Fawlty Towers is arguably the greatest British comedy series of all time. It is certainly timeless, as it is still hysterically funny today and it’s over forty years old! Many critics agree that it’s the best show to come out of the UK since the dawn of television. In 2000, the British Film Institute compiled a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of all time and ranked Fawlty Towers at number one. It’s also been extremely influential, as more or less every British comedian, comedy writer, and comedy actor cites Fawlty Towers as an influence on their own work. The network initially had little faith in the show, since they felt an entire series could not be set in one hotel – but that’s the genius of it! The closed-off hotel setting is a simmering pot that builds and builds and builds until eventually it boils over and the episode climaxes with a hilarious punchline. It’s a formula that worked a charm for every one of the 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers that aired in the 1970s. The reason that there were so few is that John Cleese and Connie Booth, the show’s stars and writers, endured an ugly divorce between the making of the first and second seasons. Ah, well. Anyway, here are the 12 golden nuggets that the gods did grace us with, ranked from worst to best.
12. The Builders
John Cleese himself agrees that “The Builders” is “the least good” episode of Fawlty Towers, and so do a lot of critics. The setup of the episode is good. The key to all drama is tension and this episode is rammed with tension. Sybil wants to pay a little extra for a good handyman to do some work on the hotel. Basil, ever the miser, wants to pay as little as possible, and therefore wants to hire O’Reilly, who always does a half-assed job, but he does it for a cheap price. Basil doesn’t want to anger his wife, so he tells her he’ll hire the expensive guy, but really just hires O’Reilly behind her back. The plan seems flawless, until O’Reilly screws up the job royally and fills in the door to the restaurant with wall. Now, Basil has to hide this blatant screw-up from Sybil, which isn’t an easy task. However, the problem is that the plot of the episode relies too heavily on stereotypes – the stupid, incompetent Irish handyman, the nagging wife, the foreigner’s communications getting lost in translation. It’s not terrible. In fact, it’s quite funny. But “The Builders” is easily the weakest episode of Fawlty Towers.
11. The Hotel Inspectors
The setup of “The Hotel Inspectors” is brilliant. It was a fantastic idea. Basil yells at a guest and then he hears that some hotel inspectors are going around Torquay undercover and then he worries that the guy he yelled at might be one of those inspectors. Sadly, the follow-through on this premise and the execution of it is not as great as it could’ve been, and the result is one of the weaker episodes of the show. The guy Mr. Hutchinson who speaks with a lot of long words and adverbs and qualifies everything with descriptive words and pontificates all of his speech is kind of funny at first – as is Basil’s mockery of this – but before long, it becomes tedious and tiresome and kind of annoying. There is one little gem in this episode – the whole “corked” wine sequence was totally improvised by John Cleese. The writers (Cleese himself and his wife Connie Booth) had no idea how this would play out on the day, so they could only write in some very loose dialogue. This gave the Monty Python genius in Cleese a chance to show off his improvisational skills and give us one of the funniest scenes in the history of TV comedy. But still, that’s just one classic moment in a generally weak episode.
10. A Touch of Class
The first episode of a show is never its best, but as far as pilot episodes go, you could get a lot worse than “A Touch of Class.” It introduces the hotel setting and the characters pretty brilliantly, and the plot, which sees Basil getting conned by a man claiming to be an aristocrat, is classic Fawlty Towers material. It is funny, but it was the first one. It was treading on new territory. Of course, as the show went on and the writers John Cleese and Connie Booth got to know their characters and their format and the hotel a lot better, the show could grow and mature and, naturally, become a better version of himself. That’s exactly what happened to this show. Initially, believe it or not, the first script for the show – the one that would eventually become this episode – was rejected by the BBC. One of the network’s script readers told John Cleese, “This is full of cliched situations, stereotypical characters, and I cannot see it being anything other than a disaster.” He also told the comedy icon, “You can’t do the whole thing in the hotel.” But that’s the whole point. As Cleese himself explains, “Of course, it was in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker situation built up.” You first get a sense of this is in “A Touch of Class.”
