Eight Fawlty Towers gags you couldn’t get away with now
1. Manuel, the ‘d-go dodo’
“I’m from Barcelona” was a comedy meme before memes existed. Today, we’d probably describe Manuel as Catalan rather than Spanish. We’d expect him to be played by an actual Catalan too, rather than by someone such as Andrew Sachs – born in Berlin, raised in North London and a product of the West End.
That isn’t to overlook the brilliance of the script by John Cleese and his then-wife and writing partner Connie Booth. (Basil: “There is too much butter on those trays.” Manuel: “No, señor. Not ‘on those trays’, no sir. ‘Uno, dos, tres.’”)
There’s even some gentle mockery of British ignorance towards Spain, such as when a delivery man looking for Basil asks Manuel: “Where’s the Generalissimo?” “In Madrid,” shoots back Manuel, assuming it’s a reference to Franco.
But Manuel would ultimately never make it out of a modern writer’s room. The delivery man next calls Sachs’s character a “d-go twit”, while waitress Polly (Booth) later refers to him as a “d-go dodo”.
2. Basil v the ‘thick Irish joke’
A flustered Basil tries to convince an Irish builder to knock through a divide only to hit a wall when O’Reilly reveals his men “won’t work on a Sunday”. This doesn’t go down well with a furious Sybil (Prunella Scales). “He belongs in a zoo,” she thunders. “He’s nothing but a half-witted thick Irish joke”. Basil had earlier suggested that O’Reilly was behind schedule owing to “the potato famine”.
O’Reilly, essentially a leprechaun in 1970s leisurewear, tells Sybil that he’s the “genius of the lamp”, and that he’ll fix his botch-job pronto. “I have seen more intelligent creatures than you lying on their backs at the bottoms of ponds,” she says. “I have seen better organised creatures running around farm-yards with their heads cut off.”
3. Basil v the black doctor
Basil is at the hospital, where Sybil is about to have an ingrown toenail removed. He reacts sharply when the nurse barks at him to leave. “I thought you were talking to a small dog.” “No dogs in here,” she replies. “I wouldn’t bet on it,” he responds. Yikes.
Next, he runs into Sybil’s doctor, who is black. Basil shrinks away. To give John Cleese the benefit of the doubt, the scene may speak to Basil’s underlying bigotry: the medic was played by Louis Mahoney, a Gambian-born actor and founder of Performers Against Racism.
Still, a meta-commentary on entrenched prejudices might have flown over the heads of many viewers in the 1970s. Basil, meanwhile, has other things on his mind. “Quite painful?” he says as the doctor explains Sybil’s procedure. He slaps his hands together in glee.
4. Basil accidentally gropes an Australian guest
A guest leans against a wall, doing stretching exercises. In the adjoining bathroom, Basil tries to get the lights to work. His hand snakes around for the switch. It alights on her chest. Sybil, of course, walks in, and is unimpressed. “One word of advice. If you’re going to grope a girl, have the gallantry to stay in the room with her.”
In the same episode Basil becomes convinced a male guest has smuggled a female visitor into his room. He hides in a closet where he gets a creosote-like substance on his hands. He springs out and grabs the woman. Only it’s the same Australian guest, who now has a black Basil hand-print all over her front. “What are you doing!” she screams. “What’s going on!”
It’s a humorous case of mistaken identity, but you imagine that a male character grabbing a woman from behind and scaring the life out of her would be received very differently in 2023.
5: The Major’s racist rant
The Germans is often cited as one of the best half hours of comedy in British TV history. But viewed today, it’s Major Gowen’s rant early in the episode that stands out. He complains to Fawlty that a woman who accompanied him to a Test match kept referring to the Indians as n-----s. “‘No, no, no,’ I said, “the n-----s are the West Indians. These people are w--s.’”
Cleese and Booth were speaking to the entrenched racism of the British upper classes. Even so, it is unthinkable such dialogue would get within 100 yards of the screen today. Indeed, the BBC removed the slurs in 2013 and UKTV dropped The Germans from recent Fawlty Towers re-runs. Cleese has defended the line as satire. “The Major was an old fossil left over from decades before. We were not supporting his views, we were making fun of them. If they can’t see that, if people are too stupid to see that, what can one say?”
6. Basil v the Germans
“However did they win?” lament the German guests after another evening on the English Riviera descends into chaos. They are moved to wonder this after Basil, concussed, takes their order for a “Hermann Göring” for dinner, notes that their dining orders “must be followed at all times, without question” and throws in a comedy Hitler walk.
Again, it’s obvious Fawlty Towers is satirising the prominence of the Second World War in the English consciousness – but goodness, does Cleese ever grab the live rail with both hands. Basil tries to cheer up the Germans with a joke: “There’s this woman… her husband’s in a bomber from Berlin.” A guest breaks down crying. “It’s not funny for us… for any German people,” says one. Amid the anarchy, the Germans are the only ones behaving rationally.
7. Sybil the ‘little piranha fish’
If Basil is the put-upon hero of Fawlty Towers, then the villain is Sybil: a vindictive bossy-boots who’s either gossiping on the telephone or having her nails done. “In a moment, my little piranha fish?” Basil says at one point. Meanwhile, Polly, the other major female character and the real brains behind the hotel, is at Basil’s beck-and-call – and must suffer his rages in silence, as when he refers to her as a “cloth-eared bint”. Not likely to appear on a script in the modern TV industry.
8. …and anyone else who crosses Basil
Let’s be honest: 21st-century sensibilities rarely match Basil’s treatment of those who annoy him. “I’ll live longer than you,” he mutters to an elderly lady. A cheeky boy who doesn’t like his chips receives an “accidental” elbow to the back of the head. Then there’s the “bossy” nurse who tries to convince Basil to stay in bed after he bashes his head. “You don’t need a doctor,” he shouts. “You need a plastic surgeon!”