Goodbye Basil

Fawlty Towers is too politically incorrect and too well written to be shown today

Fawlty Towers is regarded by many as the finest and best-loved sitcom the BBC or anyone else has produced. Yet while it wasn’t particularly daring 35 years ago, it would be far too risky to be made now.

Several factors – mild racism and a smidgen of misogyny among them – would make it “unacceptable” (even “inappropriate”) in today’s curious comedy culture, where the crudest behaviour and most vulgar language are practically a requirement, but anything “offensive” to a select list of minorities is considered so out of kilter with the times that it would struggle to find a home on YouTube, let alone cable TV.

That the proscribed list of offendable groups in modern comedy misses out, among many, the elderly, the middle-class and the religious, we might put down to a combination of the youth of those giving the yea or nea to new comedy ideas and the fickle finger of fashion, which dictates, for instance, that Jews (once modish) have been replaced as a prime protected minority by Muslims (very in). But what, one suspects, would cause several of the BBC bureaucracy’s vacuous equality and suchlike “units” to blow a gasket simultaneously would not be so much the affectionate portrayal of Manuel as an imbecile who can’t even speak English properly, or of Mr O’Reilly, the builder, as a deceitful, lazy, incompetent wastrel (“Nothing but a half-witted, thick Irish joke,” as Sybil Fawlty crisply sums him up). O’Reilly could be replaced, after all, by a dim white chav (non-protected species) and Manuel, perhaps, by a chinless gap year Sloane (ditto). Similarly, the Major’s references to “niggers” and “wogs” could be removed without too much damage, hilarious as they are in context. No, what would cause a comedy commissioning editor to press “delete” and not even bother with a rejection email if its creators, John Cleese and Connie Booth, were to submit a Fawlty pilot script in 2009 would be the standard of the script. It would be unacceptably and inappropriately high.

Fawlty was, on the surface, slapstick, which disappointed many in 1975 because it lacked the cerebral – sometimes snotty – Oxbridge tone of Cleese’s previous showcase, Monty Python. But the clowning and physical humour were underpinned by the most elevated dialogue heard in a mass-entertainment sitcom before or since. “Do you really think, even in your wildest dreams,” says Sybil to Basil in one episode, “that a girl like this would possibly be interested in an ageing brilliantine stick-
insect like you?” “Now listen, you rancorous old sow,” says Basil to Sybil in another scene.

Such lines would surely be too demanding, too lacking inclusiveness, for any mainstream comedy today. “Brilliantine? Will the kids know what that is? Rancorous? What’s that?” Even if the more jarring bits of Fawlty could be ironed out without damage, it would fail to make it to the screen today simply because the writing is too good.

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