9. The Wedding Party
The sex farce is difficult to do in comedy without making it too blue or too crass. However, Fawlty Towers gave us a relatively successful take on the sex farce by showing it to us through the eyes of the shrewd and conservative Basil Fawlty. The setup of this episode sees a young couple, Alan and Jean, who are about to get married, very much in love, and constantly making out, check in to the hotel along with the rest of their wedding guests. Through various different circumstances, Basil becomes convinced that the wedding party is basically one big orgy, and he wants to get to the bottom of it – which only lands him in more trouble. The way that this episode toys around with how Basil sees things and what’s really going on is really quite masterful. This is one of the most difficult things to do in comedy – to make your audience see one situation through two different pairs of eyes and have their perceptions of events be vastly different and yet easy to follow, and have this all play for comic effect. But John Cleese and Connie Booth’s tight and ingenious script manages to pull this off beautifully on many different occasions. “The Wedding Party” might not stack up to some of the other Fawlty Towers episodes, but compared to most other sitcoms, it’s a phenomenal episode, and after a shaky start with “A Touch of Class” and “The Builders,” this was the first truly brilliant episode of what would go on to become one of the greatest sitcoms ever made.
8. Gourmet Night
The episode “Gourmet Night” from the first series of the show sees Basil trying to class up the hotel (yet again) by hosting a gourmet night at the hotel, with an ad in the paper specifying “no riff raff.” But then on the night itself, the only riff raff to be seen is coming from Basil himself, thanks to his social faux pas and frequent screw-ups. Things always go wrong for Basil, but it’s possible that nothing was ever more disastrous than his attempt to throw a classy gourmet night at the hotel. His chef got blackout drunk and tried to molest Manuel, then all the food got ruined and he had to outsource to another restaurant, then his car kept breaking down on the trips back and forth – the terrible things just keep getting piled on Basil, one after the other, throughout this episode. Plus, this is the episode in which Basil gives his crappy little car a “damn good thrashing,” so it automatically becomes a classic episode, just based on that. But it’s not just that – the story is fantastic. It keeps you compelled from start to finish and keeps making left turns and plot twists that you can’t see coming at all. It’s really quite terrific.
7. The Kipper and the Corpse
Fawlty Towers was never a particularly dark show. There might have been some jokes or some gags that were a little close to the vest, but it was not a dark comedy. However, “The Kipper and the Corpse” is a prime example of dark humor. It is this unusually grim and morbid sensibility that distinguishes this episode from the rest of the show. Whether that is for better or for worse is up to personal opinion, but to people with a particularly twisted sense of humor, this is definitely one of the best episodes of the show. It deals with death! That’s awesome – and hilarious! Had there been more seasons of the show, there probably would’ve been a few more black comic episodes like this. The episode has its roots in real life. See, when John Cleese was looking for story ideas for season 2 episodes during the hiatus between the two seasons of Fawlty Towers, he became friends with a hotel manager named Andrew Leeman. Leeman told him an anecdote from his time working at the Savoy Hotel, whereby he found a guest dead in the hotel and had to discreetly get rid of the corpse. Instantly, Cleese knew that this would be a wacky caper to send Basil on, and he was right!
6. The Anniversary
Throughout the whole of Fawlty Towers, Basil is not shown to love his wife Sybil all that much. After being together for a good few years, they seem to have lost their spark or fallen into a rut, which is sad, really. But in “The Anniversary,” we see a whole different side to their marriage. Unlike most sitcom husbands, Basil has actually remembered that it’s their wedding anniversary and he’s also put a lot of thought into his gift for her. He has planned a surprise party for Sybil and he spends the morning under the guise that he’s forgotten while they wait for the guests to arrive and for Sybil to be delighted by the surprise. But he takes the lie too far and Sybil storms out in anger, and before Basil can go after her, the guests start arriving. What follows is some of the finest lying the character has ever done, as he convinces all of his wife’s prying friends that she’s sick, and when one of them claims that they saw Sybil in town on the drive in, he counters that an exact doppelganger of Sybil also lives in Torquay, and when the friends want to go and see her, Basil gets Polly to impersonate Sybil, lying in her bed in sort of darkness, and when Sybil actually comes back, he pretends that she’s the doppelganger and drags her off to the kitchen to explain everything. The whole episode is just one hysterical farce that succeeds by showing us an unusually sweet side of Basil.
5. Waldorf Salad
For some unknown reason, both British comedians and American comedians like to make fun of each other’s cultures by using the stereotypes that they widely perceive. So, British people are portrayed in American comedy as posh and sniffy and condescending, whereas American people are portrayed in British comedy as arrogant and self-important and stupid. This is on clear display in this episode, in which Basil butts head with an American guest who demands a Waldorf salad after the kitchen has closed, even though it’s not even on the menu, and becomes irate when the British Basil who isn’t a chef doesn’t know how to make the traditionally American salad. Every little thing that goes wrong, the American holds Basil accountable and yells at him – and of course, Basil wants to yell right back. In comedic terms, this made the American a perfect match for the brash and loud-mouthed and insulting Basil Fawlty, and the episode plays out as a fantastic study of the cultural clashes between Britain and the United States. The book Great, Grand & Famous Hotels makes a point of how this episode encapsulates the realism and relatability of the series: “Fawlty Towers is real to everybody who has ever worked in a hotel, anybody who has ever stayed in one, or anyone who has ever tried, unsuccessfully, to order a Waldorf salad.”
