These reviews reveal plot twists.
Basil arranges a surprise party for his wife – but she gets the wrong end of the stick and flounces off…
Hotel sign: FLOWERY TWATS. Has there *ever* been a more satisfying anagram in the history of anagrams?
* Polly wants to borrow £100 from the Fawltys so she can buy a car. Sybil’s said it’s okay, but Basil’s dragging his feet. When Polly quietly tells Basil that Sybil’s upset over him forgetting their anniversary, he reveals that he’s only pretending. He’s actually planned a surprise do with their friends. But Sybil strops off upset before the pals arrive, so to avoid embarrassment Basil needs an explanation – Polly suggests that he tells them she’s ill in bed, then helps embellish the cover story. However, when Basil wants to take the friends upstairs to say hello, he ropes Polly in to impersonate Sybil! Pol says she’ll do it for £100. She puts on Sybil’s wig and sunglasses, pads out her cheeks with cotton wool, and gets into bed. The ruse is going well until Basil leaves the room. Then one of the friends wants a closer look… so Polly hits her!
* Terry is angry when he learns that Manuel is cooking the Fawltys’ anniversary meal. He’s a trained chef and can do paella, okay? A mostly off-screen feud with Manuel breaks out, which results in a huge brawl in the kitchen.
* Manuel has been out to buy “paintings brushes” for Polly and ingredients for a paella. Basil, thinking Manuel would enjoy it, has asked him to do the meal and Manuel is chuffed with the responsibility. However, chef Terry objects…
* Sybil is in a foul mood because it’s 17 April and Basil has not mentioned their 15th wedding anniversary. When she drops hints about it, he still doesn’t bring up the subject – so she gets her coat and storms out. Twenty minutes later, she returns to collect her golf clubs and – with Basil still seemingly unwilling to be nice – says she’s leaving him. It’s perhaps the only time in the whole show when we see a character genuinely, movingly, upset. However, tragedy soon turns to farce when her friends see her, and Basil has to pretend that Sybil is someone else. To stop her giving the game away, he locks her in a cupboard.
* Basil is acting like he’s forgotten the anniversary because – in a rare example of selflessness – he’s invited a gang of friends round to surprise Sybil. However, he can’t resist winding his wife up, so while she’s clearly upset he affects a jovial mood. After Sybil walks out in a huff and the friends show up, Basil doesn’t want to admit his miscalculation – so claims Sybil is ill upstairs in bed. Her friends naturally want to go and see her, so on-the-spot Basil has to invent a never-ending series of excuses and justifications for his lie. He feigns an old war injury to change the subject; he claims both a doctor and a dentist have had a look at Sybil; and he even tells his pals that Sybil’s condition is serious. However, under their constant questioning and doubting, he snaps and then *insists* that they come up to see her. He convinces Polly to impersonate Mrs Fawlty (by giving her the £100 she needs), but then Sybil herself returns to the hotel. Basil initially gets rid of her by appearing disinterested, but he can’t stop the friends seeing her – so he barefacedly claims it’s not his wife standing in front of them.
* Miss Tibbs and Miss Gatsby appear very briefly.
* The Major is on his way out to play some golf (is he going to the same course as Sybil?) but stops to chat to Basil’s friends while they’re waiting on the upper-floor landing.
* Roger and Alice (Ken Campbell and Una Stubbs) are the first of the friends to arrive – just as Basil is beating the ground in frustration because Sybil’s run off. Rog suspects Syb’s absence is because she’s had a tiff with Basil and refused to attend the party. He’s generally a shit-stirrer and enjoys picking holes in Basil’s story.
* Virginia and Arthur (Pat Keen and Robert Arnold) show up next. She’s brought a homemade cake, but causes Basil big problems when she reminds him that she’s a nurse. Polly later hits Virginia rather than let her get too close.
* Reg and Kitty (Roger Hume and Denyse Alexander) are not surprised that Sybil’s gone AWOL from the party. They’ve just seen her driving round town. Basil quickly concocts a story about a northern woman who’s in the local area and looks similar to Sybil. During their dimly lit encounter with Polly-as-Sybil, Reg busts his ankle, Kitty her arm.
* Audrey (Christine Shaw) is Sybil’s friend – she’s been mentioned a few times during the series but this is our only sighting of her. She’s consoling an upset Sybil.
A SELECTION OF THE BEST GAGS:
* Sybil didn’t think Basil would forget their anniversary. “Not after what happened when he forgot last year…”
* Polly asks Basil if she can borrow £100. Sybil’s already said it’s okay. Basil: “I don’t think she quite understands the cash-flow situation viz-à-viz the frozen assets.”
* Basil doesn’t know what to tell the imminently arriving friends about Sybil. Manuel has a suggestion: “It is surprise party. She no here. That is surprise.”
* Roger’s laboured gag about “Syb ill”. Manuel’s uninvited riposte – “Man-well!” – is wittier.
* Polly mishears Basil’s whispered explanation and thinks he’s said that Sybil’s thighs are inflamed. (He actually said, “Eyes.”) So she relays that information to Virginia, who then questions Basil: “Polly says her legs are puffed up!” Confused, Basil takes a look at *Polly’s* legs: “Are they?”
* Basil’s quick “Oh, no!” when Virginia announces she’s a nurse so will go and look in on Sybil.
* Basil’s flustered stammer when faced with the news that Reg and Kitty have seen Sybil on the high street.
* “Look, it’s perfectly Sybil. Simple’s not well. She’s lost her throat and her voice hurts.”
* Basil physically forcing Polly up the stairs, across the landing and into his room.
* “I’ll ruin you! You’ll never waitress in Torquay again!” (This line comes during a scene of mighty comic energy between Basil and Polly: the show’s two writers wowing us with their timing.)
* During the madness, Basil takes a moment to down a swig of wine from the bottle. However, Manuel then taps him on the arm and the wine goes all over Basil’s head.
* Basil’s withering “You read a lot of Oscar Wilde, do you, Rog?”
* Basil glancing out of his bedroom window and spotting Sybil driving up to the hotel. He screams.
* Basil walking a disorientated Sybil through the kitchen, over a brawling Terry and Manuel, and into a cupboard.
* “Piece of cake. Now comes the tricky bit.”
Outside? Two bits of location filming this week, both in the hotel’s car park. We see Sybil drive off, Basil pound the tarmac in frustration, and Roger and Alice arrive. Then later there’s a brief scene of Sybil crying in her car with Audrey.
Dated: The party has a general vibe of a 1970s soiree. Men smoking pipes; people ordering G&Ts and eating bar snacks.
Henry Kissinger: Polly is not impressed with Basil’s idea that she should impersonate Sybil, so says, “If you want to be in a Marx Brothers film that’s your problem.” She’s alluding, of course, to Chico (1887-1961), Harpo (1888-1964), Groucho (1890-1977), Gummo (1892-1977) and Zeppo (1901-1979). Also, Oscar Wilde gets another mention.
Review: The first episode of Fawlty Towers broadcast after my birth is coincidentally my favourite. It’s a beautiful example of snowball storytelling: to avoid some minor embarrassment, Basil makes a snap decision to tell a small lie… and then the situation escalates and worsens and gets more extreme during 25 minutes of priceless comedy. Seeing Basil have to deflect the constant critiquing of his lie, and continually improvise new elements of it, is a joy. It’s also the most streamlined episode: there’s only one real plot, and we never see any one-off guests. John Cleese dominates proceedings and gives a colossal performance. And the fact this is the show’s second real-time episode only adds to the unstoppable momentum.
Ten charts on the wall, ropes, wheel in the corner… that sort of thing, out of 10