None. It’s our second all-interior episode.

Dated: To modern ears, Basil’s bemusement with the notion that the Major could have a black friend sounds strange.

Henry Kissinger: Mentions of famous people this week include actors Burt Reynolds (born 1936) and James Caan (born 1940), and singer Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). As intimated above, Trinidadian pianist Winifed Atwell (1910-1983) is the basis of a gag.

Review: A towering guest performance from Joan Sanderson is the most attention-grabbing element of this episode, but there’s class everywhere you look. It’s the most tightly plotted 30 minutes of fiction you could ever hope to see. Every line, every moment, is a vital brick in the structure. Story, character and world-class comedy all being serviced at the same time. There are more laughs per square inch than any other half-hour of television, but also lots of clever, subtle storytelling hidden behind the humour. It’s a masterpiece of set-up and pay-off.

Ten wildebeest sweeping majestically out of 10

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