Fawlty Towers: Series 2

Synopsis: Hotel owner Basil Fawlty’s incompetence, short fuse, and arrogance form a combination that ensures accidents and trouble are never far away. 

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Fawlty Towers: Series 2 7.5

eyelights: its characters. its performances. its one-liners.
eyesores: its contrivances. its over-eagerness.

“Is this a Hotel or isn’t it?” “Well, within reason.”

Despite being a huge hit, it took four years for John Cleese and Connie Booth to write a new series of ‘Fawlty Towers’. In the interim, the pair divorced, which may explain some of the delay. They remained friends, however, and eventually collaborated on six new episodes.

Series Two was broadcast in 1979.

Though four years passed between them, the new episodes appear to be set not long after the original ones. In fact, not much has changed aside for the addition of Tony, the hotel’s new chef. Otherwise, all of the main cast and secondary players returned to their roles.

As with the first series, the episodes revolve around Basil’s snobbery and ambitions vs his temperament and incompetence. However, this time, the other main players have a little bit more screentime; whereas Basil was the centerpiece, the balance has shifted substantially.

On the whole, it makes for a more polished show.

1. Communication Problems: This episode is rooted in the convergence of two plot elements: 1) Mrs. Richards, a hard-of-hearing and difficult guest, and 2) Basil winning big on a horse race – an activity that Sybil has forbidden him. Mrs. Richards is a constant thorn in all their sides but, when she can’t find her money, panic sets in – especially after Sybil sees Polly counting Basil’s winnings, thinking she’s stolen the cash. Somehow, it has to be explained, without the truth coming out.

Mrs. Richards is a funny character, but she’s one-note and the whole thing with the cash was convoluted, including the dialogues revolving around it. This episode is less subtle, but it still has some funny lines; Basil’s retorts, in particular, are incisive. Polly also has a great moment when she gets Manuel to take over for her with Mrs. Richards! Ha! This episode features the first appearance of Terry, the new chef, and we see the upper landing, the kitchen, and some rooms for the first time. 7.5

2. The Psychiatrist: This episode finds Basil at his uptight best: when a playboy type (in an open shirt, chains and leather pants!) checks in, he looks down upon him and the libertine ways he represents. And when a psychiatrist and his doctor spouse arrive, Basil worries that everything he does will be analyzed as pertaining to sex. Throw in a gorgeous, sexy blonde, and Basil couldn’t be more hopeless; he makes a fool of himself repeatedly.

There are some terrific moments in this one, like Basil’s mocking of the young man by acting ape-like, and Sybil’s general attitude about sex and attractiveness. Plus there’s that blonde. Yum. But it’s a terribly contrived episode, so outrageous that it can be funny. But it’s too much, very ‘Three’s Company’. The one-liners are merely okay, but Basil’s physical schtick is excellent – though, once again, it can be overwhelmingly over-the-top at times. 7.5

3. Waldorf Salad: Though the hotel is full, the guests are unhappy with the food and service, complaining amongst themselves – but never to Basil. It’s total chaos in the dining area. Then Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton arrive: the man is an incredibly rude grump. They want dinner, but the kitchen’s closed for the night, so he pays Basil to keep it open. Unfortunately, everyone leaves, so Basil decides to cook. Yikes. And that’s before Mr. Hamilton asks for a Waldorf salad!

A Waldorf salad?

The dialogues in this one are pretty funny, but the American is grating, abrasive (as one might expect from a caricature). It also shows Sybil at her slacker best, annoying guests with platitudes instead of working. The episode culminates with Basil’s utter humiliation, his freaking out and kicking all of the guests out. When Sybil counters, he quits and decides to check in as a guest. Nice! This one’s worth it for the punch. Too bad we never got to see the outcome. 7.75

4. The Kipper and the Corpse: This one revolves around two guests: 1) an elder lady who is very finicky about her small dog – which bites Manuel and Polly at breakfast, and 2) a middle-aged man who goes to bed feeling unwell and never wakes up. The latter is central because he’d gotten on Basil’s bad side so the latter doesn’t notice that the man is dead when he brings him breakfast in bed. When Polly later tells him, he panics – and, naturally, decides to move the body, causing a commotion in the hotel.