4. Basil the Rat
There are many quotes from Fawlty Towers that get circulated around as the best, but there’s one from the episode “Basil the Rat,” the final ever episode of the show – so, technically, the series finale – that is criminally underrated and really, really funny in an absurd way. When Basil walks in on Manuel playing the guitar in his room and discovers that the Spaniard’s little pet rodent is actually a rat, he tells him, “Pets are small and cuddly! Cuddle this and you’d never play the guitar again!” As soon as the rat escapes, the suspense and tension of the episode are held up, gradually rising, throughout the whole rest of the show. There’s a reason that John Cleese has personally named “Basil the Rat” his favorite episode of the whole show. The jokes are hilarious, the story is engaging, the premise of the episode was a brilliant idea, and it gives all the different character dynamics a chance to shine for one last time. “Basil the Rat” was also one of the only two episodes of the show – along with “The Kipper and the Corpse” – that were chosen to be adapted for the stage after the series ended its run.
3. The Germans
“Don’t mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.” This line, paired with John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks-like goose step through the hotel in the style of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, are the moments that have made “The Germans” one of the most iconic episodes in the whole of Fawlty Towers. In fact, it’s one of the most iconic episodes in the history of British sitcoms. Martin Scorsese called this scene “so tasteless, it’s hilarious.” See, oddly enough, the Goodfellas director claims to be a huge fan of the series, and says that this episode is his favorite of all twelve. It could be argued that “The Germans” is the most famous and widely recognized episode of Fawlty Towers. However, Cleese believes that a lot of people missed the joke with Basil’s Hitler impression. He explained, “Everybody thinks that was a joke about the Germans, but they missed it. It was a joke about British attitudes to the war and the fact that some people were still hanging on to that rubbish.” So, there you have it. Still, either way, “The Germans” is a hilarious half hour of comedic television, and one of the best episodes of the series. It has the number 12 spot on TV Guide magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time, and it appeared in Empire magazine’s list of the 50 greatest TV episodes of all time.
2. Communication Problems
The ending of the season 2 premiere of Fawlty Towers, “Communication Problems,” is a classic case of comic misdirection. Misdirection can be great for comedy. It’s how Anthony Jeselnik constructs his jokes. The plot revolves around Basil winning some money by betting on a horse and trying to hide it from Sybil, who disagrees with gambling. Meanwhile, a snooty, demanding, obnoxious guest who’s even more annoying than Basil complains that she’s lost some money. At the end of the episode, as something finally seems to be going Basil’s way – he got away with the bet, he’s managed to profit financially from the situation, and the snooty old lady is happy – you actually feel really happy for him. Good for you, Basil! Something positive has finally happened to you! But this is Fawlty Towers, so of course, it doesn’t end there. All of your hope and happiness is shattered along with Basil’s when the Major blurts out that Basil won some money on a horse and Basil, in his horror, drops and smashes the old lady’s vase. Basil is totally screwed, every which way, and he didn’t get anything out of it. That’s the kind of ending that’s more familiar to us as Fawlty Towers fans – and it’s even more crushing, since he was so happy right before it.
1. The Psychiatrist
Everything in this episode works. It just works. Every joke, every gag, every bit – it all just lands. And it all ties together so perfectly. The overarching plot strand of “The Psychiatrist” is that a married couple of two psychiatrists check into the hotel, and over the course of their stay, Basil reveals himself to them to be totally insane. He has a freakout when he mistakenly thinks the topic of sex has come up in conversation. He drives himself crazy, trying to prove that one of the guests at the hotel has got a woman in his room by sneaking into other people’s rooms and scaling the side of the hotel on a ladder. At the end of the episode, the two psychiatrists catch him in the midst of a nervous breakdown and joke that he’s given them enough material for a new psychiatric conference. They’re probably right. This episode is a perfect example of what Fawlty Towers is. The claustrophobic setting of the hotel serves as a boiling pot, where the tension is gradually ratcheted up throughout the episode. Plus, it dovetails all the storylines and has a new laugh out loud moment every few seconds – and it ends with a terrific resolution.