‘Fawlty Towers’ Mentions the War
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes indiscretion is the better part of valor.
By Sean Braswell
The first 23 minutes of “The Germans,” the final episode in the first season of the classic 1970s British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, are a master class in comedic timing and farce, from a talking moose head to a bungled hotel fire drill. Then, in the final seven minutes of the show, which first aired 40 years ago this month, star John Cleese, playing the ornery hotelier Basil Fawlty, goose-steps the comedy up one more courageous notch, leaving shocked viewers in a riotous fit of laughter and discomfort.
The impact that Fawlty Towers, about the escapades of a neurotic English hotel owner, had on television comedy looms far larger than the mere six hours it takes to consume its 12 episodes. The tall, iconic figure of Basil Fawlty was inspired by a real-life hotel manager that Cleese and his Monty Python comrades had encountered in the seaside town of Torquay in 1970, a man he once called “the most wonderfully rude man I have ever met.”
Underneath the surface of each ‘Fawlty Towers’ episode is an elaborate piece of machinery.
Graham McCann, author
In keeping with that spirit, the series was a symphony of irreverent wit and self-destructive behavior. As Graham McCann puts it in Fawlty Towers: The Story of the Sitcom, “the chaos worked like clockwork.” Cleese and Connie Booth, his then-wife and co-creator who also played the hotel’s levelheaded maid, Polly, spent weeks on the script for each beautifully self-contained farce — some of which reached more than 130 pages of meticulous detail. “Underneath the surface of each Fawlty Towers episode,” McCann tells OZY, “is an elaborate piece of machinery.”
Indeed, the sidesplitting final minutes of “The Germans,” in which the Nazi-minded Basil horrifies his German guests, is but the coup de grâce administered after a steady barrage of racist, sexist and politically incorrect barbs in which no group — West Indians, Indians, women, ugly nurses, even Canadians — is spared from the laughable prejudice emanating from Basil and others.
And so when the addled Basil sneaks home from the hospital after receiving a blow to the head in the melee ensuing from the fire drill, the last filter on his bubbling bigotry is removed, and Cleese deftly guides him through a series of unforgettable malapropisms as Basil attempts to serve the Germans lunch while battling his own lapsed superego.
“Now, would you like to eat first,” Basil asks graciously, “or would you like a drink before the war … ning that, er, trespassers will be … tied up with piano wire.… Sorry! Sorry!”
And it goes from there. From hors d’oeuvres “vich must be obeyed at all times” to the following exchange with one German guest:
Basil: Is there something wrong?
Guest: Will you stop talking about the war?
Basil: Me? You started it.
Guest: We did not start it.
Basil: Yes you did. You invaded Poland.
By the time Basil attempts to cheer up his guests by imitating a goose-stepping Hitler, you can hear the studio audience explode with laughter as if 30 years of inflamed social repression were being lanced by a single comedic incision.
“Listen, don’t mention the war,” Basil ironically cautions Polly at one point, but after “The Germans” aired, you could go few places in Britain without hearing that line mentioned. The show, says McCann, “encouraged people to laugh about themselves, and their attitudes, in a refreshingly irreverent way,” and the “Don’t Mention” meme itself expanded beyond the war to refer to similarly repressed topics, from sexuality to ethnicity. “Suddenly people were mocking their own repression,” McCann explains. “ ‘Don’t mention the whatever it was’ became an all-purpose joke in homes and workplaces all over the country.”
Because “The Germans” was really about the English. It was, as Cleese put it in a 2008 interview with the Daily Mail, “a joke about English attitudes to the war and the fact that some people were still hanging on to that rubbish.” And by trying to not mention the war, Fawlty Towers managed to help the English broach quite a bit.