On Fawlty Towers, neither the customer nor the innkeeper is always right

On Fawlty Towers, neither the customer nor the innkeeper is always right

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next four installments focus on episodes featuring “interlopers.”

Fawlty Towers, “Waldorf Salad” (season two, episode three; originally aired 3/5/1979)

(Available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon.)

In which an American guest causes a revolt for Basil…

Ryan McGee: You could apply the “interloper” theme to any episode of Fawlty Towers, if you so chose. Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) treated all guests in his establishment as such, viewing them as a mouth-breathing revenue stream rather than a string of guests looking for a relaxing holiday. Choosing “Waldorf Salad,” however, allows us to see how injecting a new perspective into an established scenario doesn’t only reveal new facets of a show—it allows for its subtext to become text as well.

One of the joys in watching Fawlty Towers lies in its staging. When compared with the slow build of “Waldorf Salad,” even My Boys seems like a manic, balls-to-the-wall thrill ride. This is in no way a slam on the pacing of “Waldorf Salad.” Indeed, a defining factor in each episode of the series is the way in which seemingly staid situations spiral inexorably out of control. Chief to this weekly evolution is Cleese himself, perfectly cast as a hotel manager who can barely contain his disgust at other homo sapiens who dare ask for their pillows to be fluffed, their meals to be redone, and any request that involves Basil lifting a single, solitary finger in order to fulfill it. There’s a pattern at work here, with Basil sent into an apoplectic rage by the end of each episode. But dammit if it’s not consistently a beauty to behold.

“Waldorf Salad” starts off in the dining room of the hotel, quickly establishing several things for even the casual viewer: Fawlty Towers’ generally small number of guests, their general dissatisfaction with the overall service, and Basil’s disregard for their welfare. He doesn’t have a complete lack of filter in this opening scene, but his passive-aggressive sniping is enough to ensure that privately held complaints never reach his ears. An uneasy equilibrium is established here: The guests aren’t so upset that they seek other lodging options, and Basil is able to pretend that those under his roof actually enjoy their experiences. It’s not a defense mechanism on Basil’s part so much as willful ignorance. This isn’t some David Brent character who wants to be loved. Basil Fawlty simply wants to be left alone.

What gets Basil into trouble is that he can’t completely ignore the income provided by these guests, money that is constantly in short supply throughout the show’s 12-episode run. Basil longs to be part of the upper crust, and despises the fact that this upper echelon of society wouldn’t be caught dead in his establishment. (The show’s first episode, “A Touch Of Class,” played up this disparity to great effect through the introduction of Lord Melbury.) Instead of putting in hard work to elevate his station over a course of years, he constantly looks for shortcuts anyway he can. This desire to steal a quick buck at any opportunity ends up driving the episode’s action, and helps prove his undoing by the end.

Enter the Hamiltons, a pair hailing from California, who arrive just after Chef Terry’s dinner service has stopped. Basil tries to brusquely push the Hamiltons to their room without dinner, but husband Harry isn’t having any of it. Eventually, he speaks in a language Basil can understand: money. Harry offers Basil £20 to keep the chef on slightly longer so he and his wife can have a meal. Naturally, Basil decides to pocket some of the money for himself and offer Terry only part of it in order to stay on longer. Terry insists that he can’t stay because he has a karate lesson, but Basil soon learns that’s a lie to cover up the fact that several of his staff are going out for the night. 

Basil decides to cook the meal himself, pocketing all of the money in the process. Naturally, this leads to disaster, since he doesn’t know that “screwdrivers” are a type of drink and cannot locate all the ingredients to the titular Waldorf salad. The farcical escalation of this dinner is perfectly pitched, with the presence of Basil’s wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales), offering an occasional balm that keeps the water from truly boiling over too quickly. Indeed, without Sybil’s presence, it’s unlikely that the Hamiltons would stay 30 seconds in the dining hall. But with her calm demeanor, quick wit, and kitchen skills, she manages to defuse the tension over and over without completely eradicating it.

