It’s well known that comedy genius John Cleese was inspired to write the classic sit-com Fawlty Towers after he and his fellow Pythons stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, England, during the filming of the series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It was here Cleese met the man who inspired Basil Fawlty:
The “wonderfully rude” hotel owner (Donald Sinclair) endeared himself to the Monty Python team by throwing Eric Idle’s briefcase out of the hotel “in case it contained a bomb,” complaining about Terry Gilliam’s table manners, and chucking a bus timetable at another guest after the guest dared to ask the time of the next bus to town.
“He seemed to view us as a colossal inconvenience right from the start.” — Michael Palin on Donald Sinclair.
Another Python, Graham Chapman, described Mr Sinclair as —“completely round the twist, off his chump, out of his tree.”
Little did this hotelier realise that John Cleese was making mental notes of all this madcap behaviour and he might well have seen himself a few years later on TV, transformed into Basil Fawlty—the most infamous British hotelier ever—broadcast to the British nation and ultimately most of the world! Donald Sinclair died in 1981, apparently he emigrated to Florida in the 1970s where he was once tracked down by a British newspaper after Cleese unfortunately named him in an interview. Mr Sinclair and his relatives have never been too happy about the way he has been portrayed!
Recently, Cleese revealed the BBC originally thought the idea for Fawlty Towers was “dire”, as producers couldn’t see the value in the show.
“There is a famous note which I have a copy of, I think it’s framed. What happened was, Connie and I wrote that first episode and we sent it in to Jimmy Gilbert (Head of Comedy at the BBC). And first of all the fellow whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, and I can quote it fairly accurately, ‘This is full of cliched situations and stereotypical characters and I cannot see it as being anything other than a disaster’.
“And Jimmy himself said ‘You’re going to have to get them out of the hotel, John, you can’t do the whole thing in the hotel’.
“Whereas, of course, it’s in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up.”
Thankfully Cleese and Booth were proved right; though it was still hard graft, as each script took six weeks to write and Cleese had to subsidize his writing time with Connie Booth by appearing in adverts:
“I have to thank the advertising industry for making this possible. Connie and I used to spend six weeks writing each episode and we didn’t make a lot of money out of it.
“This will amuse you but in 1975 when I did Fawlty Towers for the first time we made six shows. Well, it took six weeks to make each show, so that’s 36 weeks, one week to film them - 37 weeks - and six weeks to actually tape them in the studio so that’s 43 weeks’ work, for which I was paid for writing and performing and filming, £6,000.
“So that meant that I was able to subsidise my writing time by doing commercials. If it hadn’t been for the commercials, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to spend so much time on the script.”
Fawlty Towers is rightly recognized as one of the greatest sit-coms ever made, and one whose story has now gone full-cycle as the Hadley Park House Hotel, in Telford, England, is offering a Faulty Towers dining experience next month, between 17-19 February, as the Australian Sunday Mercury explains”
Midland hotel is promising guests the dinner from hell next month. Diners will enjoy poor service, a goose-stepping maitre d’, a bungling Spanish waiter and a Waldorf salad – without the Waldorf. And if it all sounds like Fawlty Towers, then that’s because it is.
Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience – misnamed after John Cleese’s classic comedy series – will be entertaining guests at the Hadley Park Hotel in Telford for a couple of nights.
Diners will come face-to-face with Basil Fawlty, his shrieking wife Sybil and hapless waiter Manuel. The three-course meal, promise organisers, will be carnage rather than cordon bleu.
The interactive experience involves characters made famous in the hit BBC show moving amongst the tables, treating people as if they are guests of the Fawlty Towers restaurant.
The original programme was screened in the 1970s and starred John Cleese as Basil, Prunella Scales as Sybil and Andrew Sachs as Manuel. Only two series were made, but it remains one of Britain’s most popular comedies.
The show spawned famous catchphrases such as “Don’t mention the war!”, Sybil’s shriek “Basil!” and Manuel’s imploring “Que?”
Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience was created in 1997 by the Interactive Theatre Australia, which is based in Brisbane. It has received rave reviews all over the world.
Karen Hamilton, 46, who plays Sybil in the show, said: “It’s a really fun show which is only one third scripted. The rest of the time we work off the diners and each other.
“We will say things to them, or encourage them to take part in the play. One person even came along dressed as the Queen because she’d heard about what we do.
“Of course we never left her alone that night. I think she might have regretted it.”
However, not everyone knows what to expect. Karen, who has worked on the show for 11 years, added: “Some guests who come along are really surprised that we are standing right next to them. They expect a stage where we should be performing.
“We tend to ease them into it by wandering in one at a time. Then we get into the swing of things.
“The British crowd are great and they understand implied humour. They link things up very quickly, although they can sometimes be a little reserved.”
Karen and the rest of the cast spend hours studying their characters by re-watching DVDs of the show.
“We want to make sure that we get all the mannerisms just right,” she added. “I’m Australian but I do Sybil’s English accent very well. The only trouble is that whenever I do an English accent now, I sound like Sybil.”
If you’re in the UK and fancy a Faulty Towers night out then check details here.
John Cleese talks about the background to Fawlty Towers on the Guardian website, which can be viewed here.
Bonus: How John Cleese and Connie Booth wrote Fawlty Towers
John Cleese’s favorite episode
With thanks to Tara McGinley