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8 February 2023

John Cleese has made sure Fawlty Towers can’t be revived

We can’t root for a real-life Basil Fawlty.

By Marc Burrows

John Cleese is bringing back Fawlty Towers, and while it would be unfair to write him off before a frame of footage has been shot, the smart money is on it being bloody awful.

In the past five years Cleese has become a self-appointed sergeant major in the culture wars, constantly popping up on social media and in interviews to complain that the modern woke consensus is the “death of creativity”, endlessly complaining about cancel culture while enjoying a series of high-profile platforms. He’s even got an upcoming show on the subject on GB News.

There’s sadly zero chance that Cleese, who is writing the new show with his daughter Camilla, also set to star, can stop himself channelling these issues into his most famous character. That’s going to be fascinating to watch; but then so are car crashes and they’re rarely very funny. Back when Basil Fawlty was in his indignant prime we empathised with him. His frustration was our frustration, and it powered the whole show. Fawlty was arrogant but he was also the underdog and somehow we rooted for him. That’s a delicate balance. Does Cleese still have the skills to strike it? Or are we just going to roll our eyes continually at the outbursts of an awful man saying awful things? Will the show be self-aware enough to keep Fawlty on the back foot, or will this just be an excuse for Cleese to pour his pretty grievances out in front of the camera? We can hope.

The original show, which ran for two series in 1975 and 1979, is remembered as a classic with good reason. It was voted the greatest British sitcom of all time by the Radio Times in 2019, and a 2000 poll by the British Film Institute placed it at number one in the top 100 British television programmes of any genre. A massive hit the world over, it also crystallised John Cleese’s persona as haughty, sarcastic and permanently frustrated; a character he’s been playing almost exclusively ever since.

Part of its appeal is the concept: a man that hates literally everyone, with zero patience, no empathy and a bubbling pit of rage just under his thin skin, runs a hotel – an occupation that brings him into contact with the general public on a daily basis and forces him to be polite to them. No one but Cleese could do the part justice, and his glowering, seething, perpetually vexed Basil Fawlty is a masterclass.

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The odds of him pulling it off again are low. Cleese has cashed in and revived the character a few times over the years, for one-off ads and commercial training videos, and it’s never been funny. What’s more, the history of rebooted sitcoms is not a successful one: the lightning is usually long gone from the bottle. Cleese has descended into the kind of tedious ranting that reminds us that a real-life Basil would be unbearable. He’s one of the all-time great comic characters. Let’s not ruin it.

[See also: The many layers of Robbie Coltrane]

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