Sadly, or perhaps happily, this can’t go on forever, and Harry soon learns that the loud “arguments” that he’s heard between Basil and his chef have indeed been theater all along. The two have a throw down in the main lobby in front of the other guests, who have assembled due to the sound of the argument. Harry insists that everyone else is as dissatisfied as he is. Initial inquiries by Basil yield nothing, as the guests are by and large too terrified to speak up. Finally, one guest, Mr. Johnston, articulates his previously private complaint about his prawns, which unleashes a floodgate of criticism from the newly emboldened group. Rather than stand his ground and fight the increasingly withering criticism, Basil hands over control of the hotel to Sybil and storms out. However, there’s a literal storm raging outside, sending a now soaked Basil back into the hotel, tail between his legs. In a final effort to maintain face, he demands a room from Sybil with breakfast in bed featuring, naturally, Waldorf salad and screwdrivers.

I’m curious how the rest of you view this episode, especially through the prism of our own Americanness. I don’t mean that we can’t enjoy this show because we’re not British—that’s ridiculous. But how much do you think the episode actually sides with Basil versus Harry here? Is Harry in the right, or is Basil’s reaction to American arrogance actually the sympathetic point of view here? I’m also curious about reactions to this type of interloper, who doesn’t reveal new facets of the show (we always knew Basil was a blowhard) so much as allow characters already aware of them to articulate pre-existing concerns. We tend to get defensive when interlopers point out the flaws of characters we love (as evidenced in “The One With The Boobies” last week), but do we celebrate interlopers when the characters are as intentionally unlikeable as Basil?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’ve heard complaints from other fans of Fawlty Towers that this episode caricatures Americans as bullying assholes, but I think this reaction may say less about the show than about the assumptions of people who do most of their sitcom-watching during PBS pledge drives. It’s worth keeping in mind that the writing credit on this episode, like all Fawlty Towers episodes, is shared by Cleese and Connie Booth. It’s also important to keep in mind that Booth is American, and that Cleese at least finds Americans palatable enough that he once married one. I suspect that part of the confusion over who’s meant to be the bad guy here stems from the performance of Bruce Boa, a Canadian-born actor who was based in England and who spent a lot of his career delivering overdone depictions of stereotypically bossy Americans. (He played the colonel in Full Metal Jacket who gives Matthew Modine shit about the peace symbol on his uniform and says, “All I’ve ever asked of my Marines is for them to obey my orders as they would the word of God.”) He’s pretty obnoxious at times, especially when he lays hands on Basil and laughs in his face, but I think Cleese regards his directness as refreshing and at least partly admirable. (The American’s British wife is clearly happy to be married to him and to live in California, and surely she didn’t jump the fence and swim the Atlantic just for the fresh-squeezed orange juice.) 

Harry Hamilton isn’t just an interloper into Basil Fawlty’s little world; he’s an outsider in an entire culture that sets the rules that govern that world. “Waldorf Salad” may not be the most consistently hilarious episode of Fawlty Towers, but I have a special fondness for the way it blows up the show by introducing a character who rejects the regular characters’ ideas of what’s acceptable behavior. It makes you realize that, as put-upon and miserable as Basil is, he gets away with murder most of the time, because he’s usually surrounded by people who are terrified of saying or even acknowledging anything that might cause a scene. Cleese has often talked in interviews about how the show was inspired by a deranged hotel manager he once came across who heard an alarm clock ticking in Cleese’s suitcase and threw it into the ocean, in case there was a bomb in it. The way Cleese tells that story, it seems implicit that he didn’t scream at the man or kick him in the face but just shrugged and went off to buy new luggage and an alarm clock. So he partakes of that buttoned-down Englishness, even as he’s made a career out of mocking and railing against it. The upside of that attitude is that Cleese probably never let his resentment about something seethe and boil inside him until he turned it into a great TV show.

