Book review: Fawlty Towers

by Graham McCann

One of the best-known facts about Fawlty Towers is that it ran for just 12 episodes. Six hours, give or take, of television. Yet this is at least the third book on the subject, not counting John Cleese and Connie Booth’s scripts. It may be one of the finest comedy shows ever produced, but is there really that much to say?

Well, if anyone can write the definitive guide, it’s Graham McCann – who’s already been responsible for comprehensive reference volumes on Dad’s Army, Frankie Howerd and Morecambe and Wise. But even he sometimes struggles with the lack of source material here, reduced to running pages of credits for what the actors did in the four long years between series, or the 28 years since it finished. Nor can he escape plot précis of every episode, that fans will surely already know backwards.

Reading the summaries, however, can only evoke warm memories of the superlative sitcom; and McCann at least manages to intersperse them with interesting background facts, trivia about the cast or the scripts, or extracts from how the critics received the shows.

The answer, initially, was that Fawlty Towers was mostly ignored – and some of those reviewers who did notice it were hardly impressed, with the Mirror’s poor Tony Pratt declaring: ‘Long John is short on laughs’. Though with the shameless volte-face of a journalist who thought his disposable words could never come back to haunt him, he later wrote of that same first series: ‘Only six shows were made, but they were of such quality that they remain fresh in viewers minds.’

It was the reruns that made the show. Episode one, series one attracted 1.9 million viewers to BBC Two, compared to the 11million who watched Stanley Baxter on ITV. But by the third repeat, now on BBC One, figures had soared to 12million.

Such facts are what make this book, and McCann has wrung every detail he can from the short-run series, from the industrial dispute that delayed several instalments of the second series to the exploits of Donald Sinclair, the bonkers hotelier who inspired Basil Fawlty in the first place.

McCann has also written essays on the characters of the main protagonists, speculating, for instance, on how Basil and Sybil ever got together in the first place. His style is light and entertaining, always giving a thorough, readable overview of his subject matter.

This 330-page hardback might not shed much new light on the well-documented sitcom, nor be any substitute for simply watching the episodes once more on DVD. But it’s a warm, detailed tribute from an obvious, yet still objective, fan that makes a good companion to the timeless farce.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Fawlty Towers, by Graham McCann, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £18.99. Click here to order a copy from Amazon for £11.39.

Published: 24 Oct 2007

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