12 Fun Facts About 'Fawlty Towers'

The classic British sitcom made an even bigger star out of John Cleese.

John Cleese stars in 'Fawlty Towers.'
John Cleese stars in 'Fawlty Towers.' / BBC

Co-created by and starring Monty Python’s John Cleese, Fawlty Towers ran on the BBC for just two short seasons between 1975 and 1979. The classic sitcom followed the inept Basil Fawlty (Cleese) as he attempted to bring a touch of class to his dilapidated Torquay hotel, butting heads with his employees, wife, and guests along the way. Here are 12 facts about Fawlty Towers for those who know nothing.

1. Basil Fawlty was based on a real person.

While shooting Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese and the rest of the Monty Python team stayed at the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, where they were constantly berated by the eccentric hotel owner Donald Sinclair, whom Cleese once described as "the rudest man I’ve ever come across in my life." Sinclair, who was known for being in a perpetually high state of anxiety, apparently threw Eric Idle’s briefcase into the street as soon as the team arrived, claiming it could be a bomb. He chastised Terry Gilliam for holding his silverware incorrectly and knocked on Michael Palin’s door to ask whether he meant to put up his “Do Not Disturb” sign.

According to The Spectator, “He’d be furious if a teapot meant for four was placed on a table for two. He marched about in his dressing-gown berating guests for wanting hot water to heat a baby’s bottle, early alarm calls, late suppers, or if they requested a taxi. ‘Why?’ he’d howl incredulously, taking a step back, his jaw dropping. If you went out late he might yell after you, ‘And where do you think you’re going?’”

While others might have found Sinclair’s outbursts off-putting, Cleese was inspired. When he began working on ideas for a television show, Sinclair’s antics immediately popped back into his mind, and he decided to model Basil Fawlty and his wife Sybil after Sinclair and his wife Beatrice.

2. The "real" Fawlty Towers was demolished.

Fawlty Towers turned the Gleneagles Hotel into something of a landmark in Torquay. But though fans of the show would make pilgrimages to the Gleneagles, their patronage wasn’t enough to keep the little hotel in business: The Gleneagles was later demolished to make way for a new retirement home.

3. Studio executives had doubts about the show.

In Fawlty Towers: The Story of Britain's Favourite Sitcom, author Graham McCann wrote that BBC executives weren’t too enthusiastic about initial scripts for the show. “Several producers who had gained a glimpse of a script had pronounced themselves distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of its contents (‘Oh dear,’ one of them had been overheard lamenting about John Cleese in the BBC bar, ‘why did he ever leave Monty Python?’),” McCann wrote. “One executive had gone so far as to distribute a memo complaining: ‘This is a very boring situation and the script has nothing but very clichéd characters. I cannot see anything but a disaster if we go ahead with it.’”

4. It wasn't an immediate hit.

Fawlty Towers didn’t make much of a splash when its first episode aired. The BBC did little to promote the show in the days leading up to its premiere (according to McCann, the only magazine coverage was a two-page article in Radio Times by a journalist who had not yet seen the show). McCann noted that the first episode pulled in a “decent” but not impressive audience: “1,868,500—compared with the 7,726,500 who watched the news on BBC1 and the 11,059,500 who tuned to Stanley Baxter on ITV.” After it aired, a number of periodicals dismissed the show harshly: According to The Sydney Morning Herald, “The Evening Standard complained that the plot was ‘thin and obvious’ while the Daily Mirror thundered—‘LONG JOHN IS SHORT ON JOKES.’”

5. It was written by John Cleese and Connie Booth.

John Cleese co-wrote all of Fawlty Towers with his then-wife, Connie Booth, who played hotel employee Polly Sherman in the show. Though the two were divorced between seasons one and two, they continued to collaborate on the series together. Cleese focused on Basil’s dialogue, while Booth crafted Sybil’s lines. 

6. John Cleese supplemented his income at the time by appearing in advertisements.

Cleese and Booth were perfectionists who insisted on spending up to a month and a half writing each episode (scripts could run up to 135 pages, around twice the length of most television screenplays). In order to support this lengthy scriptwriting process, Cleese periodically appeared in ads. “I have to thank the advertising industry for making this possible," Cleese once explained. "Connie and I used to spend six weeks writing each episode and we didn’t make a lot of money out of it. I was able to subsidize my writing time by doing commercials. If it hadn’t been for the commercials, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to spend so much time on the script.”

7. The Major was Cary Grant's former roommate.

Ballard Berkeley, who played the senile but lovable Major Gowen, had been working in show business for half a century when he was cast in Fawlty Towers. In addition to performing in movies and theater, Berkeley was close friends with Cary Grant, and even shared an apartment with the legendary actor back in their early days, when Grant still went by his real name, Archie Leach. 

8. The director of season two went on to direct Spice World.

The Spice Girls at the premiere of 'Spice World' (2007).
The Spice Girls at the premiere of 'Spice World' (2007). / Tim Graham/GettyImages

Bob Spiers, who was hired to direct season two of Fawlty Towers, began his television career in the 1960s, working as an assistant floor manager on shows like Doctor Who. After directing Fawlty Towers, he worked in film and television for several decades before being hired in 1997 to direct the Spice Girls in Spice World.

9. Manuel was actually burned in the fire drill in "The Germans."

In the season one finale “The Germans,” Basil Fawlty struggles to organize a fire drill while, simultaneously, waiter Manuel—played by Andrew Sachs—manages to set an actual fire in the kitchen. While shooting, Sachs wore a jacket covered in smoke-producing chemicals, which ended up burning his arms so badly, they turned “plum red” according to McCann. The BBC ended up paying Sachs £700 (a little over $1000) in damages. 

10. Manuel later got hit with a saucepan during "The Wedding Party."

“The Germans” wasn’t the only time Sachs suffered for his art: Earlier in the first season, in the episode “The Wedding Party,” Basil hit Manuel with a saucepan in a bit of classic physical comedy. In rehearsals, Cleese tried to lighten the blow, but in one take, he accidentally hit Sachs so hard the actor nearly passed out. McCann quoted Cleese as saying, “We’d been practicing all week with me hitting him with a saucepan...and I don’t know why we didn’t get a rubber saucepan. And I was trying to hit Andrew a sort of sliding blow, but just as I started he straightened up, and I caught him a terrible one, and I’m afraid he had a headache for about two days.”

11. The hotel sign was rearranged by the show's production assistant.

Each episode of Fawlty Towers begins with the hotel sign rearranged to spell comical phrases (“Farty Towels,” “Fatty Owls” and “Watery Fowls” for instance)—ostensibly a prank by a disgruntled paper boy. These were actually constructed by production assistant and crossword puzzle fanatic Iain McLean, who came up with a list of clever anagrams for the show.

12. It has been remade several times, all unsuccessfully.

Anyone who has seen Fawlty Towers knows the appeal of the show lies not so much in its premise—which essentially boils down to a cranky hotel owner repeatedly getting angry—as in its clever writing, and the chemistry of its extremely funny cast. Nevertheless, Fawlty Towers has been remade repeatedly, with largely unsuccessful results. It was adapted in Germany as Zoom, and unsuccessfully remade at least four times in the United States, with Bea Arthur taking over the Basil Fawlty role in one version, and Tim Curry and a young Steve Carrell playing the Basil and Manuel parts in another.