Donna Bowman: Ryan, thanks for giving me an excuse to revisit Fawlty Towers after spending so much of the last decade thinking about how TV comedy works. “Waldorf Salad” delivers one approach to the sitcom in such a concentrated dose that it deserves a dissertation-length treatment unpacking all of the tiny variations and implementations of its simple, clear strategy. That approach is centered in dialogue—in the power plays that unspool in miniature between two people, or between one person and the armies arrayed against him. The upper hand shifts with each exchange, as what can be spun to one’s advantage gets spun, and as what cannot be spun gets revealed and acknowledged. We are appalled and amused by the audacity of the spin, the self-absorption of the spinner, and the surprise tactics he manages to pull out of thin air to maintain his wounded, put-upon air. It’s more like a circus act than a narrative. There’s no way Basil can keep the plates of his victimhood spinning, and yet somehow he conjures a way to prevent them from hitting the ground, or in extreme cases, to deny that the broken shards have anything to do with him.

I was especially interested in the question Ryan poses about whether Harry’s obnoxiousness puts him in the wrong. Where do our sympathies lie in the epic battle waged here between the entitled and the craven? It seems to me that the episode pulls off quite a switcheroo in this regard. Harry is the ugly American, refusing to believe that the rules of time and space apply to him, insisting that as a customer he has infinite rights. He’s a bully. But Basil is the worst kind of service-industry worker: the one who would rather be right than serve the customer at all. And the genius of the show is how it transcends its dialogue-centric strategy by lingering lovingly on John Cleese’s physical attitudes. He leans in obsequiously, ready to receive the affirmation that he can throw in someone else’s face. He seethes imperiously, fully upright, as if searching over everyone’s heads for the Greek chorus that will validate him. He gestures with such anger that we can’t help but fear he will burst a blood vessel. “You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot while I’m trying to run a hotel!” he screams at one point, and that’s the thesis statement for this character and for the essential—but eminently relatable—flaw that makes him much, much worse than even the wrongest guest who comes through his doors.

Genevieve Koski: Being both a newcomer to Fawlty Towers and a former server, I found myself sympathizing with Basil for the majority of this episode, right up until the lobby blowout. But after reading the rest of your reactions and realizing that Basil’s outspoken disgust with his guests is an established character trait rather than a matter of circumstance, the confrontation between him and Hamilton becomes much more interesting. Before that, I viewed Hamilton as not just an obnoxious American, but as something perhaps even worse: the overly entitled guest. Why shouldn’t Basil, or any service-industry worker, be disgusted by someone who comes in after dinner service has ended, refuses to take no for an answer, repeatedly changes his order, then orders an off-menu item that’s relatively unheard of in that part of the country, being an arrogant jackass all the while? I mean, he threatens Basil with a knife, for God’s sake. 

Of course, Basil’s incompetence and greed is the counterpoint to this argument, and what ultimately makes it more than an ugly-American-centric farce. Both of these guys act plenty ugly, regardless of nationality, which is what makes that lobby showdown so fraught. Both are simultaneously totally right and hideously wrong in their expectations of the other, but it’s Basil—who proves throughout the episode to be the slightly more hotheaded of these two hotheads—who ultimately spirals off-course into a frenzied diatribe against not just his guests, but all guests. 

I’m curious how common an occurrence this sort of tantrum is on Fawlty Towers, because from an outsider’s perspective, Basil’s ultimatum and exit seems like the sort of blaze-of-glory moment all frustrated service-industry workers dream of—which is immediately undermined by his immediate return as a “guest,” complete with requests for a screwdriver and Waldorf salad. Phil mentions Basil being able to get away with murder most of the time, and his return to the lobby, sans any apparent chagrin or acknowledgement of his blowup, seems to affirm this. Again, I’m only superficially familiar with Fawlty Towers and Cleese’s character, so maybe his quick moment alone in the rain is the closest Basil is able to come to remorse or personal growth; but taken on its own, it seems like a non-resolution, cutting off before he or anyone around him acknowledges the unfortunate episode that just took place, much less exhibits any sort of change or growth as a result. 