This one’s very funny even though it hinges on irrational behaviour from Basil. Any normal human being would have avoided the pitfalls he stumbled into, just by being reasonable. Naturally, he’s anything but, driven as he is by fear. The episode has excellent rants and one-liners from Cleese. And it was nice to see Sybil actually tends to guests and shows empathy; she isn’t completely useless, after all. But one of the best moments comes when Basil escapes with the laundry, leaving Sybil with all of the guests’ problems. Ha! 8.25

5. The Anniversary: Again, two plot elements converge in this one: 1) Polly wants an advance to buy a car, but Basil refuses, and 2) it’s Basil and Sybil’s 15th wedding anniversary and he’s pretending to have forgotten (to get back at her for last year’s) even though he’s prepared a surprise party – and then, upset, she leaves. With Sybil’s friends arriving, Basil is stuck trying to explain Sybil’s absence and tells them she’s sick – which leads him to paying Polly to pretend to be Sybil, bedridden. Then Sybil returns. Of course.

This one started really nicely, but it became incredibly stupid the moment that Basil tried to cover his butt in front of Sybil’s friends: his excuses are too awkward and fake; it’s just not credible. The whole thing just doesn’t hold up. The one bright spot is that one of Sybil’s friends clues in to the fact that Basil is BS-ing them and plays along just to set up traps and put the clueless hotelier on the spot. That was pretty funny. 7.0

6. Basil the Rat: A health inspector has checked out the hotel and gives them a warning; they have one day to sort all of the issues out or he’ll close them down. They panic. Coincidentally, Basil finds out that Manuel’s “Siberian hamster” is actually a rat – so they have it removed before the inspector finds out. What he doesn’t know, though, is that Polly and Manuel have instead hidden it in the shed. Then it escapes – right before the inspector’s return…

This one is sort of predictable, but it’s well-delivered and the group dynamics were really smooth. And there is some joy in seeing Basil putting rat poison on a piece of veal to attract the rat – only for it to get mixed up with rest of the veal. He’s such an idiot. Though it’s not the greatest episode, it made up for the last one somewhat. 7.75

Interestingly, the strongest episodes aren’t even at the onset of this new series; they’re midway through the run. It leads one to a little bit of disappointment, followed by relief when it finally kicks into gear. It would be interesting to know if this affected viewership.

(After all, one couldn’t binge-watch back in 1979; you had to tune in weekly. Perhaps TV viewers dropped off after a couple of episode…?)

I find that the second series features some of the show’s best performances, with John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs and Connie Booth in truly fine form. They’re showcased quite well; each of their respective characters is fleshed out nicely and given greater parts.

Clearly, in the four years between series, its success allowed Cleese and company to round up a better production: there are more elaborate (though nonetheless febrile) sets and even the outdoor shots, which are slightly more frequent, look significantly better this time.

But what we find with this second series is that Cleese and Booth were clearly catering to expectations; there’s an eagerness to please that leads our character into situations that are implausible at best, just for laughs. Unfortunately, it can overwhelm these moments.

If the set-ups are too unlikely, the turns of events become cartoony, a caricature. And though the outcomes may sometimes be funny, the lead-up creates an intellectual and emotional remove by virtue of being completely unrealistic. That dampens the intended humour.

The show’s sometimes lack of subtlety is Cleese’s biggest Achilles Heel, something he succumbed to in later years. Though he always had a penchant for hyperbole and juvenile humour, it became more prominent over time – certainly after his masterful ‘A Fish Called Wanda‘.

In this set of ‘Fawlty Towers’, he needed reeling in.

Just a wee bit.

It’s not to say that the second series isn’t good. It most certainly is, and it’s certainly better than most shows. But being a more polished show than the first series was doesn’t make it better. Despite its shortcomings, Series One was a sharper, fresher, more distinctive effort.

Still, as a follow-up, it’s pretty darned good. And, thankfully, Cleese and Booth decided to quit while they were ahead: there was never a third series of ‘Fawlty Towers’ to challenge our appreciation of the first two. These two remain eternal classics, beloved around the world.

Despite himself, Basil Fawlty has had plenty of satisfied customers, after all.

Post scriptum: There were attempts at adapting the show for different countries through the years, but none of them succeeded. It’s quite likely that the setting and character dynamics, though timeless, were far too British to be transposed to other locations and cultures.

It’s no great loss. Why tamper with an original?

Dates of viewings: November 22-24, 2017

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