We used to ache with laughter!
John Cleese recalls being Basil Fawlty and reveals to Graham Kibble-White the unusual treatment he's now often subjected to in hotels…
Three decades after it first hit our screens, Fawlty Towers may be widely regarded as one of the finest sitcoms ever made, but you won't catch John Cleese watching it. "I never watch the re-runs," he admits. Well, maybe not quite never: "I did a talk to a conference of shrinks once," he admits, "and showed them The Psychiatrist episode to fill some time, because I was booked for two hours. I had not seen it for a long time and was suddenly embarrassed to find that I was laughing more than anyone."
Part of its success was due to the fact co-creators Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth only ever wrote 12 episodes, opting to finish the series while it was still on a high. Since then, the duo have got divorced (in fact, their marriage broke up between the first and second seasons of the show), and 65-year-old John has remarried (twice) and left Britain for a home in Santa Barbara, California. Nowadays, he is known to young cinema audiences as Nearly Headless Nick in the Harry Potter movies and through his role as the new Q in James Bond films. Nevertheless, he is keenly aware that for many people he'll always be shorttempered hotelier Basil Fawlty. The programme was based on real life guest house proprietor Donald Sinclair of the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. "I was there in 1969 with the Monty Python team, filming locally," remembers the comic. "Eric Idle left his briefcase inside the building one morning. When he returned in the evening, it was not there. This was before any IRA bombing, of course, so no-one should have thought it a risk. He asked this extraordinary hotel owner where it was. 'What?' he said. 'Oh, that. It's over there.' He pointed towards the outside swimming pool. Idle finally saw the briefcase hidden behind a wall in the furthest possible place. Why? Who knows? Each episode of the show took six weeks, plus one week to rehearse and record," he continues. "Then 20 to 25 hours to edit. So with 12 episodes that was almost two years out of my life. It was one of the reasons we decided not to do any more. I also did not think we could live up to future expectations. At the start, Connie wrote the Polly and Sybil roles, and she and I wrote Basil together. We used to ache with laughter and feel awful about the life we were giving him. But the character we most enjoyed writing was the Major (the late Ballard Berkeley). He would leave us weakest with glee."
"I did a talk to a conference of shrinks, and showed them The Psychiatrist episode (of Fawlty Towers). I was embarrassed to find that I was laughing more than anyone."
Out of all the episodes they created, John opts for The Anniversary - in which Sybil walks out on Basil, unaware he's arranged a surprise party for her - as his favourite. "I do remember that one fondly," he says, "although perhaps that was because we were allowed extra rehearsal time. I also have good memories of The Psychiatrist. I had an old friend, Nicky Henson, in that - because he had so many ape insults directed at him by Basil. Another actor might have withered."
It's perhaps fitting he's got his own hotel horror stories to tell. "My wife and I were in Copenhagen," he remembers, "and a young waiter was making a mess of things. I said to her, ‘What is the matter with him?'. She said, ‘He is probably anxious at serving you.' I ordered sea bass and he brought this great bowl, plus an odd-looking thing containing fuel to keep it warm. But, after he lit it, the thing tipped over and within seconds there patches of carpet with flames several inches high. My wife came to the rescue by throwing jugs of water all over the flames."
The master of engineering excruciating predicaments for his comedy alter ego, John admits that the thing he finds most embarrassing in real life is "not being funny when I am supposed to be". He continues: "It is fine to be funny in a sly way, but when you are quite clearly trying to be and not succeeding it is awful. Being funny is partly natural, but then you learn." Obviously, the effort paid off. "I once met the late Oona Chaplin," he remembers, "the widow of Charlie Chaplin, who said that when he died she consoled herself by watching videos of Fawlty Towers. That was an extraordinary compliment from the widow of a great man. I still think of Chaplin being the king of them all."
All these years later, what does John think Basil would be doing now? "Still trying to run a hotel and getting it wrong," he smiles. "Fortunately there is a British thing where no-one wants to be embarrassed and pretends all disasters are natural. Even if someone was being hacked to death in the corner, they would still get on with their meals."
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