It’s interesting that most of the interlopers we’ve looked at in this series ultimately have very little lasting effect on the characters, despite the upheaval they cause. A lot of this is sitcom convention, which dictates a weekly return to the status quo, but it also indicates that ostensibly unlikeable blowhards like Basil Fawlty or Homer Simpson are bulletproof. Their resolute obnoxiousness is what makes them compelling to audiences, and any interloper who comes in and threatens to change that is summarily dismissed, leaving our “hero” to ruin another day. 

David Sims: As Ryan said, Fawlty Towers is the perfect show for the interloper theme, because almost every episode is about Basil’s reaction to some new guest and how much it reflects upon its own insecurities. Fawlty Towers is a beacon of high farce, of course, and I remember moving to England when I was 9 and discovering the show and enjoying it just for the high jinks and the silly waiter and John Cleese yelping and so on. But when I watch it now, I’m reminded of every pained interaction I had with the English service industry.

The episode is playing on an old joke that the English hate to complain under any circumstances. So it takes a rude, pretentious American making slightly outlandish demands to shake everyone else at the hotel out of their reverie. Everyone else has debated who’s in the right here, and I would say that this is one of the Fawlty Towers episodes where I have a little more sympathy for Basil. Sure, Mr. Hamilton paid him to keep the kitchen open and Basil’s trying to pocket the money and get by without the chef, but when you’re bribing the staff, you can’t rationally expect the same standards, can you?

I think Basil is motivated by more than money, even though that is so often his primary concern. Even when he hates someone (and he immediately hates Mr. Hamilton, and why shouldn’t he, he’s not very nice), that just fuels his desire to impress them and prove himself better than them. I understand his desire, even if he goes about it in all the wrong ways, and to me there’s nothing more brutal than watching Basil struggle to understand just what a “screwdriver” is. He’s going to hit a breaking point where he no longer cares about putting on airs, but in the early portions of every episode, his efforts to stay au courant are British cringe comedy at its absolute finest.

The ending is a weird, sad, brief moment of triumph for Basil, though, at least in his own head. His poor guests undoubtedly suffer more than we can imagine, but to Basil, proclaiming them all Nazis and moving to kick them out is vindicating. Even when that backfires and his wife kicks him out, there’s a thrill to that freedom. But Fawlty Towers is a hell from which Basil can never escape, even if it’s a hell of his own making.

Erik Adams: I can’t help but sympathize with Basil because of the type of interloper Hamilton is: an out-and-out irritant, even when he’s speaking from a place of reason. The farcical nature of Fawlty Towers doesn’t give Hamilton much room for further shading, but he’s a character type I’ve always had trouble stomaching. One of my earliest opinions on a piece of pop culture involved the series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts involving Cecil Turtle and Bugs Bunny, in which Cecil is basically an asshole to Bugs for seven straight minutes. It’s fun and funny to watch a character get the upper hand over that wascally wabbit for once, but my elementary-school-aged self couldn’t wrap his head around why Cecil had to be so mean.

That’s an impression that’s stuck with me and continues to set my teeth on edge, which is the appropriate jaw setting for watching Fawlty Towers. What differentiates Hamilton from Cecil is the fact that his adversary isn’t as cool a customer as Bugs Bunny. As established above, Basil is frequently just as terrible to the strangers he encounters in his day-to-day life, and the nifty trick of “Waldorf Salad” involves spinning Fawlty Towers in a way that made me think, “Well, that’s how Basil got the way he is.” And if making us consider a series regular in a different light is the purpose of an interloper, then Mr. Hamilton is an ideal guest.

