Fawlty Towers: The Complete Collection
The members of Monty Python's Flying Circus have been involved in such an overwhelming number of second-rate projects, ranging from dispiriting (Graham Chapman in Yellowbeard) to excruciating (Eric Idle in Splitting Heirs), that it's sometimes hard to recall that there were actual high points to their post-Python careers. A handful of productions, however, remain unforgettable decades after the fact. Last year, a British Film Institute poll of critics, writers, and directors indicated that the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers is still the British television industry's favorite TV series, although it consists in toto of 12 episodes produced in the 1970s. Pythoner John Cleese and partner Connie Booth (who were married from 1968 to 1978) created and scripted the show, which stars Cleese as a maniacally high-strung, aggressively indignant hotel owner who takes his frustrations out on his guests when he isn't fawning over them in an attempt to curry favor with the upper classes. Booth has a significant role as a helpful but hapless hotel staffer, but Prunella Scales is far more prominent as Cleese's practical, bossy, savagely controlling wife. To some degree, the show succeeds because it's grounded in simple but highly effective British-comedy stereotypes: Scales and Cleese are perfect foils, as, respectively, the idealized face of polite reserve and an anthropomorphic version of the seething, impotent fury that such reserve can hide. But sharp, fast-paced scripting and a knack for physical slapstick—especially between Cleese and classically trained German actor Andrew Sachs, playing an easily confused Spanish staffer—give the show a wide range of comedic launching pads. The initial setups tend to be simple, sparked by misunderstandings and sex-farce tropes that wouldn't be out of place on Three's Company, but each episode rapidly devolves into a chaotic hurricane of activity, usually involving Cleese trying to cover up a problem and creating a catastrophe in the process. Each of the three DVDs in this set features an interview segment with Cleese, who discusses his history, the genesis and production of the show, critics' lukewarm initial reaction, and much more; Scales and Sachs are also interviewed, and the commentary tracks feature John Howard Davis (the lugubrious director of 1975's six-episode run) and Bob Spiers (the somewhat perkier director of the 1979 reunion series) making observations about individual episodes. Of course, none of them can come close to explaining the actual magic of Fawlty Towers, because it's difficult to describe the point where personal chemistry, creative genius, and pinpoint comedic timing come together. Like any unique work, it has to be experienced to be appreciated.