The door bell rings and standing in the porch with a hopeful and expectant look on their face is generally an Australian or an American. The question that follows is nearly always the same. “Can you tell me where we can find Fawlty Towers?” Eight years of such enquiries has honed our responses well. We smile sympathetically, beckon them in and begin with “Well… ” We then have to explain to an increasingly disappointed visitor that although the hotel that inspired the series still exists in Torquay, none of the shots either external or internal were ever from Torquay. The internal shots were part of a set created at BBVC TV centre whilst the exterior of the hotel itself was a Country Club in Buckinghamshire (Now sadly long gone) whilst the remaining exterior scenes (mainly street scenes) were largely filmed in and around Harrow in North West London. This situation is one that many hotel owners in and around Torquay experience in one form or another quite routinely
It is hard to think of any other 1970's TV show that can still prompt its admirers to travel half way across the world in a 21st century form of a pilgrimage. It's unlikely that people are searching out the bus depot that was home to Reg Varney and the crew of On the Buses, or the adult education centre where the not so hilarious international stereotypes gathered for their English lessons in Mind your Language. And despite its brilliance it's hard to imagine coach loads of people turning up at the Surbiton homes where Margot, Jerry, Tom and Barbara lived in The Good Life.
A huge amount has been written about Fawlty Towers over the Years and much of that cites the limit to 12 episodes as one of the reasons that it has become such an enduring classic. The argument goes that because the writing brilliance of John Cleese and Connie Booth was focused on so few episodes and they quit before the quality had a chance to diminish, we have been left with a series in which everyone is a classic.
The 40 year old series series has left us wonderful comedy moments such as Basil and his German guests, the superb Mrs Richards (Played by Joan Sanderson), Basil the rat, and of course Waldorf Salad.
The series' birth in the mid seventies was not an easy one. Initial reactions from senior BBC executives were not positive. Some early TV critics were also hostile. One such critic Richard Ingrams who was then TV critic of The Spectator found himself on the receiving end of John Cleese's vengeance when a character called Mr Ingrams was caught in his room with a blow up doll. Industrial unrest at the BBC also contributed to a difficult birth for the series.
Fans of the series have longed for more Basil and Cybil and for a time they were tantalised by the prospect of something new. Even as late as the 1990s John Cleese spoke of a feature length episode in which a retired Basil and Sybil went to Barcelona in order to visit Manuel and his family. The idea was that an increasingly infuriated Basil experienced maddening delays at Heathrow Airport only to then find his flight hi jacked by a terrorist. An apoplectic Basil single handedly overpowered the hijacker just to be told by the pilot that they were returning to Heathrow. Beside himself with rage Basil then hijacked the plane himself and insisted that it land at Barcelona whereupon Basil was arrested and spent the rest of the time in a Spanish jail. Obviously such a premise offers masses of opportunity for classic Basil Fawlty but in the end John Cleese wisely decided to forget the idea. One only has to look at the feature length episodes of Dad's Army, On the Buses, Steptoe and Son and Are you Being Served? to realise that it is hard to take some of our best loved characters beyond 30 minutes and keep the comedy going. Sometimes too, a character away from their natural situation seems strange and out of place.
Some of the ardent Fawlty Towers fans have spoken mysteriously of a 13th episode that was written and filmed but never made it passed initial editing. Titled The Robbers this episode supposedly dealt with a blackout at the hotel and neatly wrapped things up bringing the series to a conclusion. Reasons for its failure to be aired are many but include the possibility that it might have prevented a third series which still seemed a possibility at the time. Despite denials by all involved the rumour of episode 13 persists particularly in cyberspace. However, it would have required a conspiracy on the scale of a Dan Brown novel to have kept such a thing under wraps for so long.
The Fawlty Towers characters did pop up for a while after the end of the series. Basil and Manuel featured in some corporate training videos for an oil company whilst Cybil made a significant appearance in a Children in Need sketch when she appeared as the new owner of the Hotel in Hotel Babylon.
Although Donald Sinclair the inspiration for Basil is long dead, the ghost of Basil still stalks the palm tree lined roads of Torquay. Behind the net curtained guest houses and B&B's of the English Riviera it's still possible to find eccentric owners who rule their tiny worlds with much the same exasperation, frustration & barminess. Some revel in the description of themselves as latter day Basil Fawltys forgetting that much of the comedy in the programme stemmed from the awfulness of Basil's relationship with his wife, from his total unsuitability for a career dealing with the public and from a crippling frustration with his position in life. Mrs Sinclair outlived her husband by some way and valiantly defended his reputation believing that he had been unfairly maligned by the series. However, she did accept that her late husband was perhaps not ideally suited to being a hotel proprietor.