Todd VanDerWerff: In the course of this TV season, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us sympathize with characters who do loathsome things. Bates Motel, for instance, has lots and lots of problems, but it makes its two central characters surprisingly sympathetic, given all of the awful things we know about them (and what they’re going to do). Then you look at a character like Jimmy on Smash’s second season and wonder just why the show’s creative personnel ever thought an audience could find him appealing. Some of this has to do with performance, to be sure—Vera Farmiga is a much better actor than Jeremy Jordan—but there’s also some key element of finding a universal human experience for the characters to go through, some place where they feel small and cornered and lash out because of that; we’ve all been in situations where we feel small and resent those who’ve made us feel so, be they bullies or those who don’t even realize what they’re doing. Norma Bates taps into that because the odds she faces are so overwhelming. Jimmy doesn’t because, ultimately, he just doesn’t get to be on Broadway for a while, and oh, to have such problems.

What’s great about Fawlty Towers is that it’s asking us to sympathize with the man making others feel small. It’s a nifty trick the show pulls, and even though much of it is Cleese’s performance (one of the best in sitcom history), there’s also this element of Cleese tapping into how much we all resent being asked to serve other people, even if that’s ultimately our job. Fawlty Towers hit at a time just when many Western economies were shifting from their traditional industrial bases to commercial bases, so there’s an element of Not Always Right to the show, with Basil being a total dick but also the viewer sort of secretly enjoying that he’s doing it. He’s lashing out at customers, even those with reasonable requests, in a way that all service-industry employees get on their most frustrated days. But what keeps this from being too service-industry-specific is the way that events like those of this episode speak to how we’ve all been trapped in situations where bullies have made us feel cowed, tried to keep our heads up, and ultimately failed. In his final outburst, Basil speaks for all of us, and even as we realize we might have picked a better spokesman, that makes the laughter all the larger.

Stray observations:

This second series, consisting of six episodes, ran a full four years after the show’s first six-episode run in 1975. Can you imagine that happening now? The closest we have to that is the recent fourth season of Arrested Development, and even that isn’t a proper comparison. But still: That’s absolutely insane, even if it established the “less is more” attitude that the U.K. Office and other shows later adopted in terms of series’ lengths. [RM]

One of my favorite gags the show employed was having a different set of rearranged letters on the hotel sign. This week’s re-arrangement is “Flay Otters.” [RM]

“Here’s a letter explaining everything.” This is the kind of utterly banal wackiness, if that makes any sense, that I would like to be able to pull off in real life. [DB]

I’m not an actor, so I sit in wonderment at the way people who are actors find specific, wonderful, believable, funny things to do with their hands. Cleese’s gestures as he describes the unfortunate, imaginary accident that befell the greengrocer who was supposed to deliver the walnuts (ending with “Here we all are with all our limbs functioning, and quite frankly, if you’ve got your health, what else matters?”) are such a lovely and hilarious support to the dialogue, emphasizing how committed he is to making this lie believable by making it crazy-specific. [DB]

The first floor of Fawlty Towers is a marvel of television set design, and I’m endlessly impressed with the way each room flows into the next while still providing enough cover for door-slamming misunderstandings like the one involving Basil’s argument with “Terry.” Were the dining room, the lobby, and the bar all part of a single standing set? If anyone knows of any behind-the-scenes photos that could shed further light on this wonky curiosity, do send them along. [EA]

Television converses with itself across the ages: Hamilton calls Fawlty Towers “The worst-run hotel in the whole of Western Europe” (though the Major objects—’cause there’s a place in Eastbourne…). This only makes sense, considering that 30-plus years after this episode debuted, Mad Men’s version of Conrad Hilton would say, of the birthplace of the dish that gives “Waldorf Salad” its title, “Best kitchen in the world. Got a salad named after it.” [EA]

Next week: Phil Dyess-Nugent accepts “No Substitutions”—only Bill Murray’s guest shot on Square Pegs will do. Then, Todd VanDerWerff breaks the game—just like infamous contestant Michael Larson—with a whammy of a Press Your Luck installment. (Murray’s Square Pegs scenes are available on YouTube, where the Larson episode of Press Your Luck is also available in five parts.)